Rebel Reverses in Libya

11 March 2011


Map of Libya

Zawiya, Bin Jawad, and Ras Lanuf have now fallen to Gadhafi’s loyalist forces. However, the circumstances under which they fell to Gadhafi are telling. Look on a map and you will see that Zawiya is about 30 miles from Tripoli. That means that, if the roads are good, it would take about a half hour to drive from Tripoli to Zawiya. Tripoli would have the best of Gadhafi’s forces, and the best of Gadhafi’s forces took almost a week to take control of what is essentially a suburb of Tripoli. This is significant both for understanding the power of the government forces and the potential of the rebel forces.

The rebels, without training, organization, or unity of command, held out for almost a week against presumably the best that Gadhafi’s forces had to dish out — forces with training, organization, and unity of command. While there is already talk of an assault of Benghazi, talk is cheap. Action is expensive, difficult, and invites reaction.

The US administration’s top intelligence adviser James Clapper has predicted that government forces in Libya will win, but I find myself in agreement with the analysis of Dirk Vandewalle in Foreign Policy, who argues in How Not to Intervene in Libya that the victory of the rebels is likely over time. I also find myself in agreement with Mr. Vandewalle’s cautions. There are so many subtle and covert ways that other nation-states can assist the rebels, assuming that they are not seduced by Libya’s oil and oil money, that there is no good reason to undertake controversial and likely counter-productive measures.

Many have suggested funneling advanced small arms to the rebels. This is obvious. There are other less obvious measures. There was an excellent article in yesterday’s Financial Times, Let’s boycott, isolate and sabotage Gaddafi, about media and intelligence measures that the Western powers can undertake in support of the rebels. I am sure that there are many more creative and intelligent ways to assist the rebels without unnecessarily committing conventional military resources of the kind that inevitably invite an angry reaction.

We have heard the phrase “smart sanctions” in the past; now it is time to to create a regime of smart intervention. If there is any lesson that the geopolitics of the twentieth century have to teach to the twenty-first century, it is the power of national liberation movements when covertly assisted by outside powers. Libya is now a national liberation insurgency; Gadhafi is now in the business of counter-insurgency, and those who would unseat and eject Gadhafi ought to see themselves in the business of facilitating an insurgency. Being on the side that possesses popular legitimacy has its advantages.

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