Trying to Win Ugly, Again: NATO Brings Incrementalism to Libya
On 19 March 2011, U.S. and coalition aircraft began the enforcement of a no-fly zone and undertook a bombing campaign in Libya against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, in an effort to prevent the violent suppression of a popular rebellion against Qaddafi’s rule. The campaign was undertaken to stop gross human rights violations, including the killing of civilians in rebel-held cities by Qaddafi loyalist forces. Foreign intervention in Libya was conducted under the auspices of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized nations “acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”
The campaign has, however, been bogged down and unnecessarily prolonged as a result of exceedingly restrictive political limitations on the use of military force and the slow, incremental escalation of force those restrictions have resulted in. More decisive military action at the outset of the campaign would likely have achieved conditions of success much more rapidly and at a lower cost of life than has currently been incurred. Those conditions can still be achieved if coalition forces choose to properly resource and unleash their militaries already active in the Libya campaign.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries participating in the intervention limited the campaign to airpower only. The lethargic pace of coalition military action against the Qaddafi regime, and the leeway that has accorded Qaddafi loyalist forces to-date, has allowed the campaign to drag on and has, as a result, permitted Qaddafi forces to threaten and attack civilian populations for much longer than should be deemed acceptable.
This campaign is not the first example of a limited, armed intervention besotted by undue incrementalism. The current intervention in Libya is, in many ways, a mirror image of the 1999 air war in Kosovo that aimed to prevent human rights abuses by Serbian forces under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic. In Kosovo, a humanitarian intervention was poorly executed and needlessly protracted out of a desire to use the minimum effort necessary to achieve effects on the ground, and by underestimating the resilience of the enemy.
Military incrementalism, whether in Kosovo, Afghanistan or elsewhere, is a recipe for military ineffectiveness. Success in armed endeavors requires realistic, clear political objectives that are then sufficiently resourced to be achieved as rapidly and efficiently as possible. This is especially the case in humanitarian interventions in which the primary objective is preventing and minimizing human suffering. What has been lost amid the political squabbling is that the Libya campaign is a relatively uncomplicated military engagement and that the right outcome is achievable if the mission is robustly resourced and supported.
The Libya Campaign Today
The tactical picture on the ground in Libya has, for some time now, been characterized by fairly calcified front lines. In the early days of the uprising, rebel forces were able to seize large swathes of territory from loyalist forces, only to later see their advances rolled back just as rapidly. The pendulum-swing gains and losses of the initial days of the conflict are no longer taking place and, much like in the First World War, rapid initial maneuver warfare over large swathes of territory has ground to a halt, and battles have become characterized by slow, bloody, attritive warfare along defined lines of engagement.
Rebel advances westwards out of Benghazi that took Ajdabiya, Brega, Ras Lanuf and nearly Sirte were pushed back by loyalist forces and eventually halted outside of Ajdabiya. Qaddafi forces retain firm control of Brega, the closest major town to the rebel front line, and have reinforced it with over 3,000 soldiers, heavy armor and missile-batteries. Qaddafi forces in Brega have been taking pains to conceal their missile and armor platforms to prevent them from being targeted by NATO aircraft overhead.
Western Libya had been relatively quiet since Qaddafi’s forces quashed initial uprisings there. Now,however, Qaddafi loyalist forces are actively engaging the smaller rebel-held cities south and west of the capital Tripoli and near the Libyan border with Tunisia. Nalut, Zintan and Yifran continue to suffer persistent attacks by indirect fire and Libyan ground forces. Unlike opposition forces in the eastern rebel strongholds, those in western cities rising against Qaddafi do not have well-established communications with the main rebel leadership or armed forces and do not have easy access to the outside world in the form of a port—as was the case in Misrata—which might allow a city to sustain a long siege through the delivery of humanitarian supplies and weaponry, and the exfiltration of civilians.
While rebel forces have begun making attempts in recent days to extend the frontlines from Ajdabiya towards Brega and from Misrata to Zlitan, they have not had much success so far. The rebels remain ill-equipped to conduct the kind of conventional offensive warfare necessary to have a decisive impact upon the loyalists. In some cases, coalition forces have asked the rebels to retreat their frontlines, likely out of the fear that the rebels would once again engage in ill-prepared rushes forward that would extend their forces beyond defensible positions. In certain cities, such as Zawiyah, attempts by rebels to retake towns from loyalist forces have been successfully suppressed. Rebel frustration over the static state of the campaign is growing.
