The Libyan Army Changes the Rules of the Game
Well, I was wrong. I’d feel stupid, but since many other people including high ranking military professionals were also wrong, I don’t feel too bad about it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of Mr Qaddafi, and the last time I thought war was glorious was when I was ten years old, but something unusual is happening in Libya. The Libyan army has done something no one thought they were capable of, and it may change the nature of warfare. And it might even win the war for Qaddafi … and wreak havoc with what is left of America’s foreign policy. Mr Qaddafi (or more correctly, the unknown military genius who is conducting his war) may very well humiliate Obama on the field of battle. WTF?
OK, so continuing from my last post, most people expected the rebels to quickly gain the upper hand now that they had American air support. I predicted they would chase Qaddafi’s military back to Tripoli. And initially they did so, USA air strikes destroyed Qaddafi’s air force, tanks, and artillery; his forces retreated, and the triumphant rebel army pursued him. And there’s where it stopped following the script. At Sirte Qaddafi’s army not only took a stand, they thrashed the rebel forces and have been chasing them back to Benghazi since. And this was after the USA bombed the piss out of the Libyan army, what the hell is going on here?
Two things as far as I can figure. For one thing I overestimated the military capabilities of the rebels. They, literally, are a disorganized mob. A mass of armed men, enthusiastic, but there is little resembling military organization. Not surprising, it takes six months to a year to put together a military. Basically the rebels are a militia force. A militia is a group of untrained armed men. Historically they were an important adjunct to regular military forces until the mid nineteenth century or so, and they have become progressively less useful since. Basically, if a militia’s morale is good, they fight. If things are going bad, they run. And if a militia fights regular troops, things generally go badly for militias.
Still, with the USA bombing their tanks and guns and supply columns, how did the Libya army keep fighting? And this is where it gets interesting. The Libyan army did something that no one expected. They abandoned their heavy military equipment and converted to what is now call technicals. These are fighters, in this case professional soldiers, who only carry light infantry weapons and travel in civilian type vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks. And modern light infantry weapons can pack a wallop indeed. Rifles, machine guns, and RPGs for one. And more importantly mortars, which trained troops can use to drop high explosives on top of people miles away, people that can’t even see where the mortar rounds are coming from. And the biggest advantage of course is simple, from the air a force of Libyan soldiers is now indistinguishable from a force of rebels. Simply by chucking the trappings of a professional army, the Libyan military has adopted tactics that largely nullify the USA’s air-power. (Or worse.)
This is a surprising development. Militaries tend to be rather inflexible institutions, slow to adopt new tactics. Not the Libyan army. They’ve also been reportedly using mines to great effect when they retreat, something that also speaks of an effective military. And as a last point, it obviously hasn’t escaped them that Libya has no railroads, bridges, or other obvious and crippling infrastructure for the USA to attack. Their supply columns can travel overland pretty much everywhere, the USA is not going to be able to cripple their supply situation by blowing up a bridge or two. This all strongly suggests that whatever Qaddafi’s failing as a leader may be, he has some sharp people running his military. So much for the idea that they were a poorly trained poorly armed bunch, their training and arms appear to be quite up to the job.
And this is especially worrisome compared to the USA’s almost frighteningly unimaginative cookie cutter approach to this crisis. We tried the usual threats and sanctions. Yeah, that always works wonders. A no-fly-zone, like the one that, well, inconvenienced Saddam for what, a decade? And lastly bombing, which has a very mixed track record. Bombing is great for destroying infrastructure and obvious military targets, but not much good for anything else. Destroying Libya’s infrastructure would be counterproductive at best, and the Libyan military has adopted tactics that minimize their vulnerability to American air power. What’s superpower to do? Hell if I know. There hasn’t been an original idea in Washington in decades, so the USA has only one arrow left in its quiver. Ground troops. I hope not.
In any event, the above is all conjectural and subject to errors in my source material, but the basic fact that Qaddafi’s forces are holding their own seems clear. And yeah, Qaddafi is suffering from some high level defections, but so did Hitler. And if anything, what defections Hitler suffered made the remainder of his supporters all the more devoted and fanatical. While Libyans most definitely did not have political freedom under Qaddafi, the ones that are still fighting for him have every reason to continue to do so. I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but right now it looks like the USA has managed to turn another country into a permanent bloody failed state with constant USA support required to keep “our” faction in power. Smooth move Mr Obama.
(The above image is from the Australian National Library and is public domain under US copyright law. It’s sunken ships in Tobruk harbour, Libya, sometime during World War Two. I thought it nicely captured the bleakness, waste, and pointlessness of war. This will be my last post on Libya in the near future unless there’s further developments. Next, the Koran burning riots in Afghanistan, what’s going on with that?)