So, let’s talk some more about Libya
For instance, did you know that Libya has about as much of a tribal problem as does Afghanistan? Or perhaps “problem” isn’t the best choice of words. Are you aware of the tribal politics involved in Libya?
Yeah, neither are most folks – in fact, I dare say that lack of knowledge may even extend to, ahem, our government experts.
First, let’s look at the military operations side of this potential debacle. What and where are the coalition members striking? Well here’s a graphic from the Washington Post that provides a fairly extensive overview of how Libyan government forces are arrayed.
That gives you a pretty good representation of the lay of the land. Note the “opposition held” cities and their location. Almost all of them are in the east. That will come into the discussion a bit further on. As it stands, those air fields noted on the map and the air defense system of Libya have been the primary target of the coalition attacks. There have also been some attacks on armored columns, the one specifically reported was headed into Benghazi.
How effective has all of this been? Well again, reports out of Libya before the “intervention” were sparse about the effectiveness of Libyan air power. But what had been reported didn’t seem to paint Libyan air support as very decisive.
Meanwhile in the coalition, some dissention. ABC’s “The Note” notes:
"The biggest obstacle to the Libyan intervention right now isn’t the Arab world but rather differences among France, the U.K. and the U.S. about who’s in charge," Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels and a former NATO defense analyst, said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
The Obama administration continues to emphasize the operation will be short in duration and scope, and that the U.S. will hand over authority to its coalition partners soon. The transition will happen in a "matter of days, not a matter of weeks," President Obama said on Monday. "How quickly this transfer takes places will be determined by the recommendations of our commanding officers."
That and how well the coalition holds together. For instance, according to Jake Tapper:
Members of the Arab League have also expressed skepticism. There were several calls from some members of the Arab League this weekend to stop the strikes, given reports of civilian deaths being broadcast by Libyan state TV. The United Arab Emirates, which was to be a key participant, has decided not to send military aircraft.
France is pushing hard to have command handed over to them. But Italy’s Foreign Minister Frattini has said Italy will rethink the use of its bases if NATO isn’t given command. Norway has suspended its participation until the command issue is resolved. Meanwhile, we have the football.
Obama responds to the criticism:
Obama today sought to temper some of the concerns about the mission, saying the United States’ advanced military capabilities and initial leadership "shapes the environment in which a no-fly zone would be effective."
"After the initial thrust that has disabled Gadhafi’s air defenses, limits his ability to threaten large population centers like Benghazi, that there is going to be a transition taking place in which we have a range of coalition partners… who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone," Obama said in Chile. "So there will be a transition taking place of which we are one of the partners."
And someone else will be in charge, supposedly, deciding how to “shape the environment in which the no-fly zone would be effective” according to their interpretation of the effective UN resolution 1973. It could, of course, be a much more aggressive interpretation than the US has committed too. Then what?
So, what is the proposed end-state to all of this? When does this coalition stop flying. Well that’s the most important unanswered question there is. And there’s a reason it is unanswered – there is no “exit strategy” as we speak.
Which brings us to a little of the background of the Libyan situation. Ted Galen Carpenter, of CATO lays a little history on us:
[T]he United States and its allies are wandering into a murky political and demographic minefield in Libya. Western media and policy types have a fuzzy image of the rebels as brave, democratic insurgents determined to liberate the country from a brutal tyrant. But there are other, perhaps far more important, elements involved. Libya itself is yet another fragile, artificial political entity that the European colonial powers created. Italy cobbled together three disparate provinces to establish its Libyan colony. Those areas consisted of Cyrenaica in the east (centered around on the cities of Benghazi and Tobruk), Tripolitania in the west (centered around Tripoli, which became the colonial capital), and less populous and less important Fezzan in the south-southwest.
The key point is that the various tribes inhabiting Cyrenaica and Tripolitania had almost nothing in common. Indeed, they sometimes had an adversarial relationship. Yet, when the victorious Allied powers took control of Libya from Italy during and after World War II, they maintained this unstable amalgam instead of separating it into its more cohesive constituent parts.
