Small Wars

This Week at War: Libya's Endgame

President Obama, Muammar Qaddafi and Libya's rebels are all planning their next moves. Whichever side wins, it's the machine mechanics on the ground who probably deserve the credit.

Libya's rebels scramble to hold out

The armed uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi appears to be cracking, and it may collapse before U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have sorted out their policies toward the rebellion. Qaddafi, the rebels, and Obama will each have to quickly consider their political and military strategies as what may be the endgame approaches in Libya.

According to the BBC, military forces loyal to Qaddafi have broken through the rebel's defenses outside Ras Lanuf, the oil town that was the western perimeter of the rebel's stronghold over the eastern half of Libya. A few days earlier, rebels were ejected from Bin Jawad, the next town further to the west along the coast road. The risk now is that rebel morale and cohesion will shatter and that they will be unable to establish another defensive line before loyalist mechanized forces advance down the coast road toward Benghazi, the capital of the rebellion. Further complicating the rebel's task is the apparent collapse of rebel resistance in the western town of Zawiya, near Tripoli. Pacification of Zawiya would allow Qaddafi to redeploy reinforcements for the push on Benghazi.

Qaddafi's key vulnerability at this moment is the ability of his forces to maintain his advantage in mobility. The combatants are fighting down the coast road and the adjoining open terrain between towns. The military advantage will go to the side that keeps its tanks and infantry fighting vehicles -- all highly susceptible to breakdowns -- repaired and in the fight. Should Qaddafi ultimately win the war, those most deserving of credit might be those contractor mechanics he has undoubtedly hired to keep his armored vehicles running.

Knocked back on its heels and perhaps with its time nearly up, the Libyan resistance has belatedly launched the political element of its strategy. The Libyan National Council, the rebel leadership group, rolled out its members to a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the war from Benghazi. The rebels were careful to put a moderate and technocratic face on their movement. The rebellion scored a success when it convinced the French government to officially recognize it. And in a trip next week to Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with representatives of Libya's resistance.

President Barack Obama's administration has maintained its own resistance to getting involved in the Libyan civil war. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration has decided to take action in Libya only as a member of a much broader international coalition, for example after intervention has been approved by the Arab League, NATO, or the U.N. Security Council. Approval by these organizations typically requires consensus, which is bad news for the rebels holding out against Qaddafi's counterattacks.

Obama undoubtedly knows that he will face intense criticism if he stands by while Qaddafi ruthlessly crushes the rebellion. Knowing this, we must presume that outcome, assuming Obama allows it to occur, is part of a larger calculation of risks. What might those calculations be? Topping the list might be that Obama and his advisors have decided that they want to encourage no more rebellions in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere on the Sunni side of the Persian Gulf. Egypt's Tahrir Square may have been exhilarating, but Obama and his advisors may now have had enough of that kind of excitement. If it will incentivize tranquility in Riyadh, Obama may be willing to let Qaddafi win this one.

Think grand strategy is too hard? It's really not, say Kaplan and Kaplan.

The latest issue of the National Interest features an essay on America's grand strategy by Robert D. Kaplan (recent author of Monsoon and many other books on current history) and Stephen S. Kaplan, who recently retired after a 30-year career at the CIA. Titled America Primed, Kaplan and Kaplan puncture the myth that an effective grand strategy is a puzzle too difficult for Washington's statesmen to solve. In fact, the Kaplans argue that the grand-strategy puzzle practically solves itself -- as long as future U.S. presidents exercise some restraint, prudently tend to their military power, and can finesse a few straightforward dilemmas.

The United States' paramount geostrategic objective should be to ensure that no one power or alliance of powers effectively dominates Eurasia. What will make grand strategy so easy, they suggest, is that all of the other consequential powers -- they mention China, Russia, and India -- have problems of their own and possess few of the advantages held by the United States. And competition among Russia, China, and India should ensure that Eurasian power remains divided.

Kaplan and Kaplan explain those strategic advantages the United States enjoys that will keep it on top for many more decades. None of the three aforementioned consequential powers has the global alliance system that the United States has throughout the "Anglosphere," Europe, and East Asia. Compared with the United States, China, Russia, and India lack the soft-power stature and skills to build such alliances, at least for many years into the future. Best of all, according to the Kaplans, a bit of a growing military menace in China and Russia is actually a good thing from Washington's perspective; it focuses minds among America's allies in Asia and Europe and makes them more eager and cooperative partners. For the same reasons, they argue, there is little to fear from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs -- the reaction by America's Sunni-Arab allies will boost Washington's influence in the region and may even lead to a rapprochement between Israel and the Arabs.

