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April 18, 2011


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The rebels can't win, but won't be allowed to lose. So, protracted civil war.

There are other possibilities, sure. "Internal coup takes out Qaddafi" is the one everyone is hoping for. But he's bright enough to realize that, and will be conducting himself accordingly.

As expected, the rebels are getting their act together, a little. Various reports suggest that their performance is improving. I don't want to become tedious WRT the Yugoslavia analogy, but we saw the same thing there -- untrained citizen-fighters getting slaughtered in the first month or two, then the survivors organizing themselves into semi-competent militias with some military effectiveness. As the war goes on, over time the rebels should gradually close the gap in terms of discipline and professionalism. That said, this still isn't a fight they can win without artillery, armor, and a logistics tail.

The intervention in Misrata has an obvious strategic aspect. Right now it's the only major rebel stronghold left in the west. It's not an oil town, but it's the third largest city in Libya -- out of a population of under 7 million Libyans, half a million live there. So it's a major prize in its own right. And if Qaddafi takes Misrata, his strategic position improves enormously. He links up the west and center of the country, and can then concentrate his forces against the major rebel strongholds in the east. So it's in everyone's interest to keep him from taking Misrata. (Well, everyone who doesn't actually live there.)

At the moment, EUFOR Malta seems to be waiting for a green light of some sort from the UN. I would guess there's intense diplomatic activity behind the scenes.

I suspect that headquartering it in Rome, and putting an Italian general in charge, will turn out to have been a mistake. Hope to be wrong on that one.

-- Here's an interesting straw in the wind, one which I haven't seen any news stories about.

Just north of Libya lies the small island nation of Malta. And Malta, usually a quirky Mediterranean backwater, is suddenly buzzing with activity. All sorts of stuff is going on there, some of it open (construction of refugee camps), much of it less so (quiet landings at the military airport, mysterious ship movements at the port, yadda yadda.) Matters are complicated by the fact that Libya has long dabbled in Maltese politics: the Qaddafis have long provided both friendship and financial support to the center-left Labour party there. Labour is currently in opposition, but just barely -- they're only three Parliamentary seats behind the ruling center-right Nationalist party, which has governed the country on a wafer-thin majority since 2008.

So Malta, the nearest EU member to Libya, suddenly a vital strategic outpost and forward base, also has this very delicate internal political situation. If the allies do something to embarrass the Maltese government, it could easily lose a snap no-confidence vote, bringing in a bunch of guys who are openly sympathetic to Qaddafi (and who, some say, may have been on his payroll). Tricky!

Now: the current US ambassador to Malta is a guy named Doug Kmiec. You may perhaps remember that name. He was a conservative legal scholar, DOJ under Reagan and Bush 41, and then a moderate-conservative op ed writer and and a spokesman for what you might call moderate Catholicism. Though a Republican, he came out for Obama in early 2008 -- he was part of the whole "non-whackaloon Republicans for Obama" thing. A bit later there was a brief public kerfuffle when Kmiec was denied Communion during the campaign. Obama rewarded him with the Malta post. That sort of thing is pretty much SOP for key supporters, so no surprise there.

Here's the interesting bit: over the weekend, Kmiec suddenly announced that he's leaving Malta "to devote more time to writing and scholarship". I'm guessing that Kmiec's scholarly bent emerged quite suddenly, probably after a phone conversation on the secure Ambassadorial line with someone whose name rhymes with "Plinton". And I'd bet a modest sum of money that his replacement has already been selected, and will not be a campaign donor or other political supporter. The administration suspects this game will go extra innings, and will be replacing the amiable Mr. Kmiec with a professional.

I have no problem with this. In fact, it's exactly the sort of thing I like to see: low-key, thoughtful, and proactive. It gives me a flicker of hope. If the administration is being this forward-thinking and sensible in Malta, perhaps they're taking similar actions, equally or more obscure, elsewhere on the board.

That said, it still looks like the Libyans are in for a protracted civil war; any foreign boots on the ground will be purely defensive, operating under cover of a humanitarian mission and unable to do anything more than get in Qaddafi's way.

Doug M.

I still have to caveat the phrase "civil war." Not that I disagree; just that outside Mistata, combat has been remarkably low-intensity. Around Brega, for example, the fighting has become kabuki. And even in Misrata, thus far we're talking relatively low casualties: so far, this hasn't been Fallujah.

