Libya's rebels need boot camp, not more weapons
Two weeks ago, when an armored column loyal to Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was poised to crush the rebellion in Benghazi, U.S. President Barack Obama dramatically reversed his policy and endorsed a limited air campaign against Qaddafi's forces. A week ago, the rebels were on the march toward Tripoli and seemingly on the verge of removing Qaddafi from power. Alas, it was not to be. A Qaddafi counterattack has sent the scattered rebels fleeing once again back toward Ajdabiya and Benghazi. This second setback for the rebels has resulted in a debate inside the White House over whether the coalition should arm the rebels, another escalation in the conflict.
On March 30, it was reported that CIA officers were in Libya with the rebels, making an assessment of their situation and possibly directing airstrikes in support of their fighters. We can gather from open sources much of what these intelligence officers are likely to report. As a military force, Libya's rebels are a disorganized rabble and seem incapable of preparing and holding defensive positions or maneuvering effectively against rudimentary enemy resistance. The rebels need boot camp, fundamental infantry training, and the development of some battlefield leaders, not a new stockpile of weapons.
Those Western leaders whose plan currently consists of hoping that Qaddafi will be spontaneously overthrown need to think again. Absent a Western invasion of the country, the rebel force is the only means of removing Qaddafi, and the rebels will need many months or even years of training before they are capable of defeating loyalist ground units and marching all the way to Tripoli.
A comparison with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance is instructive. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was the battle-hardened survivor of a decade-long struggle against the Soviet Red Army. After that Darwinian test, the Northern Alliance had capable leaders, a disciplined command structure, and proven tactics. When CIA and Special Forces advisors arrived in October 2001 to assist the Northern Alliance, they found a capable military force to support. By contrast, just a few weeks into their struggle, Libya's rebels are far from being able to accomplish the military goals they seek.
Some analysts have suggested that the rebels only need some anti-tank weapons to deal with Qaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers. The rebels already have a very effective anti-tank weapon at their disposal -- NATO airstrikes. But as I predicted two weeks ago, Qaddafi's forces have adapted to the arrival of coalition air power by abandoning their armored vehicles and now move about in the same pickup trucks used by the rebels. Out of fear of striking either rebel vehicles or civilians, coalition air attacks on Qaddafi's forces west of Ajdabiya appear stymied for the moment, which is allowing Qaddafi's superior firepower to batter the rebels in eastern Libya.
Obama's team and other Western policymakers fear a stalemate in Libya. A deadlock would make these leaders appear ineffectual against Qaddafi. They also fear an erosion of political support for the intervention both at home and internationally.
However, one advantage of a stalemate is that it would give the rebels, assisted by Special Forces advisers, the time necessary to organize and train for the long fight that will be required to push on to Tripoli. If Obama and other Western leaders are serious about removing Qaddafi from power -- without Western "boots on the ground" -- they and Libya's rebels will have to brace themselves for a long and nasty slog.