Monday, March 7, 2011

Libyan Intervention

As the violence in Libya worsens, the pressure for the West, particularly the United States, to do something to stop the bloodshed and oust Qaddafi intensifies. It is very natural for those of us who side with the people in the face of brutal repression to be desirous of action. Yet any sort of direct action by the United States may work to deny the U.S. of the greatest potential dividend that the Arab Spring presents: an inflection point for perception of the United States in the Middle East.

As Sec. Gates rightly noted last week, even a No-Fly Zone—the most commonly addressed potential direct military response to the situation in Libya—begins with an attack. Any attack or prolonged exposure of U.S. forces to hostile forces will result in exchanges of fire and U.S. soldiers discharging their weapons. And despite the rigorous training of those forces, the best intentions of their commanders, and strict rules of engagement, mistakes will be made. These mistakes will inevitably lead to the deaths of Libyan civilians. Rightly or wrongly, those deaths will be blamed on the United States and they will serve as yet another example of Arab Muslims dying at the hands of American weapons, if not Americans themselves.

Moreover, a No-Fly Zone is of dubious utility. While the Qaddafi regime has resorted to the use of helicopters and aircraft to attack rebel positions, the reporting indicates a sporadic—if deadly—use of these assets. More harmful to the Libyan rebels are the use of tanks, artillery, and heavy weapons accompanying government ground forces as they attempt to retake rebel controlled cities. Furthermore, March and April are the annual peaks in the sandstorm cycle in North Africa, imposing a de facto No-Fly Zone for one out of every three days.

Alternatively, Robert Haddick at FP suggests that the United States return to Jawbreaker—its 2001 plan for intervention in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. Jawbreaker relied on Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries to make contact with Northern Alliance fighters and coordinate attacks and air support, as well as providing communications and logistical support. In fact, this idea—or a similar idea—of using special forces as a force multiplier for the Libyan rebels may explain the curious British “diplomatic” mission to Libya last week.

Haddick may be onto something but Afghanistan serves as a poor direct analogy to the situation in Libya. Haddick seems ignorant of the fact that, while losing its war against the Taliban prior to U.S. intervention, the Northern Alliance was battle hardened. The Northern Alliance had been fighting the Taliban continuously for nearly a decade and was born from the veterans of the anti-Soviet war. In contrast, the rebels in Libya—though augmented by Libyan army defectors—are enthusiastic but untested and untrained novices. This is not to suggest that coordinated air support, logistical support, and training would not be helpful to the Libyan rebels in their quest to unseat Qaddafi. Though helpful, a Jawbreaker-like plan would not necessarily—nor even likely—deliver the quick results seen in Afghanistan in October–November 2001. It is not a panacea.

Ultimately, the ability of the United States to extract foreign policy dividends from the Arab Spring turns on its ability to provide both rhetorical and concrete support to the forces of democracy without being seen as responsible for the deaths of Arabs. The United States has, to this point, managed the Arab Spring fairly well despite the vigorous criticism leveled against the Obama administration. Revolutions are unpredictable and, when they occur within our allies, cause policymakers substantial consternation. It would be a terrible shame to forsake what dividends we have thus far earned by being goaded into taking unreasonable action under force of arms. Better to quietly—and maybe through intermediaries—supply Libyan rebels with arms and some intelligence support, and allow them to fight their own revolution (see Afghanistan, 1979-89), than to become engaged against the regime directly.

UPDATE: Robert Fisk reports in the Independent today that the United States is tentatively pursuing an approach like that of its intervention in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet War, feeling out the Saudis to be an intermediary supplier of arms.

1 comment:

Colin said...

You may find this of interest: