Libya Mission Creep Watch
Posted by Michael Cohen
Today's article in the New York Times about the make-up of the rebel forces in Libya is not a pleasant read:
After the uprising, the rebels stumbled as they tried to organize. They did a poor job of defining themselves when Libyans and the outside world tried to figure out what they stood for. And now, as they try to defeat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s armed forces and militias, they will have to rely on allied airstrikes and young men with guns because the army that rebel military leaders bragged about consists of only about 1,000 trained men.
What this suggests to me is that unlike the situation in Afghanistan in which the US was able to work hand-in-hand with a proxy army to dislodge the Taliban from power, there simply isn't a rebel force on the ground in Libya that has the military chops to unseat Gaddafi. (And according to the LA Times, the rebel forces are engaging in the sort of extrajudicial behavior that led us to come to their defense in the first place). None of this is to say that eventually that rebel force may not develop . . . but what happens until then?
Are we prepared to patrol a no-fly zone over Libya, occasionally take potshots at pro-government elements on the ground and build up a rebel force to knock off Gaddafi for 6 months, a year, two years? You get the idea here. But since we've taken ground forces off the table (indeed the UNSCR forbids it) we are not ready to step into the fight in a decisive manner, which means this is far more likely to drag on for a while then it is to end soon.
But hold on, says the White House, 'we're just in this fight for a few days, not weeks. This is a French, British, Arab League, coalition of the willing fight.' Meh. First of all, as Spencer is reporting US military involvement has increased since the war began, with American pilots shooting pro-government armor and artillery units.
Secondly, we've started down a road in Libya that could lead down many different directions - but because we have basically put our credibility (and military power) on the line in stopping civilian massacres in Libya we simply can't walk away. Indeed, if part of the rationale for getting involved in this civil war was to stick up for the forces of reform and democracy in the Arab world then we are basically on the hook until this situation is resolved. Indeed I have to agree with my old professor Adam Garfinkle when he writes:
We have a great deal riding on the success of the Franco-British operation, assuming one actually takes shape in a hurry. If it doesn’t work, the U.S. government is very likely going to be dragged, even with the President privately kicking and screaming all the way, to a mission definition (again, the only logical one available) that will presage an open-ended commitment.
Obviously things could turn out well in Libya, but the more likely scenario is that we have a de facto partition of the country and UN/US/Coalition of the Willing forces on the hook for the foreseeable future in degrading Gaddafi's forces. I suppose one could argue that's better than the alternative; namely civilian massacres in Benghazi, but the very notion of this conflict being short-lived and relatively painless seems like a figment of the White House's imagination.
And not just the White House, but also war supporters. Here is Bill Galston in the New Republic addressing some of the concerns I've raised above:
Let me grant, as well, that the endgame is murky at best. There’s a non-trivial possibility that Qaddafi will be able to hang on to power in a substantial part of Libya. If so, we and our allies may have committed ourselves to protecting “Benghazistan” against retribution for the indefinite future. We’ve seen that movie before. Let’s hope this one ends better.
Huh? I suppose hope is a policy . . . but it's not a very good one. Once again, cheered on by the "do something" crowd we've found ourselves in a fight that we don't seem to know how to get out of.