As the situation stands today, rebel forces have managed to secure their hold over certain key areas, but have been unable to effectively break out and advance upon loyalist-held cities. The rebels continue to receive fire and suffer attacks from loyalist forces. While Qaddafi has suffered some serious military setbacks, he is not close to being defeated militarily, nor has he given any indication of coming to a serious political settlement.
Incrementalism in Libya
The first few days of the coalition’s intervention in Libya were spirited, driven by an availability of targets in the form of air assets violating the UN-imposed no fly-zone, air defense systems, and a few major command and control sites, such as Qaddafi’s main compound at Bab al Azizia.
Striking these assets failed, however, to temper regime enthusiasm for a ground war, and the push on Benghazi continued. It was not until frantic calls for help from rebel forces on the ropes in Benghazi, and protracted debate among coalition partners, did air assets begin specifically targeting hostile loyalist armor and artillery units. While coalition strikes likely contributed to the prevention of the fall of the rebel capital, the fortunes of the ground war in Libya have been strikingly isolated from the effects of airstrikes.
On the eastern front the rebels, having escaped near total defeat, surged westwards taking town after town until they encountered more determined regime resistance near Sirte. Rebels complained about a lack of air support, but even when strikes did resume, they were unable to break the cycle of seesawing gains and losses and a stalemate line eventually emerged between Brega and Ajdabiya. Qaddafi forces continued to maintain and use armor, artillery and rocket assets on all the main fronts relatively unmolested by NATO aircraft. Rebels regularly reported incoming fire to NATO forces only for air assets to show up late or not at all.
In addition, by stepping up pressure in small measures, the coalition allowed Qaddafi time to absorb the shock of increased aggression and alter his methods to counter them. Just as the Serbs did in Kosovo, Qaddafi’s forces learned to adapt to coalition air tactics. Rolling tank columns became less frequently used, and much of Qaddafi’s offensive punch started to come from loyalist forces mounted on converted pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons, or “technicals.” These technicals are faster, easier to maneuver, and easier to conceal than traditional armor. In addition, they are much harder to recognize as hostile vehicles from the air. As a result, NATO has avoided striking technicals because of its inability to adequately distinguish friend from foe—rebel forces make widespread use of the same platform. In the hands of Qaddafi’s more disciplined troops, the technicals have played an important role in Qaddafi’s clawing back much of the terrain initially lost in eastern Libya. Aside from technicals, Qaddafi forces made extensive use of individual mortar teams and rocket platforms such as Grad-rocket launchers on the backs of pickup trucks, allowing the regime to achieve the morale effects of an artillery bombardment over tactical distances while limiting the ability of coalition aircraft to find or strike the mobile squads.
While rebels in Misrata were able to eventually retake the city and its airport through slow, bloody street fighting, Qaddafi forces have made several attempts to counterattack and breach Misrata from its western and southern suburbs. This example suggests that while loyalist forces may have been pushed out of the city, they have not yet collapsed as a fighting force. Loyalist casualties in Misrata and elsewhere also do not appear to have put increased political pressure on Qaddafi and his regime.
Coalition forces, starting to grow unsettled by the regime’s resilience and worried that the conflict may stretch beyond NATO’s late September 2011 mandate expiration, have once again incrementally escalated their prosecution of the war in the hopes of tipping the military balance in favor of the rebels. Of recent, airstrikes have increased in their intensity, and military and government targets are being regularly struck in Tripoli.
France and Britain recently deployed ship-borne Tiger, Gazelle and Apache helicopter gunships to the Libyan theater. The escalation is significant, albeit inadequate. Gunships have the potential to be an extremely effective weapons platform in the Libya. They would be operating in very similar conditions to those U.S. air assets used over Iraq with mixtures of open desert terrain and densely packed urban environments. Gunships are able to fly lower and slower than fixed-wing aircraft, and are able to identify and dispatch targets in urban environments much more discerningly. They can target armor units, rocket launchers, mortar teams and even individual enemy soldiers sheltering in urban environments with relatively low risk of collateral damage. Gunships can also identify targets more easily, thereby preventing incidents of friendly fire, and would be able to provide close air support to rebel forces tactically engaged with loyalist troops. This will be especially important given that loyalist forces have “shed their uniforms, are using civilian vehicles and hiding armor near civilian buildings, including hospitals and schools” where they know NATO fixed-wing aircraft will not target them.