The Kaplans' advice for Central Asia is two-fold: Get tough with a misbehaving Pakistan, and get out of Afghanistan, without leaving a mess behind. Here, the Kaplans haven't figured out the Catch-22 that Afghanistan has become any better than anyone else. The United States can't get tough with Pakistan while it still has a large army in Afghanistan. But neither do policymakers in Washington seem willing to take the risk of a collapse in Afghanistan even though it is clear they desperately need the $100 billion spent annually in Afghanistan for air and naval modernization in the western Pacific. The Kaplans argue, "[T]he United States can only start to withdraw from Afghanistan, without its current regime being toppled shortly thereafter, if Islamabad fundamentally alters its policy. Pakistan's military and ISI will not do that without the application of more political and economic pressure." But Washington cannot apply that pressure while Islamabad controls the supply routes, and thus the war, in Afghanistan. The Kaplans don't have a convincing answer to this dilemma.

In the Kaplans' tour of the globe, many of the world's most significant geopolitical problems, apparently governed by the forces of regional self-interest, seem to practically balance themselves, at least from Washington's perspective. It would be comforting to think that the American electorate won't have to reliably elect a succession of Bismarckian geniuses in order to maintain global stability. Unfortunately, it won't be that easy.

The Kaplans describe what could be an effective operating principle for American grand strategy, namely regional balances around the Eurasian periphery, backstopped by U.S. security agreements with allies in each region.

To make such a system work, U.S. statesmen will have to display wisdom along three dimensions. First, they will have to ensure that the United States will continue to be able to afford the required military power. Second, they will have to convince allies that the United States still has the will to use its military power while at the same time not squandering that power fruitlessly. Third, U.S. statesmen will have to avoid the problem of "moral hazard" with its allies, convincing them to make significant contributions to the regional balancing system while those allies simultaneously know that the United States will be their backstop (or "bailout").

These are timeless dilemmas for which neither the Kaplans nor anyone else has written a formula. Future U.S. presidents might not have to all be Bismarcks. But neither can they count on grand strategy taking care of itself.

Small Wars

This Week at War: The Jawbreaker Option

Forget no-fly zones; if Obama really wants to be rid of Qaddafi, it means changing the balance of power on the ground.

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.

Is asking the Army for a quick ending asking too much?

In last week's column, I asserted that U.S. Army and Marine Corps leaders, who are already planning for reductions in their forces after their engagement in Afghanistan concludes, may face even further reductions if they cannot explain how U.S. ground forces will be relevant to security problems in the post-Afghanistan era. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated to some U.S. policymakers that general-purpose ground forces may not be a very good tool for solving many of today's irregular security challenges.

Nathan Freier, a retired U.S. Army officer and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is among a rare group of analysts openly discussing what the future holds for the Army after Afghanistan. In a recent essay for the U.S. Army War College's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Freier offered up his recommendation for what the Army should prepare for. If soldiers thought Iraq and Afghanistan were unpleasant, Freier thinks the next challenges could be even tougher.

Freier asserts that Pentagon planners would be wise to begin with some stern assumptions. Resources, especially for the Army, will be in decline. Allies will be of little help. Adversaries will continue to use irregular warfare techniques to avoid U.S. military strengths. And Washington will expect U.S. forces to solve a greater variety of "small war" security challenges, but will demand that military planners avoid risks, casualties, and long campaigns as they do so.

Freier's worst-case scenario is a "large-scale limited opposed stabilization campaign." In this scenario, the United States would face a political collapse and a security breakdown inside a politically fragile country, resulting in either large and uncontrolled refugee flows or the loss of control over nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons. Freier further posits that the population of this country is hostile to U.S. intervention and that there is no functioning central authority as a useful partner. Even if U.S. officials would prefer to remain detached from the chaos, the security and humanitarian consequences of benign neglect would be too painful to endure.

In such a scenario, Freier foresees the need for 90,000 to 230,000 soldiers deploying to the immediate theater of operations to conduct stabilization operations. At the high end, such a force would be more than twice the force currently in Afghanistan and nearly 50 percent larger than the maximum "surge" force in Iraq in 2008. Freier suggests that U.S. planners should count on a two-year commitment at this level followed by a much smaller but lingering presence, a forecast that would imply an extensive mobilization of reserves and at least one rotation of fresh brigades to the war zone.

It is on this point that Freier's properly gloomy planning assumptions become improbably bright and sunny. The United States has no record of such a prompt exit from such a large military campaign. The only way such a prompt exit could occur is if U.S. forces were able to rapidly train indigenous security forces to replace U.S. forces. Such "security force assistance" must become an essential tool of U.S. government policy. Although a critical tool, there is no record of the United States executing a security force assistance mission both rapidly and on a large scale. More likely, and contrary to what Freier expects, would be many more rotations of U.S. general-purpose forces -- in other words, another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Faced with that less sunny assumption, U.S. policymakers will demand a major rewrite of the plan. They will ask for options that get to the finish line faster. Freier has alerted policymakers to the difficulties ahead and has challenged military planners to prepare options that are both militarily and politically realistic. Unfortunately, no planner knows how to write such an operations order.

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