Opinion: Libya – A conflict without a strategy?

Monday marked 100 days since the air campaign began in Libya. Resolution 1973 authorises ‘all necessary measures to protect civilians’. The resolution, however, specifically excludes a foreign occupation force of any form on Libyan territory.

The White House was always lukewarm, at best, to the prospect of international intervention in Libya and has taken a back seat in the operation. As yet the combination of rebel forces and NATO air strikes has failed to have much significant strategic impact. Indeed, the Gaddafi regime seems intent on playing the long game and out lasting the unlikely combination of NATO airpower and weak rebel forces.

Before it is too late we need to step back and urgently ask what our military strategy is, and ask exactly how are we going to successfully win this conflict?

Liberal Democrats should make no mistake: if this conflict develops into the long dirty stalemate which it appears it easily could, the repercussions will not be against Cameron’s war, or the Conservative’s war, but the public outcry will be against the Coalition’s war.

Nick Clegg backed it, our MPs voted for it and as Liberal Democrats we need to influence government policy on this issue and help find some solutions.

The disparate combination of airpower and largely ineffective rebel forces are unlikely to topple Gadhafi any time soon. I believe, the inability to fully integrate the largely separate but parallel air and ground campaigns is a fundamental strategic flaw which is severely curtailing the ability to win this conflict.

The strategic phrase, ‘No General ever gave his surrender to an aeroplane’, comes to mind. Consistently, since the first Gulf War, we have over rated the effectiveness of airpower as a means of winning complex wars. We have been blinded by the science of the “shock and awe”. Precision surgical strikes from the skies claim to do the dirty work without endangering our soldier’s lives and yet in reality they never live up to the billing.

Last week was a watershed moment. Three very important things happened: Firstly, it brought a change of heart from the Head of the Arab League as reported in the Guardian. Secondly, innocent children were also killed by coalition air strikes in the first serious targeting mistake and lastly, our own top commanders issued strongly worded criticisms concerning the UK’s own lack of military capabilities to sustain the conflict.

One hundred days of fighting have produced stalemate in many areas of Eastern Libya and the rebels have not had much more by way of success in other areas. Gaddafi’s forces have proved more resilient than expected, playing every urban guerrilla warfare dirty trick in the book. The rebels remain a disorganised chaotic bunch, ill equipped, and tragically pinned down against the better equipped and longer strategic reach of the Libyan army and accompanying African mercenaries.

Now the west has started this conflict, we carry a duty of care to the Libyan people. Leaving Gaddafi in power is not an option. NATO and the coalition are stuck between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand there is a very restrictive UN resolution combined with a fragile international coalition and a need to get the job done fast. One the other hand, there is a mad tyrant who refuses to recognise that it is time to go, and a frozen situation on the ground with a complex urban guerrilla war fought against superior weaponry against a ragtag army operating on bravery alone.

All the signs are for continued and future military stagnation and political stalemate from the international community. We can’t get the job finished and we can’t leave till we do.

John Russell is a former Lewisham Liberal Democrat councillor and has a Masters Degree in International Politics and Strategic Studies from the University of Wales Aberystwyth.

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10 Comments

  • Three points:

    1) Who gave the UN permission to decide matters of war and peace? It is not the voters, that’s for sure. The UN is about the least democratic organisation I can think of. Why do we somehow see war as OK only when it has the UN seal of approval? The UN has much to answer for on Libya.

    2) There should have been no intervention in Libya – simple as that. If the Arab League think that an NFZ to allow a cooling off period is a good idea, they are more than free, as far as I am concerned, to use their fine air-forces to enforce one.

    3) ‘Gaddafi’s forces have proved more resilient than expected.’ Why are people so reluctant to suggest that one reason for this might be that he appears at least to have a very real level of political support in Libya, whatever the rights and wrongs of that.

  • John Russell 29th Jun '11 - 5:30pm

    Hi first of all I wanted to say that this is the first of two articles on Libya.