Despite the advantages gunships could bring to the theater, coalition forces chose not to employ them for over two months likely out of fears that they would be more vulnerable to ground fire, which would put coalition troops at risk of being killed or captured. Even now, only a handful of helicopters have been dispatched: France deployed twelve helicopters, and Britain six. Even though the platforms in use all have a combat radius large enough to easily reach all of the active battle zones in Libya, they are reportedly primarily tasked with establishing and maintaining a buffer around the city of Misrata. Maintaining this buffer would heavily sap the number of gunships that would be available to conduct and support offensive moves by rebel forces in more fluid and ongoing battles or in towns that remain under siege, such as in the Nafusa mountains area, where the gunships would be especially useful. Furthermore, gunships are reportedly not being used to provide rebel forces with close air support, a critical role that would almost assuredly allow opposition forces to break out from their stalemate lines. Rebels have reported receiving no coordinated support from helicopter gunships; indeed, one commander said his troops have never seen the gunships because they only operate at night.
The decision to deploy gunships is recognition of the fact that the inadequately resourced air campaign is not working, yet the decision to employ only limited close air support assets and to fail to employ them effectively is one more example of the hesitancy with which the whole campaign is being prosecuted. The number of gunships, the scope of their mission, and the support they give on the ground, all need to grow if NATO is to start having a larger effect on the military balance on the ground.
The bottom line is that the Libya campaign is, from a military standpoint, an uncomplicated theater to operate in and a relatively easy one in which to turn (properly placed) ordinance into effects. The population of Libya is only six million (by comparison, a fifth of those of Iraq or Afghanistan), and most of the population is heavily concentrated in an archipelago of urban centers along narrow coastal belts. The flat, open terrain makes military action relatively straightforward; the chances of ambush are low. Qaddafi’s forces have made clever use of cover inside of urban centers, but such challenges are surmountable. Regime troops have not deserted wholesale at least partly because they remain unconvinced that continuing to fight means certain death from NATO or NATO-supported rebel action. The conditions that would facilitate success are plentiful; Libya will only be a quagmire if we make it one by prosecuting the campaign poorly.
Necessary Steps Forward
When President Obama laid out the objectives of coalition action in Libya on March 18, he stated that “all attacks against civilians must stop….[and that Qaddafi] must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zawiya, and establish water, electricity, and gas supplies in all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya.” Yet, while the advances on Benghazi and Ajdabiya have been halted, Zawiyah is in loyalist hands, Misrata suffered months of siege and is still at risk of loyalist counterattack, and the western Nefusa mountain towns are under daily rocket and mortar siege by Qaddafi forces. The delivery of aid and the evacuation of refugees remains a perilous process.
The British and French have repeatedly requested the reintroduction of American air assets such as the AC-130 gunship and A-10 Warthog into the air campaign, but these requests have so far been ignored. These are platforms only the U.S. possesses and are uniquely useful for close air support operations of the sort necessary in Libya. France and the U.K. are conducting the majority of strike missions inside Libya, but they are running short of the ordinance necessary to sustain mission tempo, are reliant on U.S. supplies of weaponry, spare parts and mid-air refueling capacity to continue operations over Libya. The U.S. has introduced drone aircraft over Libya, but they are not present in the numbers necessary to be effective substitutes for regular aircraft, nor are they adequately suited to the high tempo operational atmosphere that pervades the Libyan battlefield.
There is no good reason for the U.S. to be denying the above requests beyond the “ideological point that the United States need not lead every NATO military intervention.” If that is the case, the point has been well established, and the U.S., having voluntarily signed up to engage in a war for humanitarian purposes, is now duty bound to contribute everything necessary to bring that war to an efficient end.