That is not merely a matter of historical interest. The sharp divide between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania persisted after Libya became independent, and it persists to this day. It is no coincidence that the current uprising against the Qaddafi regime began in the east, with rebel forces quickly seizing Benghazi and other cities in Cyrenaica. Virtually all previous (unsuccessful) anti-regime movements began in the same region. Qaddafi is from Tripolitania and has long depended on western tribes and his western-dominated security forces as his power base. And as easily as rebel demonstrators and troops seized major targets in the east, they predictably faltered as they pressed deeper into Tripolitania.
So what’s the message here? This is mostly tribal warfare that has historical precedence and is unlikely to – in and of itself – see Gadhafi ousted from power. He is the titular head of the tribe which populates the area in which he lives. Again, note those “opposition controlled” cities and where they’re located. What we’re messing in is a civil war with one side/tribe warring against the other. The question is, with the change of command among the coalition, will the new command eventually pick a side. Right now the mission is ostensibly to protect civilian lives. But what if the new coalition commander decides air strikes in support of a rebel offensive is the best way to “protect civilians”? What then?
Carpenter also asks what we know about the rebels:
The agenda of the rebels remains uncertain, but the two leading possibilities both pose major problems for the United States and its allies as they launch their intervention. One possibility is that insurgent leaders want to keep Libya intact and simply reverse the power relationship with their Tripolitanian adversaries. In other words, a victory over the Qaddafi regime would be time for payback. The other possibility is that they wish to split the country and secure independence for Cyrenaica. There is historical precedent for such an objective. Libya’s monarch, King Idris, told the United States and the other Allied powers after World War II that he wished to rule only Cyrenaica, because he thought that trying to control the larger amalgam would be too difficult and lead to dangerous instability.
So should the mission creep to the extent that the coalition is aiding the rebels in their quest to overthrow the Gadhafi regime, what’s the possible outcome?
Assisting the Cyrenaica-based rebels to oust Qaddafi will almost certainly provoke resentment from the people of Tripolitania. If the rebels split the country, that will become a focal point of resentment for those defeated tribes — and a new grievance against the West throughout much of the Muslim world. Even if the rebels attempt to keep Libya intact, the Tripolitanians are bound to resent Washington for their new, subordinate status. Either way, the United States and its allies are in danger of stumbling into a situation in which they are almost certain to acquire new enemies. That is the last thing that America needs.
And there are other questions about the rebel forces as well:
According to a cache of al Qaeda documents captured in 2007 by U.S. special operations commandos in Sinjar, Iraq, hundreds of foreign fighters, many of them untrained young Islamic volunteers, poured into Iraq in 2006 and 2007. The documents, called the Sinjar documents, were collected, translated and analyzed at the West Point Counter Terrorism Center. Almost one in five foreign fighters arriving in Iraq came from eastern Libya, many from the city of Darnah. Others came from Surt and Misurata to the west.
On a per capita basis, that’s more than twice as many than came from any other Arabic-speaking country, amounting to what the counter terrorism center called a Libyan “surge" of young men eager to kill Americans.
During 2006 and 2007, a total of 1,468 Americans were killed in combat and 12,524 were badly wounded, according to Pentagon records.
Today, there is little doubt that eastern Libya, like other parts of the Arab world, is experiencing a genuine burst of anti-totalitarian fervor, expressed in demands for political freedom and economic reforms. But there also is a dark history to eastern Libya, which is the home of the Islamic Libyan Fighting Group, an anti-Gaddafi organization officially designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
Yes, so far this is shaping up to be quite a little mess. Obama may think he can hurl a few Tomahawks at the “bad guys”, hand it all over to someone else and walk away, but that’s not a reality I see in the cards for this one. And it is certainly a reality we have little national interest in or should have involved ourselves in.
But here we are …