    The second coming tomorrow will ask where now and suggest some ways the international coalition can help to ensure that this war is brought to a quick and decisive conclusion.

    @ Geoff, I want to be clear I am not in favour of targeting Gaddafi, as will be made clear tomorrow. However, it is very unlikely, now we are were we are, that any form of negotiations will produce results. If he genuinely wants to negotiate then we must negotiate. 1973 does not allow or sanction his overthrow. NATO has made it clear that enforcement action will stop if his violence has ceased.

    What happens if and when there is a post Gaddafi Libya is a very interesting question.

    I completely agree with you about the international arms trade.

    @ Duncan thank you for your comments.

    1 The United Nations was established in 1945 following the failures of the League of Nations to prevent World War II with the express purpose of preventing a 3rd world war. Every recognised nation in the world is a member. Yes there is much wrong with the UN, much of it is a result of the international political anarchic order and the Security Council veto. Yes there is much that needs reform, but the UN is the product of the system not the other way around. The UN does have a mandate and it does a lot of good work.

    2 I believe there are grounds for intervening in Libya but it must be done properly. I would like to see a UN standing army in place so that the UN has the power to act and does not simply reflect the willingness of those with power.

    3 Gaddafi does have some support but he is basically a tyrant who rules through fear and repression.

    @ Bolivia I think you are wrong on this some progress is being made but it is not decisive military progress. The conflict is very much a stalemate in most parts of Libya. More on this tomorrow with sources provided.

  • “Before it is too late we need to step back and urgently ask what our military strategy is, and ask exactly how are we going to successfully win this conflict? ”

    This is not our conflict to win the resolution is aimed at protecting civilians. If Gaddafi stops targetting them we have no business there.

    ” I believe, the inability to fully integrate the largely separate but parallel air and ground campaigns is a fundamental strategic flaw which is severely curtailing the ability to win this conflict.”

    Again we are not there to coordinate, in fact I believe we have already stretched the resolution to breaking point, we are there to stop civilians being hurt.

    “Consistently, since the first Gulf War, we have over rated the effectiveness of airpower as a means of winning complex wars. We have been blinded by the science of the “shock and awe”. Precision surgical strikes from the skies claim to do the dirty work without endangering our soldier’s lives and yet in reality they never live up to the billing. ”

    Shock and awe was the phrase used to describe the effect of the combined air and land and air assault of the second Gulf War. In 2003 the long air war of the ’91 conflict was deliberately shunned by planners for a more combined approach.

    “Leaving Gaddafi in power is not an option. ”

    Show me where regime change was on the resolution. Head down that route and the I believe the conflict would be more clearly illegal than Iraq where clever solicitors at least had a prior resolution to base their argument on (whatever one may think of this argument).

    Time for a second resolution, ask Blair how that is likely to go……

  • John Russell 29th Jun '11 - 11:01pm

    @Steve: Thanks for your comments. Much of this is in the next article…

    On our conflict…perhaps not the best word; but the sanctioned conflict of which our military personnel are involved in and our party agreed to in government…

    If Gaddafi stops targeting yes we have to leave and yes we are there to protect civilians. This is very clear in the 1973.

    A long and bloody conflict which I think is possible; is not a means of protecting civilians.

    I think the resolution, as written is difficult to implement, militarily. I think we need a new and stronger one. I don’t think the rebels and NATO air power will win this conflict any time soon the way things are setup on the ground.

    A second resolution will be very hard to achieve.

    We have a problem…

    @ Alex I think a political solution is unlikely anytime soon. Yes an exit strategy is very important.

  • John Russell 30th Jun '11 - 12:06pm

    @ Bolivia. France has confirmed it dropped arms to Berber tribal fighters in the mountains south-west of the capital, Tripoli…France is said to have been concerned at the stalemate in the Libyan conflict that started in February.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13970412

  • Or an alternative analysis of the situation.

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