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.
Could the US set minimum standards for training/ROE for these vassal forces? Beyond arms length, we'd lose control of them, but the tighter we hold their leash, the more their transgressions would be ascribed to us. Not to mention I'd be suspicious of any country that sincerely desired to muck about in a foreign land (how many borders do you cross between Qatar and Libya? Four?)
If this article is accurate, I wouldn't read too much into it. The U.S. has never been the only country with a UW capability, and from a DOD perspective we're babes in the woods when it comes to supporting modern insurgencies. It is also inaccurate to imply that French, British, and Qatari troops conducting UW are doing it to support U.S. objectives. They have their own interests for doing this that happen to coorispond to some of ours. The point being that we still need to maintain our UW and other military capabilities, and not simply assume that another nation will step in and say Uncle Sam don't worry, we got it. I'm sure many countries are eager to assume the physical and political risk of being our surrogates, because these wars are no longer desirable on our political homefront, but just in case that isn't the threat we might want to consider maintaining our own capability. These assumptions that we can simply depend on surrogates are dangerously misleading, especially as Congress considers where they can cut DOD capability to save money.
Through, by and with is not a strategy, and it will not always be a means. The idea that we can "rely" on using others as proxies to achieve our objectives can result in a nation and military that is ill prepared to act unilaterally when needed.