Air operations need to be properly coordinated on the ground. Current bombing operations in support of Libyan rebels, especially those under siege in the Nefusa Mountains, are woefully under-resourced. Rebels in Zintan complain of having absolutely no contact with any coalition forward air controllers. In order to provide targets for strike aircraft, rebels at the front are using Citizens’ Band (CB) radios to describe the locations of Qaddafi troops and vehicles to their commanders elsewhere who look up the described locations on Google Maps. The corresponding coordinates are then delivered via Skype to rebel commanders in Benghazi who pass on the information to coalition liaisons there, meaning the response time on airstrike requests is deplorably long. Separately, commanders in Misrata report that when they call in the location of loyalist targets, if aircraft do appear, they only conduct reconnaissance flights before a new sortie is launched to engage targets that were positively identified by the initial sorties. By then the targets are usually long gone. The number of military advisors and on-the-ground forward air controllers needs to be severely bolstered if rebels on the front lines and under siege are to have a fair chance of taking on the better equipped loyalist forces.
Several of the senior coalition partners, the U.S. included, have publicly stated that “Qaddafi must go,” and that they will not stop fighting for as long as Qaddafi remains in power. President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, in a joint letter dated April 15, declare:
“It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power….It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government. The brave citizens of those towns that have held out against forces that have been mercilessly targeting them would face a fearful vengeance if the world accepted such an arrangement. It would be an unconscionable betrayal….so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds. Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. In order for that transition to succeed, Qaddafi must go and go for good.
The three leaders recognize that humanitarian violations will continue so long as Qaddafi remains in power. They do not currently come close to achieving the objective of a Libya without Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s forces are still able to function militarily and put down new rebellions in cities under his control, just as they recently did in Zawiyah, and while Qaddafi targets have been heavily struck in Tripoli, the capital remains firmly in his control with no prospect of imminent collapse.
In his speech with Prime Minister Cameron, President Obama spoke of the need to “[turn] up the heat in Libya.” He stated that “as long as [the coalition can] sustain the momentum” the war in Libya could be brought to an end in a “timely fashion.” The statements seem to belie U.S. and coalition actions and commitment on the ground. The “heat” needs to go from a simmer to a boil if the war is to be concluded in anything like a timely fashion.
The coalition’s desired political endgame is very clear: the removal of the Qaddafi regime from power and a cessation of regime violence against civilians. A disconnect exists when the strategic approach selected to achieve those objectives is one of using the minimum effort possible—such an approach extends the regime’s longevity and, consequently, its ability to exercise violence contravening UNSCR 1973. Coalition leaders need to press for prosecution of the maximum allowable military effort in attempts to cause a collapse of the Qaddafi regime and, by extension, its brutal activities, as rapidly as possible.
This objective will require the provision of additional combat and support air assets, larger numbers of on-the-ground special operations forces, forward air controllers, military trainers, the proper provision of mentorship and close air support to rebel forces risking their lives, an expanded target list that includes key regime figures including Qaddafi himself, and the scrapping of the refrain that ground troops will never be up for consideration. Seriously discussing the option of increased ground forces, even if such an option is not exercised, will likely put immense pressure on the Qaddafi regime and loyalist forces to reconsider their strategic calculus. President Bill Clinton’s declaration prior to the start of hostilities in Kosovo that the deployment of American ground troops were not up for consideration, no doubt steeled Milosevic’s nerve and led him to believe that he could continue his actions in Kosovo while waiting out an air war.
The aftermath of the war in Kosovo was secured by the entry of thousands of NATO peacekeepers. Deploying peacekeepers is not an option any of the nations involved in Libya are currently considering, nor does there seem to be any enthusiasm for such a move. Causing the collapse of the Qaddafi regime without some sort of force to police the outcome is far from ideal, but it would be a much more damaging outcome, both for Libya and for the NATO alliance, if the coalition failed to topple Qaddafi having now set out to do so. The choice between toppling Qaddafi without significant ground support, and not toppling Qaddafi at all, is stark. The latter is the only unacceptable outcome.
Ground troops aside, while UNSCR 1973 forbids a “foreign occupation force,” the language between “all necessary means” and “occupation force” is malleable enough to allow for fairly robust options to be considered. Coalition forces have already introduced the small numbers of the ground assets mentioned above, so bolstering those same assets to useful levels should not be seen as a cavernous leap forward.
