The cost of getting serious in Libya
A pattern has emerged in the Libyan conflict. Every setback to the rebels' prospects has resulted in an escalation of military activity by NATO. The alliance's initial intervention five weeks ago began when a powerful pro-Qaddafi armored column approached Benghazi, the rebel capital. This week, nasty house-to-house fighting in Misrata compelled Britain, France, and Italy to each send about ten military advisors to Benghazi. President Barack Obama did his part this week when he dispatched two Predator drones to Libya's skies. The NATO advisors sent to Benghazi are the vanguard of what is likely to be many more Western "boots on the ground" in Libya.
It is now clear that the Western policymakers who opted for intervention in Libya underestimated the resilience and adaptability of Qaddafi's military forces. These Western leaders -- perhaps led astray by the apparent ease with which air power alone compelled Serb leaders in Belgrade to abandon Kosovo in 1999 -- similarly overestimated what air power could accomplish against Qaddafi. The result is, at best, a military stalemate, assuming Misrata can hold out.
Libya's rebels, now openly supported by NATO, are far from accomplishing the de facto objective of the campaign, the removal of the Qaddafi family from Libya. The rebels and Western leaders had hoped that Qaddafi would quickly flee or be overthrown by a palace coup or an uprising in Tripoli. These may yet occur. But hoping for them is not a strategy. If anything, a month of combat has toughened Qaddafi's troops and his remaining inner circle. With Western prestige now heavily committed, what will it actually take to get rid of Qaddafi?
Assuming that Western leaders have ruled out a ground invasion of Libya, the only other course of action around which NATO can build a campaign plan is to prepare the rebel forces in Benghazi for the long march down the coast road to Tripoli. Such a course of action will provide NATO with an organizing concept and give the alliance the initiative. Anything less is just hoping for the best.
However, this course will be long, expensive, and difficult. Having found themselves stalemated, NATO leaders must now face up to the costs required to achieve their objectives. The Libya operation is yet another unpleasant reminder of the unpredictability of war. Even after it is over, we may not know the cost of the campaign. But to formulate a very rough estimate of the cost of success, accurate only to the orders of magnitude involved, we can look to the training and advisory effort in Afghanistan for guidance.
The Pentagon has requested $12.8 billion in fiscal year 2012 to train and equip Afghan security forces, which include roughly 152,000 soldiers in the Afghan army. NATO countries have been called on to provide 1,495 trainers and 205 20-member embedded training teams to the Afghan army. Add to this other advisers, the Afghan army's own trainers plus others supporting the training establishment. We can thus assume that at least 10,000 soldiers are training and advising the Afghan army.
How large a rebel army will it take to smash through all of the Qaddafi-held cities between Benghazi and Tripoli? Planners should assume significant resistance, requiring a rebel force equipped with armored vehicles, artillery, and trained infantry. Planners should assume casualties from urban combat and significant logistics and maintenance expenses. Pro-Qaddafi areas in the rear of the advance on Tripoli will need to be garrisoned, which will add to the required forces.
A cost estimate that includes a conservative margin of safety might be one-tenth of the train-and-advise effort in Afghanistan: a 15,000-soldier rebel force, 1,000 foreign trainers and advisers, at a cost of $1 billion per year.
Assuring Qaddafi's removal will require a large rebel armored force, supported by NATO air power, to assault through all of the coastal urban areas between Ajdabiya, the current front line, and Qaddafi's base in Tripoli. Western policymakers need to reckon with the cost such a military campaign will inflict on Libya's cities and civilians. NATO's intervention began as a mission to protect Libya's civilians from Qaddafi. It would be a tragedy if resolving the conflict required equal or greater privation. A month ago, policymakers could hardly imagine such a scenario. Now they will have to.