Last spring, after a month or so into the NATO bombing of Libya, it became clear to policymakers and analysts that it would take more than just air strikes to resolve the Libyan crisis. Pro-Qaddafi military forces had adapted to the air campaign by shedding their uniforms and largely abandoning their military vehicles. And the numerous attempts by rebel fighters near Benghazi to attack government positions along the coast road had floundered due to a lack of military training and organization.
“Boots on the ground” were needed to assist the rebels and to organize effective ground operations to dislodge pro-Qaddafi forces, making them vulnerable again to air power. But whose boots? President Obama pledged that no U.S. military forces would enter Libya.
In August, after the Qaddafi government collapsed, the New York Times revealed that British and French special forces has been on the ground conducting a classic unconventional warfare (UW) campaign in support of the rebels. But perhaps the largest boots-on-the-ground contribution to the UW campaign came from Qatar, whose chief of staff Maj. Gen. Hamad bin Ali Al-Atiya revealed that “hundreds” of Qatari soldiers had been on the ground “running the training and communication operations” in “every region” of Libya. “We acted as the link between the rebels and the NATO forces,” he said.
There are two interesting conclusions from this story. First, when political constraints prevent U.S. policymakers from using their own military forces, in many cases they will turn to “subcontractors” as a work-around, as this story suggests. In this particular case, the Qatari government was eager to get involved in the war from the start, so the U.S. didn’t have to “hire a subcontractor” to do a job the subcontractor wouldn’t already have done. But we should expect to see the U.S. government turn to this and similar options for places (such as Iraq) where in the future it may not be able to send in its own military forces. Having perhaps entered a period when it is too political fraught in most cases to deploy ground forces, U.S. policymakers will turn to proxies, paramilitaries, contractors, and militias instead.
Second, this case shows how a small country like Qatar can punch far above its weight. In addition to leading the ground effort during the war, Qatar now foresees itself replacing NATO as the leader of the coalition supporting the new Libyan government. A startling example of political and military power being detached from population and economic weight.