Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Talking Time in Libya

Fri, 08/19/2011 - 5:20pm

In my column at Foreign Policy, I discuss how endgame bargaining between Qaddafi and Libya's rebels will likely proceed. I also review Counterstrike, a new book from New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker.


Time for bargaining in Libya

Libya's rebels seem to finally be closing in on Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. According to the New York Times, rebels in the west, which used to be the more reliably pro-Qaddafi region of the country, have moved into two towns just west and south of Tripoli.  Should the rebels complete the capture of Zawiyah along the road to Tunisia and Gheran to the south, Qaddafi's final redoubt in the capital would be cut off. In a scene harkening back to Stalingrad in early 1943, Qaddafi exhorted his remaining followers to resist from the far end of a scratchy and barely audible landline, exclaiming that "[t]he blood of martyrs is fuel for the battlefield."

If Qaddafi's future now looks bleak, it should be no surprise to find him now open to a negotiated end to the war. Indeed, Reuters reported that a U.N. envoy had arrived in Tunisia and was meeting with Libyan government and rebel representatives at an island resort. But both Qaddafi and the rebels denied that they were bargaining. In spite of the denials, the bargaining for Libya may be imminent.

How Wars End, by Dan Reiter, a political science professor at Emory University, provides a useful guide for what we should expect from Libya's endgame. According to Reiter, how a war ends is a function of bargaining: the arrival of additional information -- usually from the battlefield -- that changes each sides' bargaining calculations, and each sides' calculations about the enforceability of a possible settlement. In the case of Libya, shifting battlefield fortunes, combined with uncertainty over Qaddafi's postwar status, have so far made negotiations unworkable and have thus prolonged the war.

Reiter points out that if combatants knew in advance how a war would turn out or if they agreed in advance on the relative military balance, actual fighting would be unnecessary: the two sides could simply skip to the surrender ceremony. But war involves large servings of uncertainty, chance, and miscalculation, which decision-makers on all sides gamble will work in their favor. Libya's war has been especially confusing in all of these dimensions. From the start, there has been deep uncertainty over the loyalty of Qaddafi's followers, the ability of the rebels to organize military units, the utility of NATO's air campaign, and the capacity of all sides to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. With such uncertainty, and with battlefield outcomes swinging back and forth, it is no surprise the conflict has lasted as long as it has without any serious attempts at bargaining. Both sides have felt good reason to believe that their persistence would eventually pay off.

With the war now trending their way, the rebels have an incentive to increase their demands on Qaddafi. Conversely, Qaddafi, if he believes he is losing, has an incentive to cut his demands and make a deal, a plea the rebels likely feel they can ignore for now. If the rebels now believe that their winning streak will accelerate, Reiter would predict that they will further ramp up their settlement demands, a result that would prolong the fighting. If, on the other hand, the rebels had some nagging doubts about another reversal in their battlefield fortunes, perhaps caused by a breakdown within their tribal alliance, they might have an incentive to cut a quick deal with Qaddafi.

Reiter's model of war termination also includes the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of a peace deal. Qaddafi may think it is rational to fight to the end if he didn't trust that an agreement that included amnesty for him would be honored. Likewise, the rebels may so fear Qaddafi's possible return from exile that they prefer continuing the war until he is dead, rather than settle for his exile.

The rebel capture of Zawiyah and Gheran may have finally provided the information both sides have needed to calculate their odds of success. With that information now in hand, serious bargaining over a settlement may now be possible. But only an end that sees the annihilation of Qaddafi and his followers will be reliably self-enforcing, a grisly outcome that can be avoided. There is now an opportunity for outside institutions and leaders to provide some guarantees that could assure both sides that an agreement involving Qaddafi's removal from power and exile will be enforced. The alternative is a lot more unnecessary killing.


