For Libya, think 'Jawbreaker,' not 'Southern Watch'
The current struggle in Washington and European capitals over what to do about Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi sounds very much like a case of déjà vu. A ruler of an oil-exporting Arab country -- a veteran of military confrontations with the West -- faces an armed uprising from citizens in rebellious provinces. He responds by counterattacking with regime loyalists who are supported by air power. Western military forces stationed near the fighting watch as the bombardment and street fighting proceeds. The U.N. Security Council issues a condemnation and the ruler's overseas bank accounts are seized. Western leaders discuss imposing a no-fly zone while a few openly hope that a palace coup will remove the ruler from power.
Two decades ago, this was the situation with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, just after the remnants of his destroyed army limped back from Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush and his advisors felt certain at the time that Saddam would not last more than a week or two against Kurdish and Shiite revolts that sprang up after his defeat in Kuwait. Little did they know how much irritation he would cause two succeeding U.S. presidents. Although U.S. policy toward Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War resulted in open-ended frustration and then another war, some policymakers apparently seem willing to follow the same path today with Libya.
Just as with Saddam in March 1991, last week Qaddafi seemed certain to go down. One week later, it seems very possible that he could hold on. Although numerous, widespread, and enthusiastic, Libya's opposition is essentially leaderless, disorganized, and untrained for military operations. It now seems a reasonable bet that Qaddafi's trained and ruthless defenders -- supported by loyalist air power -- could scatter the resistance.
The question for President Barack Obama and his officials is whether they are willing to tolerate the damage to U.S. prestige that would occur should Qaddafi crush the revolt and restore his authority over Libya. Qaddafi would join Iran as a U.S. adversary that would have successfully used repression to hang on to power while the Obama administration looked on. Meanwhile, U.S. friends in Egypt, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere have not fared nearly as well. Fairly or not, the president may decide he is willing to run some risks to avoid this characterization of his administration's foreign policy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates made plain his concerns about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone -- similar to Operation Southern Watch, imposed over southern Iraq from 1992 to 2003 -- would have to begin with a large-scale attack on Libya's air defense system, which includes surface-to-air missile batteries, radars, military airfields, and command-and-control units. Such spectacular bombardment might be politically acceptable if it resulted in a rapid and decisive outcome against Qaddafi. But it wouldn't. Previous U.S.-imposed no-fly zones over the Balkans and Iraq merely resulted in indecisive sieges with no material change to the military balance on the ground.
If Obama decides that a Qaddafi victory would be intolerable, he should consider dusting off the plan (code named Jawbreaker) that routed the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, CIA paramilitary and U.S. special operations teams made contact with the Afghan Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban. The U.S. teams, which at their peak amounted to only a few hundred men, helped the Northern Alliance organize its ground forces for an offensive, provided critical battlefield intelligence to rebel commanders, and directed U.S. air power against Taliban targets in support of a ground offensive. The Taliban's ground forces were shattered and the result was a quick decision rather than a protracted siege.
In Libya, U.S. assistance would aim to provide the resistance with decisive battlefield support it could not otherwise generate on its own. This could include the identification of loyalist military positions and capabilities, surface-to-air missile defense of resistance positions, communications support for resistance field units, electronic jamming of loyalist communications, a shutdown of Qaddafi's propaganda media, training of resistance militia, and staff and logistics support for resistance field units. The vast majority of this support would be non-kinetic and hidden from view, and could be enough by itself to be decisive against Qaddafi.
Naturally, there is a risk that such support would not be decisive. In that case, Obama would face the choice of escalation, employing U.S. air power and perhaps ground forces to break a battlefield stalemate. Another risk is that after successfully deposing Qaddafi, U.S. goals would shift in a way that resulted in another prolonged U.S. military deployment in an Arab country; after toppling the Taliban, U.S. policymakers then decided that indefinite suppression of al Qaeda in the region was necessary, which explains why the U.S. military is in Afghanistan nearly 10 years later.
Against these risks, Obama must weigh the consequences of a Qaddafi victory should the United States opt to provide no material support to the Libyan resistance. A no-fly zone, on the other hand, seems like no choice at all -- committing the U.S. to an expensive and open-ended siege without any effect on the ground, where Qaddafi's fate will ultimately be decided.