A Premature Celebration in Libya

By George Friedman

The war in Libya is over. More precisely, governments and media have decided that the war is over, despite the fact that fighting continues. The unfulfilled expectation of this war has consistently been that Moammar Gadhafi would capitulate when faced with the forces arrayed against him, and that his own forces would abandon him as soon as they saw that the war was lost. What was being celebrated last week, with presidents, prime ministers and the media proclaiming the defeat of Gadhafi, will likely be true in due course. The fact that it is not yet true does not detract from the self-congratulations.

For example, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini reported that only 5 percent of Libya is still under Gadhafi's control. That seems like a trivial amount, save for this news from Italian newspaper La Stampa, which reported that "Tripoli is being cleaned up" neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street and home by home. Meanwhile, bombs from above are pounding Sirte, where, according to the French, Gadhafi has managed to arrive, although it is not known how. The strategically important town of Bali Walid - another possible hiding place and one of only two remaining exit routes to another Gadhafi stronghold in Sabha - is being encircled.

To put it differently, Gadhafi's forces still retain military control of substantial areas. There is house-to-house fighting going on in Tripoli. There are multiple strongholds with sufficient defensive strength that forces cannot enter them without significant military preparation. Although Gadhafi's actual location is unknown, his capture is the object of substantial military preparations, including NATO airstrikes, around Bali Walid, Sirte and Sabha. When Saddam Hussein was captured, he was hiding in a hole in the ground, alone and without an army. Gadhafi is still fighting and posing challenges. The war is not over.

It could be argued that while Gadhafi retains a coherent military force and significant territory, he no longer governs Libya. That is certainly true and significant, but it will become more significant when his enemies do take control of the levers of power. It is unreasonable to expect that they should be in a position to do so a few days after entering Tripoli and while fighting continues. But it does raise a critical question: whether the rebels have sufficient coherence to form an effective government or whether new rounds of fighting among Libyans can be expected even after Gadhafi's forces cease functioning. To put it simply, Gadhafi appears to be on his way to defeat but he is not there yet, and the ability of his enemies to govern Libya is doubtful.

Immaculate Intervention

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Given that the dying is far from over, it is interesting to consider why Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, the major players in this war, all declared last week that Gadhafi had fallen, implying an end to war, and why the media proclaimed the war's end. To understand this, it is important to understand how surprising the course of the war was to these leaders. From the beginning, there was an expectation that NATO intervention, first with a no-fly zone, then with direct airstrikes on Gadhafi's position, would lead to a rapid collapse of his government and its replacement with a democratic coalition in the east.

Two forces combined to lead to this conclusion. The first consisted of human-rights groups outside governments and factions in foreign ministries and the State Department who felt an intervention was necessary to stop the pending slaughter in Benghazi. This faction had a serious problem. The most effective way to quickly end a brutal regime was military intervention. However, having condemned the American invasion of Iraq, which was designed, at least in part, to get rid of a brutal regime, this faction found it difficult to justify rapid military intervention on the ground in Libya. Moral arguments require a degree of consistency.

In Europe, the doctrine of "soft power" has become a central doctrine. In the case of Libya, finding a path to soft power was difficult. Sanctions and lectures would probably not stop Gadhafi, but military action ran counter to soft power. What emerged was a doctrine of soft military power. Instituting a no-fly zone was a way to engage in military action without actually hurting anyone, except those Libyan pilots who took off. It satisfied the need to distinguish Libya from Iraq by not invading and occupying Libya but still putting crushing pressure on Gadhafi.

Of course, a no-fly zone proved ineffective and irrelevant, and the French began bombing Gadhafi's forces the same day. Libyans on the ground were dying, but not British, French or American soldiers. While the no-fly zone was officially announced, this segue to an air campaign sort of emerged over time without a clear decision point. For human-rights activists, this kept them from addressing the concern that airstrikes always cause unintended deaths because they are never as accurate as one might like. For the governments, it allowed them to be seen as embarking upon what I have called an "immaculate intervention."

The second force that liked this strategy was the various air forces involved. There is no question of the importance of air power in modern war, but there is a constant argument over whether the application of air power by itself can achieve desired political ends without the commitment of ground forces. For the air community, Libya was going to be the place where it could demonstrate its effectiveness in achieving such ends.

So the human-rights advocates could focus on the ends - protecting Libyan civilians in Benghazi - and pretend that they had not just advocated the commencement of a war that would itself leave many people dead. Political leaders could feel that they were not getting into a quagmire but simply undertaking a clean intervention. The air forces could demonstrate their utility in delivering desired political outcomes.

Why and How

The question of the underlying reason for the war should be addressed because stories are circulating that oil companies are competing for vast sums of money in Libya. These stories are all reasonable, in the sense that the real story remains difficult to fathom, and I sympathize with those who are trying to find a deep conspiracy to explain all of this. I would like to find one, too. The problem is that going to war for oil in Libya was unnecessary. Gadhafi loved selling oil, and if the governments involved told him quietly that they were going to blow him up if he didn't make different arrangements on who got the oil revenues and what royalties he got to keep, Gadhafi would have made those arrangements. He was as cynical as they come, and he understood the subtle idea that shifting oil partners and giving up a lot of revenue was better than being blown up.

Indeed, there is no theory out there that explains this war by way of oil, simply because it was not necessary to actually to go war to get whatever concessions were wanted. So the story - protecting people in Benghazi from slaughter - is the only rational explanation for what followed, however hard it is to believe.

It must also be understood that given the nature of modern air warfare, NATO forces in small numbers had to be inserted on the ground from the beginning - actually, at least a few days before the beginning of the air campaign. Accurately identifying targets and taking them out with sufficient precision involves highly skilled special-operations teams guiding munitions to those targets. The fact that there have been relatively few friendly-fire accidents indicates that standard operational procedures have been in place.

These teams were probably joined by other special operators who trained - and in most cases informally led - indigenous forces in battle. There were ample reports in the early days of the war that special operations teams were on the ground conducting weapons training and organizing the fighters who opposed Gadhafi.

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Libya: A Premature Victory Celebration is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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