Past performance, of course, does not predict future results.

Question: how far do you think Eufor Libya will go in securing Misrata, if they get a U.N. go-ahead? Permanent safe zone, "get-in, distribute-food, get-out," or something in-between?

Two points WRT casualties. One, at least some of the conflict is taking place off-camera; there aren't foreign journalists down in Chat or Al Qatrun. And, as noted, there's going to be a lot of quiet score-settling going on, which is as likely to involve throat-slitting as bullets fired. (To keep the Yugoslav thing going: the Serbs in the "yellow house", the Albanians in the freezer truck, and Ivan Stambolic. None of those came out until years later.)

Second, don't forget how dinky Libya is. It only looks big on a map. Its population? About the same as Massachussetts. 1,000 deaths in Libya is like 50,000 deaths in the US.

Caveating the phrase "civil war": in 4 years of fighting, the American Civil War killed about 600,000 Americans out of a population of ~34 million. That works out to something over 12,000 a month. To achieve a comparable level of intensity, Libya would have to kill about 2,500 people per month. They're not far from that -- and, hey, it's early days. So I have no problem with calling this a civil war.

Anyway. Securing Misrata? if they get there in time? They'll secure hell out of it, I should think. It's not like they're going to be holding Leningrad against the Wehrmacht. Any half-competent western military force should be able to shut down anything we've yet seen in Libya. In fact, EUFOR will have to choose its CO carefully to make sure there isn't some accidental mission creep. But that's assuming it happens in a timely manner, which is still an open question.

About the only thing certain is that the Germans won't be involved. Westerwelle is getting hammered for bungling the UN vote, and that's fair. He's attempted to backtrack by committing German troops to humanitarian assistance, which has just made things worse. Westerwelle has lost his party leadership, and he probably won't be Foreign Minister six months from now. But what people forget is that his position is still really popular in Germany.

Doug M.

Regarding civil war: no need for a semantic battle. We are in agreement on the current substance and in only mild disagreement on the likely future.

The German situation will be interesting, since Battlegroup 107 seems to be favored over the Nordics at the moment ... assuming that it happens.

The War Nerd should not be taken too seriously; as Carlos has noted, it's as much performance art as anything else. That said, John Dolan is thoughtful and well-read, and his batting average is considerably better than, say, Stratfor's. (Why anyone takes those guys seriously is a complete mystery to me.)

Anyway, I liked this:

"This is the kind of cripple fight that makes infantry officers all twitchy. What you could do with even a few real troops... the gratitude of an oil-exporting country, too; that’s no small reward. So naturally NATO is talking itself into sending troops. But in a ridiculous, obvious way, like a little kid trying to steal a piece of cake by shaving one teeny slice off at a time...

"You can see the interventionists’ temptation here: This is Qaddafi’s wage slaves we’re up against, not the VC, damn it!

"There are European generals right this minute, I bet, doing a petrochemical version of Trimble’s pleas to Ewell at Gettysburg: 'Give me a division and I will take that refinery! Give me a brigade... a regiment... a COMPANY... and I will take that refinery!'"

-- Probably not German generals, and maybe not British. But the French? They just bagged Gbagbo without losing a man. You know they have to be thinking about it.

Doug M.

It looks to me that the USAF and the naval aviators are going to get pulled back in. They just announced we've started using Predators and there's been a bit of hand wringing over the lack of success with the air attacks. What reason could it be that the Europeans seem to be less successful at stopping the Libyan military?

Is it that the equipment is a bit long in the tooth (capability wise) or is it that there's just not enough committed? Or people are expecting too much?

I liked the War Nerd comment too. Wouldn't've gone their without the shout-out.

Will: Two things. First, Libyan government forces changed tactics around the same time that the U.S. pulled back. They now drive in civilian vehicles, employ small units, and eschew (somewhat) the use of heavy weaponry. Without anyone on the ground --- or, hell, even the ability to communicate with rebel units --- this has put NATO at a disadvantage. That would, I think, be in the "expecting too much" department.

The second issue is that the Europeans have nothing like the A-10 or the AC-130, which puts them at a disadvantage when engaging light infantry units at close range. (It doesn't help that NATO stockpiles of precision weapons are running low.) Not quite "long in the tooth," but close.

