by Gary Farber
What is to be done?
'You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,' he told the president. 'You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all.' Privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.
Does anyone want to buy Libya, and own it for the next decade?
That's what's on order.
That, or negotiating a way out of this thing.
The Libyan rebels are a mess. April 3rd:
[...] The rebel army’s nominal leader, Abdul Fattah Younes, a former interior minister and friend of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi whom many rebel leaders distrusted, could offer little explanation for the recent military stumbles, two people with knowledge of the meetings said.
Making matters worse, the men could hardly stand one another. They included Khalifa Heftar, a former general who returned recently from exile in the United States and appointed himself as the rebel field commander, the movement’s leaders said, and Omar el-Hariri, a former political prisoner who occupied the largely ceremonial role of defense minister.
“They behaved like children,” said Fathi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel political committee.
Little was accomplished in the meetings, the participants said. When they concluded late last week, Mr. Younes was still the head of the army and Mr. Hariri remained as the defense minister. Only Mr. Heftar, who reportedly refused to work with Mr. Younes, was forced out. On Sunday, though, in a sign that divisions persisted, Mr. Heftar’s son said his father was still an army leader. [....]
On March 29th, Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney told the press gaggle on AF1 that, in essence, he didn't know who the hell these people are, but let's hope for the best:
[...] Q One of NATO’s military leaders testified on the Hill today that there had been signs of al Qaeda seen amongst Libyan rebels. How does that affect the White House thinking on engaging with them?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I would say is that, as you know, we spend a lot of time looking at the opposition and now meeting with opposition leaders. And the folks who are in London, the people that -- and the leader that Secretary Clinton met in Paris, have made clear what their principles are and we believe that they’re meritorious -- their principles. I think they had a statement today that had some very good language in it that we support.
But that doesn’t mean, obviously, that everyone who opposes Moammar Qaddafi I Libya is someone whose ideals we can support. But beyond that, I don't have any detail about individual members of the opposition.
Q Does it concern you about how much you don't know about the opposition?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what I would say is that we have met with opposition leaders and we're working with them, but as the President said, and as the opposition leaders who put out a statement today said, it’s up to them to decide who their leaders are going to be.
But we do know something of who they are right now, as Jason Packer explains:
If you let strangers know that you research Libya for a living, there seems to be only one question on their minds: "Who are the Libyan rebels?" I've been asked it at cocktail parties, on ski lifts, at academic seminars, and even by Western journalists in Benghazi who have developed the flattering habit of Skype-ing me at odd hours. Americans seem captivated by this question, perhaps because they have heard senior U.S. officials from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to various Republican congressmen proclaim that they do not yet know enough about who the rebels are. I do not take such statements at face value. U.S. statesmen know quite well who the rebels are -- but pretend otherwise to obscure the fact that the United States has yet to formulate a comprehensive policy toward them.
The rebels consist of two distinct groups: the fighters and the political leadership.
First, the fighters. [...]These fighters are a ragtag bunch of men of all ages and degrees of military training riding pickup trucks around the eastern coastal desert. You have probably seen pictures of them triumphantly showing the "V"-for-victory hand signal as they move westward and fleeing in unorganized columns when they retreat eastward. What you may not have realized (unless you too get woken up by those random Skype calls from Ajdabiya) is that the vast majority of these fighters have never actually arrived at the front and are not contributing to the rebels' effective fighting strength. Such organization as there is tends to be on the unit level only, and this does not facilitate the formation of an effective line of battle.
The units with the highest degree of organization are former Libyan army battalions that were stationed in eastern Libya, also known as Cyrenaica. These units, including those led by former Interior Minister Abdul Fattah Younis al-Abidi, defected en masse in mid-February, retaining their organizational structure. Bizarrely, these units are largely absent from the current fighting. It is unclear why.
I don't think so. It's likely because they don't want to be slaughtered. Which tends to happen if you join "units" like these: C. J. "Chris" Chivers, April 6th, Libyan Rebels Don’t Really Add Up to an Army :
BENGHAZI, Libya — Late Monday afternoon, as Libyan rebels prepared another desperate attack on the eastern oil town of Brega, a young rebel raised his rocket-propelled grenade as if to fire. The town’s university, shimmering in the distance, was far beyond his weapon’s maximum range. An older rebel urged him to hold fire, telling him the weapon’s back-blast could do little more than reveal their position and draw a mortar attack.
The younger rebel almost spat with disgust. “I have been fighting for 37 days!” he shouted. “Nobody can tell me what to do!”
The outburst midfight — and the ensuing argument between a determined young man who seemed to have almost no understanding of modern war and an older man who wisely counseled caution — underscored a fact that is self-evident almost everywhere on Libya’s eastern front. The rebel military, as it sometimes called, is not really a military at all.
What is visible in battle here is less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising.
With throaty cries and weapons they have looted and scrounged, the rebels gather along Libya’s main coastal highway each day, ready to fight. Many of them are brave, even extraordinarily so. Some of them are selfless, swept along by a sense of common purpose and brotherhood that accompanies their revolution.