Counterstrike hopes we can deter al Qaeda. Maybe, but the war will still go on

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Army had returned to the Pech Valley in Afghanistan's Konar province. In February, after having lost over 100 soldiers there, U.S. commanders pulled all of their troops out of the valley, having declaring it and other hostile terrain such as the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, no longer strategically significant. Commanders had hoped that the Afghan army detachments they left behind would be able to make a new start with the locals. They also hoped that the U.S. troops redeployed from the valley would be able to perform more productive security tasks elsewhere in the country. But with Taliban cells apparently resprouting, U.S. soldiers have found themselves back in some of Afghanistan's most dangerous places.

It was the need to "mow the lawn" in Wardak province that led to the tragic shootdown on Aug. 6 of a helicopter carrying 30 Navy SEALs and other Americans, plus eight Afghan soldiers. U.S. special operations troops conduct a dozen such raids every night in Afghanistan. U.S. special operators similarly accompany Iraqi counterparts on raids in that country. On any given night, U.S. drones are busy striking targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. But nearly a decade after the attacks that started these wars, policymakers in Washington are wondering whether the permanent "endstate" of the War on Terror isn't an end at all, but just an endless future of raids and missile strikes at targets that could pop up anywhere in the world.

Counterstrike, a new book by New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, reviews the past decade of counterterrorism improvisation by the U.S. government and attempts to forecast where the war against terrorists will go. Schmitt and Shanker discuss the hope of many that deterrence, the theory of retaliation that successfully prevented catastrophe during the Cold War, offers a chance of eventually returning the United States to something closer to peace as opposed to unending low-level war.

The authors review the game plan the U.S. government has fitfully created since 2001. Counterstrike allocates chapters to how the government improved cooperation among its many intelligence agencies (including at dusty forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan), the attempts to counter al Qaeda's message and brand in the Islamic world, the growing threat of cyberterrorism, and how policymakers have dealt with an obstreperous Pakistan. Perhaps most unnerving is the book's discussion of homegrown radicalization, which threatens to circumvent the noteworthy improvements in border security that have likely prevented another mass-casualty attack in the United States. Counterstrike takes readers into the discussions inside government that led to the multi-faceted strategy now employed against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

But Schmitt and Shanker return frequently to deterrence and the hope that it could someday save the United States from a future of endless war. Deterrence advocates acknowledge that, unlike the Soviet leadership during the Cold War, the religious fanatics that constitute al Qaeda's top leadership are likely undeterrable. So are the low-level suicide bombers at the far end of al Qaeda's chain of command. In addition, al Qaeda holds no territory or assets that U.S. planners can put at risk in exchange for compliant behavior.

However, the argument goes, there is a broad range of al Qaeda middlemen, donors, bankers, buyers, shippers, and couriers -- usually middle-class family men waging jihad on a part-time basis -- who very likely do have something to live for and are thus deterrable. Without the middlemen, al Qaeda can't function. Deterrence advocates imply that the public takedown of some of these middlemen would serve as a warning to others and thus deter them from getting involved in al Qaeda's business.

Regrettably, this approach won't let the United States escape from the seemingly endless war just yet. Nuclear deterrence worked because Soviet leaders knew the United States had bombs and missiles that worked -- during the Cold War, the U.S. frequently and ostentatiously tested both. In order to intimidate al Qaeda's middlemen, the United States will have to occasionally, perhaps frequently, conduct the spectacular and lethal raids and missile strikes that will remind the middlemen what they risk.

Second, during the Cold War, U.S. planners knew where the Soviet targets were and the Soviets knew they had no way to stop the United States from striking them. Al Qaeda's middlemen, by contrast, hope to remain covert. In Counterstrike, Schmitt and Shanker discuss several amazing intelligence troves -- long Rolodexes of al Qaeda operatives -- that have been seized during U.S. raids, including the one on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad.

It took raiding to get those Rolodexes of middlemen and it will take more raiding to get more like them in the future. And it will take even more raiding and more missile strikes to keep the middlemen deterred. It may be possible to deter terror networks, as Counterstrike suggests. But it also means the low-level war will have to go on.