Fighting in the main Berber region -- the Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli -- seems to be heating up. The Berbers have been a despised minority under Qaddafi, so it's no surprise they rose up. Unclear how much success they're having, but various reports claim 6,000 refugees from the region are in Tunisia now.

This area is to the west of the major oil fields, so its strategic significance is pretty close to nil. And the Berbers are isolated from potential help. So, why waste military resources crushing them now?

One possibility: If Qaddafi's thinking clearly, he must realize that he's never going to get Benghazi back -- the international community is too invested in the rebels' survival now. So his next-best strategic goal would be to nail down the largest possible "loyalist" Libya, reducing the rebels to a small regional rump. In that context, rolling up the Berbers now makes some sense.

On the other hand, he might just want to pound on some Berbers.

Doug M.

Doug: We think alike. Yesterday I was talking to Sam Bakri, and we came to the same conclusion. Gaddafi probably sees a chance that the coalition against him will fall apart, given what must seem from Tripoli as extreme European disunity. Partition, then, is one of his two endgames, the other being a negotiated settlement that leaves his sons with some power.

Of course, is Gaddafi actually winning? Reports from the west are far fuzzier than the east, and it seems that the rebels may have taken a border post with Tunisia.

Yugoslavia yet again: Milosevic was faced with a visibly rickety coaltion in '99. He responded by trying to play a waiting game while fomenting a massive refugee crisis with "Operation Horseshoe". The latter startled hell out of the allies, but didn't break their resolve.

I don't /think/ we'll see that here, if only because driving out a bunch of Berbers won't really make the world take notice. However, we might see a war on the Berbers for other reasons: uniting the loyalists by hammering an unpopular minority, driving them out and taking their stuff. Burdening Tunisia with fifty or a hundred thousand so refugees would be just gravy; Tunis and Tripoli aren't exactly BFFing at the moment.

The Berbers live in some extremely rough terrain that should be ideal guerrilla country. (That area saw some fighting in the Italo-Sanussi wars, though the center of the conflict was over in Cyrenaica.) Other hand, AFAIK they're starting from zero with no weapons at all. The border post is apparently a small one that's down the back of beyond.

Doug M.

re: tactics change. That would make sense. It would make it incredibly difficult to tell the two sides apart. It would take something like distributing the IR flashers they did during Gulf War (I?) on the allied tanks to distinguish them. It'd not be a perfect solution but one that would allow some headway to be made.

re: equipment. Well, the A-10 is going on 40 (!) years old. The AC-130 has seriously evolved in that time frame as well, but the basic model, iirc, is that old as well. Did the Euros just believe that their adventuring days were over? Or have they simply become that dependent on the US? I remember people making comments during the Kosovo War about that. Has it really come to pass? Are the Euros really in that position now?

re: expectations. I suspect that this partially shaped by the initial offensive in Afghanistan. Or at least its perception.

Will: to give the Europeans their due, the problem is the lack of ground bases. The French, for example, have no shortage of helicopters, which they used in Cote D'Ivoire. Ditto, they had communication with organized rebel forces. So it wasn't an unreasonable capacity to skimp on.

So...why are they not dropping Tigers on Mistrals then? They have at least 20 that are not in Afghanistan.

Or the Brits have their own variant on the Apache. They have 67 (!?) and the Ocean amphib ship.

Only 20...a total of 80 to be built for the French. o.O

The US has over 700 Apaches and IDK the number of Kiowas in the inventory. Army family bias showing there, we have Cobras, too: 167. The USMC, *censored* jarheads, have more modern attack helicopters than the Brits and French combined.

I see NATO is stepping up its attacks now, picking on a wider range of targets. Might work, but probably not -- if Qaddafi's nerve hasn't broken yet, I doubt it will now.

That said, it's suggestive; nobody wants this thing to drag on for years. Nobody wants boots on the ground either, but there are still a few rungs on the ladder between here and there.

Anyway, I'm thinking a prolonged civil war lasting over a year is looking less likely now. Steady NATO bombardment is hard on a country -- saw that in Serbia -- and plays all kinds of hell with 4C and logistics. The missing piece is still rebel offensive capability, but I'm sure there's a lot of effort going into that as we speak.

That said, it's still going to go on for a while.

Doug M.

This is probably a good time to put a prediction down: more than a month, less than a year.

