PRESIDENT OBAMA insists that protecting civilians is the only military objective in Libya and air power is the only means we will use to achieve it. But the Libyan government’s attacks on civilians continue, and air power alone will not stop them.
Public pronouncements aside, the unstated strategic aim of the intervention in Libya is to remove Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his regime, and things are not going well. The United States and NATO must accept that there is no easy way out of this war now that we are in it.
In war, leadership is not exercised from the rear by those who seek to risk as little as possible. Washington must stop pretending that we’ve passed the leadership for the Libyan operation on to NATO. We did so in Bosnia, claiming Europe would take the lead, only to have the 1995 Srebrenica genocide jolt us back to reality. Like it or not, America’s leadership has been crucial to most of NATO’s successes. The same will be true in Libya.
We should also have learned from the 1999 Kosovo war that air power alone does not produce victory. There, it took the threat of a ground assault and the erosion of Russian support for Serbia to tip the balance in NATO’s favor.
Bombing is extremely effective against targets that are clearly distinguishable from civilians and friendly forces. But Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are using a classic defense against air superiority: get as close to your enemy as possible. That means that the use of air power alone has had the perverse effect of putting those forces even closer to the people we are trying to protect. And even the most skilled pilots are ineffective when weather is poor or they are forced to fly high and fast because of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
Advocates of a short-term bombing campaign were wrong. Civilians are not being protected as envisioned, Colonel Qaddafi isn’t folding, and as tribes threaten to enter the fray, Libya may be nearing collapse. Washington now has three options — none of them ideal.
America could pull out, making a tacit admission that the intervention was a strategic mistake. But a resurgent Colonel Qaddafi would likely seek revenge against the rebels and those who helped them. Moreover, NATO’s resolve would be called into question, as would America’s. Whatever influence Washington might have in the region would evaporate and Al Qaeda would waste no time pointing out that the United States had abandoned Muslims on the battlefield.
Or we could continue doing the minimum necessary to avoid losing. But even if Colonel Qaddafi were to eventually fall, we’d still face the significant and unknown consequences of a postwar Libya. The United States and NATO would not be able to simply leave. We tried this in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it got us an insurgency.
Finally, the United States and its allies could commit the military resources required to genuinely protect Libyan civilians and oust Colonel Qaddafi. Unlike the Bosnian Croats in 1995 and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the rebel forces in Libya are too disorganized to take advantage of NATO air support. To give them a fighting chance, NATO must put military advisers and combat air controllers on the ground — not just British, French and Italian, but also a small number of American ones.
These advisers would help bolster the weak rebel army’s organization and capabilities while ground controllers could mark targets, identify the forward movement of rebel forces, and distinguish civilians from fighters more effectively than pilots can from their cockpits. Such measures are essential, but they would require relaxing the Obama administration’s prohibition on the use of American ground forces.
This course of action would not defeat Colonel Qaddafi’s forces overnight, but it would put far more pressure on his regime and potentially protect more civilians in more of the country. If Colonel Qaddafi falls, the United States and NATO will have a responsibility to help shape the postwar order, including providing security to prevent a liberated Libya from sinking into chaos.
After all, the pro-Qaddafi Libyan Army and police are unlikely to provide it; many of them could become insurgents as did Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq. Nor are the rebels, who may well be more interested in revenge than stability.
The responsibility for security, reconstruction and nation-building will likely fall to the United Nations, which would mean deploying a multinational peacekeeping force in Libya, including troops from the United States, NATO and Arab nations. Washington must start planning and preparing for this complex and expensive contingency and muster the substantial political will required to see it through. While there is no guarantee that such a project will be any more efficient or effective than in Iraq or Afghanistan, failing to plan for it would be disastrous.
So far, we have chosen an instrument — airstrikes — that is powerful but cannot attain our humanitarian or strategic aims by itself. The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya. Washington must now accept that decision and face its consequences.
By James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops from 2007 to 2008 and a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.