Obama’s Libyan strategy: Recipe for a deeper, lengthier US military role
In his Libya address to Americans early Tuesday, March 29, President Barack Obama failed to resolve the inner contradictions in his strategy for US involvement in the Western campaign against Muammar Qaddafi:
“The United States would work with its allies to hasten the day when Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi leaves power, but would not use force to topple him,” he said, indicating that US allies France and Britain and Libyan rebels would be in the forefront of the mission for ousting the Libyan ruler.
Shortly before the Obama speech, French and British leaders, President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, declared that Muammar Qaddafi “must go now.”
This was exactly the language the US president used to topple Hosni Mubarak as Egyptian President but has avoided in reference to the Libyan ruler or Syrian President Bashar Assad, although the latter has ordered soldiers to shoot to kill hundreds of civilian demonstrators – and continues to do so.
Obama did not refer explicitly to US military support for Libyan rebels – except to promise “to help the opposition” while at the same time insisting “the US would play more of a supporting role.”
Yet at the Pentagon US Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, staff director to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that the rebels are not well organized. (This is a tactful understatement given their chaotic makeup) “Clearly they’re achieving a benefit from the actions that we’re taking,” and “They are not a very robust organization. So any gain that they make is tenuous…”
He was not just referring to intelligence and logistical support but rather
to low-flying US Air Force AC-130 and A-10 attack aircraft which were used to pin down Qaddafi’s loyalist forces and clear the way for the rebels to sweep back to the eastern cities they lost, Adjabiya, Brega and Ras Lanuf where fighting is still raging.
And Army Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the Libya mission told the New York Times: “The regime possesses the capability to roll them (the rebels) back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened.”
He added that only very small numbers of Qaddafi’s troops have defected to the opposition.
debkafile’s military sources: The only way to “help the opposition” in its campaign against Qaddafi is to transform a pack of squabbling dissidents into military-capable units with proper training and arms, a feat requiring a substantial US military presence on Libyan soil and time – as Washington has discovered painfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The transition of the US command to NATO welcomed by President Obama was likewise a play on words given the pre-eminent role America plays in the Northern Alliance in terms of command, capabilities and budget.
Qaddafi is fully capable of retaliating against the coalition campaign with terrorist strikes in other parts of the Middle East and in Europe. Therefore, the only way to stop the Libyan war may turn out to be its ruler’s demise, a goal clearly aimed at by British and French bombardments since Saturday night, March 26 but excluded from UN Security Council Resolution of March 19.
Having failed to achieve that goal, British and French leaders have called more than 40 foreign ministers and regional group representatives together in London for Tuesday, March 29, to find ways of intensifying the pressure on him to step down. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Military sources in London report that the UK lacks the air crews for strikes against Qaddafi’s forces and has therefore withdrawn instructors from RAF training courses and assigned them to operational duties.
Back here to debkafile’s earlier report of March 29.
Despite protestations to the contrary, debkafile’s military and intelligence sources find the American role in the operation against Muammar Qaddafi heading only one way: Instead of a transition “in a few days” to NATO i.e. Europe – which US President Barack Obama will no doubt reiterate when he addresses the nation Tuesday, March 29 – the United States is sliding deeper day by day into a third war in a Muslim country.
In the last three days, US air strikes have beaten Qaddafi’s forces into tactical retreat from all its conquests in the rebel-held eastern province of Cyrenaica. This operation rescued the rebels from the certain defeat they faced in the middle of last week, allowed them to retake the strategic oil towns of Ajdabiya, Brega and Ras Lanuf and opened the way for them to drive forward to Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte, the key to Tripoli.
In the view of debkafile’s military experts, the Libyan opposition’s gains are no more than a victory on paper, not the battlefield. Qaddafi and his commanders executed tactical retreats from those towns – not because they were beaten in battle but to avoid being ground down by superior US sea-based and air power. That power opened the door for the opposition rebels to recover the towns they lost in the last three weeks and pose as victors.
For Washington, the implication is clear: Continuing rebel momentum against Qaddafi’s forces depends on United States commitment to two steps:
1. Keeping up the aerial and sea-based bombardment of government forces. Nothing, otherwise, will stop Qaddafi’s troops turning around and heading back east to recapture the towns they left. Containing Qaddafi’s army cannot be left to the limited capabilities of France and Britain or any other members of NATO which has assumed token command of the Libya operation.
2. Organizing the rebels into regular combat units and furnishing them with arms, funds and military instructors. The other alternative would be for the Americans to invest increasing numbers of ground forces into Libya to defend the eastern provinces against Qaddafi reasserting control.
Saturday, March 26, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted, “Libya did not pose a threat to the United States before the US began its military campaign.” Asked whether ongoing developments indicated that US military involvement might continue at least until the end of the year, Gates replied: “I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.”
In other words, no one in Washington, including no doubt the president, can say with any certainty exactly where the American campaign in Libya is heading or its duration.
In just a few days, the gap has widened exponentially between America’s first commitment to supporting a European-Arab operation mandated by the UN for enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya and protecting civilians plus an imminent transition of the US lead role and President Obama’s pledge not to involve ground troops – all the way over to an expanding commitment to supporting an armed revolt against the Qaddafi regime.
Aware of the Obama administration’s quandary, Qaddafi offered Washington a way out. By pulling his troops out of the eastern towns, he gave the Americans a chance to chalk up a rebel victory – or at least a standoff – and leave it at that. At this stage, he would accept the loss of Cyrenaica so long as the Americans give up their assaults.
However, should the Obama administration decide to persist in its active military support for the rebellion, the Libyan ruler may consider three counter-steps:
One, to carry out the threat he made prior to the coalition campaign against his regime to strike back at American, British and French targets in the Middle East and Europe;
Two, to activate Libyan undercover terrorist networks in Europe against US targets as well as local ones;
Three, to retreat along with his family to a secret sanctuary among loyal Saharan tribes and from there to fight for his survival against both the Americans and Al Qaeda which he accuses of penetrating the opposition and turning his people against him.