Although there is strong debate on both sides as to the ultimate limits of military action that could be conducted under the auspices of UNSCR 1973, the fact remains that the intervention has already exceeded the more frugal interpretations of the resolution. If coalition forces are serious in their endeavor to force Qaddafi to leave, they could easily choose to exceed the resolution’s mandate and employ the assets necessary to end regime resistance once and for all. This could be done without great additional cost, risk or scale, and would be supported by precedent: The war in Kosovo was a purely NATO action conducted without any UN authorization whatsoever. NATO could easily choose to go down that path again without incurring any further international sanction. For the U.S. specifically, while President Obama failed to achieve the War Powers authorization he was seeking in a vote by Congress on June 24, the House of Representatives also failed to pass a bill cutting funding for the operation. This vote leaves U.S. involvement in the operation fundamentally unmodified until appropriations come up for discussion again in September. Prosecuted properly, the campaign could be brought to an end well before then.
Coalition forces probably realize that if the war in Libya is to be won, ground needs to be taken and held by the rebels. Milosevic did not budge until serious preparations for a ground war introduced the stark possibility of a complete and conventional defeat of Serbian forces. Qaddafi’s regime has shown similarly remarkable resilience. His regime may one day buckle under the daily grind of military operations, but there is no evidence to suggest that this outcome is likely in the short term. Bringing the regime down will require a serious escalation of force. Such an escalation does entail greater risks for NATO assets involved in the intervention, but the costs pale in comparison to the potential political consequences for the alliance of a failed NATO mission.
Making Use of History
The problem is not that the maximum effort is being expended and patience is required to realize its effects, it is that “all necessary means” for protection of innocent life, as authorized in UNSCR 1973, are not being exerted in the first place. NATO is engaging in a war of incremental aggression which is serving only to prolong hostilities. The efforts may eventually work, but at this point time equals lives and between 10,000 and 30,000 people have already died in the fighting, according to U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz. By choosing not to employ the means that will bring the war to its speediest possible conclusion, NATO is ignoring the lessons of previous interventions that suffered from the evils of incrementalism, Kosovo prime among them. In doing so, the alliance is choosing to allow rather than deny Qaddafi the time necessary to inflict further brutalities upon Libyan innocents, and, as a result, is violating the spirit of bellum iustum, Just War, and the UNSC resolution under whose pretext it chose to engage in war.
The coalition must disabuse itself of the notion that it can win the war both quickly and efficiently, and with a minimum of effort. The choice is between one or the other, and NATO is duty bound to choose the former. In the aftermath of the Kosovo war, Ivo Daadler, then the director of European Affairs at the National Security Council and co-author of a history of the Kosovo War titled Winning Ugly, stated, “Anyone who believes that the lesson here is to engage in incrementalism, to engage in making frequent threats and not follow through, to slowly and gradually increase the level of pressure and then, by-the-by, pick up a strategy to win, forgets what happened here.” The lessons, it seems, stand forgotten.
Andrew Harding, “Libya: Is Nato-rebel alliance turning sour?” BBC, June 16, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13792846
“Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR: Protection of Civilians and Civilian-Populated Areas,” NATO.int, June 2011. Available at http://www.nato.int/nato_static/assets/pdf/pdf_2011_06/20110608_Factsheet-UP_Protection_Civilians.pdf
“Saving lives in Libya,” Washington Post, April 27, 2011. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/saving-lives-in-libya/2011/04/27/AF3im90E_story.html
Don Cassata, “House rebukes Obama for military action against Libya without Congress’ OK; Democrats join in,” AP, June 3, 2011. Available at http://ca.news.yahoo.com/house-debates-resolutions-us-military-role-libya-presidents-143545529.html
Julian Barnes and Charles Levinson, “U.S. Drones Hit Targets in Libya,” April 25, 2011. Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704489604576282703009692640.html
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“Barack Obama visit: David Cameron vows to ‘turn up the heat’ in Libya,” The Telegraph, May 25, 2011. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/8535879/Barack-Obama-visit-David-Cameron-vows-to-turn-up-the-heat-in-Libya.html
Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “C.I.A. Agents in Libya Aid Airstrikes and Meet Rebels,” New York Times, March 30, 2011. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/31/world/africa/31intel.html?hp;
Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller, “In Libya, CIA is gathering intelligence on rebels,” Washington Post, March 30, 2011. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-libya-cia-is-gathering-intelligence-on-rebels/2011/03/30/AFLyb25B_story.html