Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: The Libya Model

Mon, 08/22/2011 - 7:32pm

In a special edition of my Foreign Policy column "This Week at War," I discuss whether the NATO operation in Libya is now a model for the future.


Should the tactics used to bring down Qaddafi be applied elsewhere?

According to the Washington Post, NATO officials "were startled" by the speed at which Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces in Tripoli collapsed. Rebel units drove into the city from several directions and swept over the feeble resistance mounted by the government's troops. Three of Qaddafi's sons were captured and the rebels now apparently control most of the capital city, although widespread fighting continues.

While the rebels track down Qaddafi himself and suppress the remaining resistance, analysts now have the task of assessing Operation Unified Protector, the NATO military effort to "protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack." Although the stated goal of Unified Protector was protecting the civilian population, the way of achieving that end was clearly the removal of Qaddafi and his family from power in Libya. With that objective all but achieved, the question for policymakers is whether Unified Protector should now be a model for future cases.

Although NATO explicitly stated that it had "no intention of deploying land forces anywhere in Libyan territory," the New York Times asserts that this was not the case. A NATO diplomat and another NATO official confirmed to the Times today that "Britain, France and other nations deployed special forces on the ground inside Libya to help train and arm the rebels." The NATO special forces troops almost certainly also coordinated close air support as rebel units advanced into the capital.

At the beginning of the campaign in March, I recommended that the Obama administration consider the "Jawbreaker Option" -- employing air power and special operations teams on the ground to assist rebel militia, a combination that was surprisingly effective against the Taliban in November 2001. According to the New York Times, this is essentially what was done.

Unified Protector's end was to protect the population. The way it sought to achieve this was by deposing Qaddafi. But the means employed was strictly limited to covert special operations troops on the ground plus air support. A supreme goal for NATO policymakers is to avoid the large-scale deployment of general-purpose ground forces in Libya.

If the New York Times description of the military endgame around Tripoli is accurate, NATO air power alone did not win the war. Libya's rebels, of course, deserve the most credit for success. But they also appear to have benefited from significant assistance on the ground from NATO and allied covert special-operations forces.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was which of Libya's rebels were most effective on the battlefield. The Benghazi rebels in the east, though they benefited from a large sanctuary for organizing and training as well as easy access to outside assistance, were never able to develop into a threatening military force. It was the western rebels, with seemingly fewer advantages for organizing and training, who were most effective in ground combat against Qaddafi's troops. What on-the-ground assistance was provided to the western rebels will be a critical element to help analysts evaluate the results of the military campaign.

Is Unified Protector now a model that NATO policymakers can use in future cases? It is too soon to tell. As we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the greatest threat to the civilian population may come in the "post-war" period when the real fighting for resources and political power is likely to begin. It would be a bitter tragedy if the ouster of Qaddafi -- done in the name of protecting the population -- resulted in Hobbesian chaos afterward. If this occurred, the duty of "responsibility to protect" would seem to fall heavily on NATO. And that might result in pressure to deploy a large stabilization force into Libya, the very outcome the Unified Protector strategy was designed to avoid.

The campaigns in Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011 show that it takes surprisingly little military power to overthrow brittle authoritarian regimes. It takes more than air power -- in all of these cases, indigenous or outside ground forces were an essential element of military success. What has yet to be demonstrated in recent memory is whether there can be a relatively bloodless transition to a new political order without a large outside stabilization force. NATO leaders are hoping that Libya will be the first such case, or at least that they can keep thousands of NATO boots out of Libya. We'll see.