After a very short discussion, the U.N. Security Council, led by Britain and France, passed a resolution on March 17 that authorizes the use of military force against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime and forces. The resolution permits the use of "any means necessary" but prohibits a foreign military occupation of Libya. It specifically calls for a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect civilians. The rapid advance of pro-Qaddafi forces toward Benghazi forced the United States to quickly harden its position. Equally surprising were abstentions by China and Russia, allowing the resolution to pass.
Today, Libya responded by declaring a unilateral cease-fire. Qaddafi and his advisors may have been equally surprised by the speed with which the Security Council acted. The declaration of the cease-fire is an interesting gambit by Qaddafi. It will force the international coalition opposing him to suspend the start of an air campaign against Libya. Meanwhile, government forces will still be able to maneuver against rebel positions and move forward equipment and supplies for renewed attacks. And it will give his troops time to switch to an irregular warfare strategy, which I discuss more below.
Obama administration officials may have thought they would have many more days, or possibly weeks, to organize a multilateral response to the Libyan situation. It seems clear they badly misjudged the timetable pro-Qaddafi forces have been able to maintain. Third-world armies have a notoriously poor reputation at military logistics operations, such as frontline supply and vehicle maintenance. But Qaddafi's forces have been able to sustain a remarkably long supply line that now stretches many hundreds of kilometers from their bases near Tripoli. Qaddafi's ability to keep his mechanized spearhead moving forward up to 100 kilometers on some days may have been as surprising to officials in Washington as it was to rebel commanders in Benghazi. Qaddafi's forces were already bombarding Benghazi, and his ground forces should reach the rebel redoubt today or tomorrow.
Although the French government boasted that air strikes against Qaddafi's forces would begin within a few hours after the Security Council vote, organizing an air campaign that will have a meaningful effect on Qaddafi's ground forces will take much longer to organize. Most crucial in this regard is Obama's hesitancy to have U.S. military forces in the lead in this operation. Second is the strong desire by Western powers to have Arab military participation (Qatar and United Arab Emirates are mentioned), hopefully in the very first waves of attacking aircraft. Take away the United States, the most powerful and experienced air power, and add in completely inexperienced Arab air forces, and the result will be many long planning meetings as various European and Arab political and military leaders attempt to cobble together a multilateral air force.
This coalition will not be able to ignore Libya's air defense system, which includes 15 early warning radars, 30 surface-to-air missiles sites, and Qaddafi's fighter aircraft force. Coalition jets will have to suppress this system before they can provide persistent reconnaissance over the battle front and methodically attack Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. It is very likely that the battle for Benghazi -- assuming Qaddafi revokes his cease-fire -- will be well advanced before the coalition's air campaign has reached this phase.
The coalition should reckon with Qaddafi's likely responses. Although they are helpful, he does not need his tanks and artillery to regain control of Libya's cities. Once coalition aircraft begin attacking conventional military targets, Qaddafi will switch to irregular warfare techniques. His soldiers and mercenaries will abandon their uniforms and travel by bus, accompanied by civilians, refugees, and friendly media for shielding against air attack. Once inside cities like Benghazi and in close quarters with the rebels, Qaddafi's infantry will similarly be immune from air attack, especially if the coalition is prohibited from deploying ground troops as forward air controllers.
Finally, Qaddafi is a particularly unscrupulous and ruthless adversary with long experience using terrorism as a strategic weapon -- Libya was a large source of suicide bomb volunteers during the Iraq war -- so members of the coalition should expect terror retaliation in various forms.
Although his overseas bank accounts have been seized, Qaddafi already has the necessary money, troops, weapons, and ammunition to sustain a low intensity but brutal campaign against the rebels. The investigation begun by the International Criminal Court has left him and his sons with little choice but to fight on. The United Nations has authorized the wide-ranging use of air power against his regime. Air power will be enough to escalate this war but not enough to win it. Although prohibited for now by the Security Council, "boots on the ground" will eventually be required to remove Qaddafi and his sons from Libya.