The only game changer I see on the horizon is the idiotic border incursion into Tunisia. I don't think even Qaddafi is dumb enough to double down, though -- I would expect a hasty withdrawal today or tomorrow.

Doug M.


"enabled European countries to shortchange spending on their own weapons systems while preserving generous social welfare programs"


-- Yeah, the operations are exposing various shortcomings. But that always happens. It happened in 1999 over Kosovo, same-same.

I'd like to read an informed European perspective on this. The ones I've seen so far have been American, and they've all had that same subtext of "Euro = freeloader and/or incompetent". Well, in some it's not actually subtext -- it's text. But anyway.

Doug M.

Breaking that down a little: Britain and France both have been spending 2.5% to 2.7% of GDP on defense for a while now. That's low compared to the American ~4.7%, but it's not chump change. And in terms of absolute expenditure, France and the UK are the #3 and #4 in the world, after the US -- of course -- and the PRC.

So I'm instantly skeptical of articles that try to make the problems in Libya part of a broader narrative of European cheapness, weakness, incompetence, or treacherous exploitation of American sacrifice. These are the world's third and fourth largest military machines. We're not talking about Belgium or Bulgaria here.

Yes, there are problems. But they're not because France isn't spending enough money on defense. France is spending sixty-odd billion dollars a year on defense. If France is short of precision munitions just now, it's probably not because they're not spending enough money. More likely, they're falling short because of specific spending, procurement, logistical or deployment decisions that they've made. Decisions that probably seemed reasonable at the time, but are now coming back to bite them on the ass. Which is unfortunate, but is also the kind of thing that happens in a war.

In all seriousness, I've seen like six articles in the last week or two that have followed the same Underpants Gnome logic. Non-American NATO forces in Libya are having problems, which is of course because [insert bad thing about Europe here]. And they've all been written by Americans.

I haven't seen a single one saying "France is short of precision munitions because they switched contractors last year, and the new guys are having production line issues." Or "France decided to dramatically cut procurement of these systems because it didn't fit their five-year strategic vision plan for 2010-15, which didn't envision this kind of campaign." Or "France has enough precision munitions, but honestly? Libya's not actually that high a priority right now -- the bombing is kinda half-hearted, because France thinks Qaddafi is going to cave soon anyway." Or even "France has plenty of precision munitions, but they're all with forces that got deployed to French Guyana last year as part of a diplomatic-strategic initiative to play carrot-and-stick with Hugo Chavez; they're on a boat now and will arrive next week."

No, it's France lacks precision munitions because /they spend too much money on day care/.

-- Okay, touched a nerve. But it's really striking how much of this goes on, and how utterly unquestioned it is.

Doug M.

What Doug said. It's very annoying.


So here they go. They /are/ putting the attack helis on the assault ships now. I'm not sure how much 6 Apaches and an unknown number of Tigres will help, but...


The number of Tigers is up to 12. The French are saying 12 helicopters and that may include other types (light attack, etc) on the Tounerre (sp).

Oh, the correlation of forces is still moving. See Medvedev's comment today. When you've lost the Russians, you are one lonely dictator.

In other news, the WHO reports that an average of 12 people per day have been killed in Misurata, and about 70 wounded. So, say 750 killed and 4000+ wounded since the NATO intervention. Sooner, better.

Doug M.

Bunch of former British SAS guys, now private mercs, are in Misurata doing "training". Paid for, the British government is unofficially claiming, by Qatar.

This is actually one of the rare times I can nod along with the use of mercs. Very rare.

-- Anyway. Here's something that nobody seems to be talking about: assuming that Qaddafi leaves the picture, either by fleeing or from an internal coup, what next? Who "wins" the war?

The Bengazi-based National Transitional Council claims to be the rightful government, and is gaining international recognition by the day. But its appeal is tribal and regional, and its legitimacy has been sharply limited by its lack of military effectiveness. If Qaddafi flees the country tomorrow, the folks in Tripoli will not just roll over and recognize the NTC as their rightful masters. So, unless the war ends with rebel columns rolling into Tripoli -- which I think we can agree is unlikely -- there'll have to be some kind of national reconciliation council. If the Berbers have not been crushed by then, they'll complicate matters further by showing up and demanding autonomy -- something no Libyan government is likely to be enthusiastic about.

Doug M.

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