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Musa Keilani: War with little clarity
March 27, 2011
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The US and its allies appear to have contained the ability of forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi to strike at will against pro-democracy activists who want end to Qadhafi’s 41-year-old rule of the country. The allied forces’ airstrikes and missiles have thwarted Qadhafi’s efforts against his opponents, at least for now. The coalition targets the Libyan military’s mechanised forces, mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lines of communications.

No doubt, the allied force, which is supported by the most advanced weapons, surveillance and communication equipment and relevant military gear would be able to cripple Libya in a few more days to the point that Qadhafi and his commanders might not be even able to communicate with each other and their forces in order to direct them. They would be like a giant but blind and deaf man groping for directions. That is how the US dealt with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 war over Kuwait and again in the 2003 war that ousted the Iraqi strongman.

However, it remains unclear how exactly the loose US-led coalition, which is expected to hand over the Libya operations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), intends to bring about a regime change in Libya without which there would be no end to the conflict. There is no provision in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which was adopted this month, that authorises ousting the Qadhafi regime. In strict technicality, it only provides for a no-fly zone and related measures to protect the people of Libya from attacks by pro-Qadhafi forces.

Of course that does not prevent any country from undertaking covert operations that would help the rebels from advancing against Qadhafi’s forces and probably even overrunning areas held by the regime’s military and mercenaries as well as tribal fighters who were recently armed by Qadhafi as yet another layer of protection for himself.

The strategy here is to supply the anti-Qadhafi forces with weapons and logistical support without appearing to do so. For all we know, some of the European countries might already be doing so. We do not know as of now what to make out of reports that Qadhafi’s associates have been reaching out to their contacts worldwide to see how they can get out of the crisis.

According to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,“people close to him (Qadhafi) are reaching out to people that they know around the world — Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond — saying what do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?”

A reading of Qadhafi’s record and behaviour would indicate that he would not surrender or give up power. He would consider that option as the “final humiliation and loss of face,” and is unlikely to end up alive in enemy hands. US President Barack Obama, who is facing internal dissent against engaging his country in the Libyan crisis, has limited options. And this could have a serious impact on the allies’ approach to an exit strategy from Libya. However, the US handing over charge to the Nato should bring down the pressure on Obama, who is now left with explaining how to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars required for maintaining the no-fly zone and the missiles required to silence Libyan air defences.

Given what we know of the situation on the ground in Libya, overpowering Qadhafi’s forces would not be easy. Qadhafi’s soldiers are professionally trained and they could be described as capable of fighting off and eliminating any armed challenge to his regime. Many of them could be expected to fight to finish because their survival depends on Qadhafi’s survival in power. They are blind to all other considerations, including that the regime is slowly collapsing and that they are opening fire at their compatriots seeking to oust a tyrannical leader who has shown every sign that he would stop at nothing to ensure his survival. But their wings have been clipped with the effective enforcement of the no-fly zone since their war strategy is centrally anchored on air support.

What is in the cards for Libya under the present conditions is an open-ended war with little clearly spelt out in terms of its objective. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has said much. Referring to Resolution 1973, Gates has said that the war is “not time-limited” and that it would not be reasonable to set a timeline for it to end. 

Well, unless the UN Security Council takes another decision authorising a war to topple Qadhafi, Gates’ assertion will remain true. However, such a decision would appear to be impossible, given the Russian and Chinese objections to such a course. As it is, Moscow and Beijing, despite having gone along with the US over Resolution 1973, are bitter critics of the ongoing air war against Libya. It is highly unlikely that they would not veto any Security Council move to expand the war (unless of course the US and allies convince them otherwise through some horse-trading).

In the meantime, there is no internationally defined goal in Libya and there is no policy except launching massive air strikes across Libya. Gates has said the war will take more than weeks, but we have to take it a heavy pinch of salt, given that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not supposed to have lasted more than a few months but now are in their 10th and eighth years respectively.

France and Britain appear eager to go beyond the conventional purview of Resolution 1973 and do not rule out sending in ground troops to help the anti-Qadhafi fighters. They seem to believe that they could do so based on the argument that such intervention is absolutely necessary to protect the civilian population of Libya from the wrath of the Qadhafi regime. Well, they might be able to get away with it, given that the US would not have anything against it.

Any external military intervention will have to start from the eastern strongholds of the rebels and such a move could easily end up in a stalemate where the country could be split along the lines of the provincial Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitana in the west.

What would happen thereafter is anyone’s guess, with Qadhafi entrenched in power in Tripoli and employing everything at his disposal to fight off all challenges. In the east, the different anti-Qadhafi groups could find it difficult to come to terms with each other once the immediate dust settles. However, an optimistic sign is the formation of an interim administration based in eastern Benghazi and Western support for it in the form of funding from the frozen assets of the Qadhafi regime.

Well, for the time being, it appears that the immediate goal of protecting the dissidents of Libya from the regime’s wrath seems to have been achieved. However, the US and its allies need to work hard and with immediate effort on figuring out how to take it from here even as the Qadhafi regime will be working intensely to dig its heels in Tripoli and its environs.

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