The Evolving Libyan Mission

03.29.11

The Evolving Libyan Mission

03.29.11
Pete SouzaPete Souza

Due to concern and confusion about the U.S. role in Libya and the changing circumstances on the ground and in the air, President Obama addressed the American public for the first time on Monday night from National Defense University in Washington, DC.

While the president offered no specifics on when the mission would conclude he did elude to the fact that American involvement would continue for the foreseeable future. Obama suggested that NATO, with American assistance, would continue to attack elements of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s military and pro-government forces. Further, the coalition would offer support to the Libyan people and by implication the rebel groups as they continue their push into Tripoli to overthrow Qaddafi.

President Obama suggested, “As the bulk of our military effort ratchets down, what we can do — and will do — is support the aspirations of the Libyan people. We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Qaddafi leaves power.” Obama carefully worded his remarks to avoid reference to rebel groups and instead suggested that coalition efforts would focus on protecting the Libyan people.

While Mr. Obama was forthright in his determination to point out that NATO would be assuming command of military operations in the days ahead he did not shy away from stating that the U.S. military would continue to assist in the overall mission. Additionally, the president was very clear about the intentions of coalition aircraft to broaden their mission to include attacks on pro-government ground forces.

This affords protection to the rebels advancing on Tripoli as it severely hampers the effectiveness of the Libyan military. President Obama pointed out, “Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi’s remaining forces.”

American involvement since the launching of air strikes over a week ago has had a noticeable effect on Qaddafi’s ability to pose a threat to his people. Coalition efforts have saved the city of Benghazi from pro-government forces and have afforded the rebels momentum as they retake a number of towns that had been lost before coalition air strikes began.

Stepped up coalition attacks against the Qaddafi regime can be attributed to the fact that rebel gains are dependent on U.S. and coalition involvement. If the coalition were to, at this point, step back and relax their attacks against Qaddafi, rebel forces would find themselves disadvantaged. Coalition air power affords the rebels air cover. While France, the U.K. and the U.S. would not admit to it directly, these air strikes against pro-government ground forces tends to coincide with the position of rebel units.

Resulting from an American effort to accelerate situations on the ground and insure that Qaddafi leaves Libya in the near term, American AC-130 gunships and A-10 attack aircraft have been deployed against pro-government ground forces. This is a shift away from high altitude aircraft and cruise missile attacks to AC-130s and A-10s. This demonstrates that the coalition mission is shifting away from enforcing just the no-fly zone to include efforts to alter situations on the ground. Up until this time, the coalition has been very careful to make it appear that the mission would just be comprised of grounding Libyan attack aircraft and helicopters.

AC-130s typically fly low to ground and offer offensive capabilities that have not been present up until now. AC-130s are slow moving aircraft compared to fast moving fighter planes. Because AC-130s are slower moving aircraft, the U.S. military has been hesitant to deploy them until coalition aircraft were successful in destroying Libyan air defensive capabilities. AC-130s are particularly effective because they are armed with cannons and heavy machine guns that allow them to strafe enemy positions. As coalition forces have been successful in destroying pro-government ground forces, remaining units have been deployed closer to civilian centers. If the rebel groups have any hopes of remaining victorious and retaking more and more cities, Qaddafi’s ground units will have to be destroyed. AC-130s and A-10s afford the coalition the ability to strike ground units stationed closer to civilian centers. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula suggested, “They offer weapons that you can meter against a much smaller area and not risk as much collateral damage.”

As the coalition transitions from the no-fly zone to direct involvement the mission becomes much more difficult. Coalition forces have had a relatively easy time targeting and destroying ground forces and Libyan air defensive capabilities. With a majority of these targets destroyed, American and coalition aircraft will have to conduct more search and destroy missions. Also, an attack on ground units closer to civilian centers runs the risk of killing innocent civilians. Because the no-fly zone shared wide popular support in the Arab League and internationally, the change in mission has opened rifts within NATO and with some Arab states. Many in the region view the change in mission as a dangerous precedent now that the coalition is openly targeting pro-government forces. Arab states and some in NATO also worry about collateral damage to civilian centers. Images of civilian deaths would undercut support for the overall mission.

Domestically, the Obama administration has been criticized for signaling its support for steps that have ostensibly aided the rebels who are fighting pro-government forces. While many lawmakers on Capitol Hill would not deny that Qaddafi posed an immediate threat to his own people, some viewed the Libyan revolt as a civil war and for the U.S. to interject more military capabilities into the region constitutes an overreach. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that by broadening the scope of the coalition involvement the U.S. and others have interfered in what is ostensibly a civil war. Lavrov argues, “We believe that coalition’s interference into the internal, civil war has not been sanctioned by the UN resolution. Protection of the civilian population remains our priority.”

What could possibly further undercut the argument that France, the U.S. and the U.K. are “neutral” in Libya and are only attempting to keep civilians safe is the consideration of arming Libyan rebel groups. With U.S. knowledge, Egypt has already begun to arm certain rebel groups and the U.S. and others are contemplating directly supplying weapons to the rebels. UN Security Council Resolution 1970 imposes an arms embargo on Libya. Advocates and opponents of arming the rebels give different interpretations as to whether the resolution permits this course of action. The White House is of the view that arming the rebels is permissible.

According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, “We believe that the arms embargo contains within it the flexibility to allow for a decision to arm the opposition, if that decision were made.” Inevitably, the U.S. and others might reconsider further involvement on this scale and instead rely on Egypt and others to play a larger role. Many in the White House are students of history and would remember the efforts to arm the Afghan Mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets in the 1980s.

While this policy was effective there was considerable blowback twenty years later. One important aspect of the president’s speech was that he specifically laid out why the U.S. was able to act in Libya but not in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen. The president specifically argued that Libyan intervention was possible. A myriad of conditions unfolded that allowed for U.S. intervention. First, a tipping point was reached. If the international community failed to act Qaddafi’s forces would have been able to roll into Benghazi and extinguish the rebels. Secondly, the international community, including the Arab League, had called for intervention and this afforded the U.S. a buy in. Finally, the mission itself posed few risks to coalition and American military forces.

The president’s argument was an attempt to undercut the opponents of U.S. intervention who have argued “Why Libya, why now?” Obama counters, “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.” Therein lies the clearest enunciation of the Obama Doctrine.

While President Obama’s speech was an important development, his efforts have somewhat added confusion to an already misunderstood limited war. The president failed to lay out a timeline for U.S. involvement or address concerns over the costs of the mission. He also failed to provide further details should the Qaddafi regime persevere despite coalition attempts to facilitate his downfall. In the days ahead the president is likely to address these concerns as he promotes U.S. Libyan policy. The president would be well advised to address these concerns in the near future.

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