“Freedom!” they shout, as they pair a yearning to unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi with appeals for divine help. “God is great!”
But by almost all measures by which a military might be assessed, they are a hapless bunch. They have almost no communication equipment. There is no visible officer or noncommissioned officer corps. Their weapons are a mishmash of hastily acquired arms, which few of them know how to use.
With only weeks of fighting experience, they lack an understanding of the fundamentals of offensive and defensive combat, or how to organize fire support. They fire recklessly and sometimes accidentally. Most of them have yet to learn how to hold seized ground, or to protect themselves from their battlefield’s persistent rocket and mortar fire, which might be done by simply digging in.
Prone to panic, they often answer to little more than their mood, which changes in a flash. When their morale spikes upward, their attacks tend to be painfully and bloodily frontal — little more than racing columns down the highway, through a gantlet of the Qaddafi forces’ rocket and mortar fire, face forward into the loyalists’ machine guns.
And their numbers are small. Officials in the rebels’ transitional government have provided many different figures, sometimes saying 10,000 or men are under arms in their ranks.
But a small fraction actually appear at the front each day — often only a few hundred. And some of the men appear without guns, or with aged guns that have no magazines or ammunition.
Join these brave but untrained souls, see Benghazi, and die.
Instead, Libya’s rebels have entered the grim work of waging war almost spontaneously, and would need time, training, equipment and leadership to develop into even a reasonably competent force.
For now, their ranks have three elements: a so-called “special forces” detachment of former soldiers and police officers; a main column organized into self-led cells of fighters built around a few weapons and pickup trucks; and a sort of home guard that is undergoing quick training to man checkpoints and serve as a civil defense force.
There is also the “shabab,” milling groups of youngsters who arrive at the front each day hoping to pitch in, but with scant idea of how. Officially, the shabab are not part of the fight.
The rebels insist the size of the special forces detachment is large, but on the battlefield it feels anything but. Colonel Ahmed Bani, the military’s top spokesman, suggested that some of these soldiers are being held back for now.
“Our army, the professionals, are still waiting for armaments,” he said. “Only some of them are at the front lines supporting the young men.”
The largest visible body of rebels each day consists of groups of self-led fighters in cars and pickup trucks, who move up and down the highway to Brega, where the Qaddafi forces have plugged the road to Tripoli and taken custody of essential oil infrastructure — a key to the economic fortune of any Libyan government.
These men are a Libyan melting pot, a cross-section of professions and backgrounds. Businessmen and engineers fight beside students and laborers.
A few are Libyans from abroad who hurried home in February or March, answering an urge to topple Qaddafi and remake Libya on less autocratic lines.
They lack structure and they know it. Each contingent fights largely according to its own whim. Sometimes no one knows who is in charge.
“We are without command,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, 32, who said he had served as a sergeant in the Libyan army. “Too many without command. And this is the problem.”
His fighting cell consisted of six men, two pickup trucks, a rebel flag, a heavy machine gun, a few Kalashnikov rifles, a Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle and a surface-to-air missile. The six men — excepting two who are related — had not known each other before the uprising began.
Now they lived in the desert, roaming a single road, dodging mortar and rocket fire. Their truck beds contained blankets, a tarp, ammunition, bottled water and ammunition crates packed with fresh vegetables and canned food.
The third group is made up of more recent volunteers, who turn up each morning for training at a military base at the edge of Benghazi.
Mindful that the rebels lack weapons and trainers, and that sending them into battle against Colonel Qaddafi’s conventional military will get too many of them killed, the rebels’ military leadership is training them for the more limited duties of civil defense.
They are brave. They are men who give their lives like Mahdi Ziu, a "paunchy man, sedentary and diabetic, with thinning hair and glasses and a resigned expression" who "worked as a middle manager at the Arabian Gulf Oil Company," who blew himself up to breach the Katibah (read the whole thing):
On Sunday morning, with the sound of gunfire in the background, Ziu slipped a last will and testament under the door of a friend. He then returned to his apartment and asked the neighbors to help him load a number of full gas canisters into his black Kia sedan, parked just outside the house. They asked why, and he told them the canisters were leaking; he needed to get them fixed. His brother, Salem Ziu, told me that he thinks Mahdi used a small patch of TNT, the kind Libyans use to kill fish, as a detonator. No one really knows.
What is certain is that about 1:30 p.m., Ziu drove his car until it was facing the Katiba’s main gate, near the police station where the first protests began five days earlier. The area in front of him was clear, a killing zone abandoned by all but the most reckless. Rebels fired from the shelter of rooftops and doorways, and snipers at the Katiba fired occasional shots down on the figures darting in the streets. Ziu put his foot down on the accelerator. The guards opened fire, but too late. The speeding car struck the gate and exploded, sending up a fireball that was captured on a cellphone video by a protester a few hundred yards away. The blast blew a hole in the wall, killing a number of guards and sending the rest retreating into the Katiba. Within hours, it would fall to the protesters.
The remains of Ziu’s charred and crumpled car now lie by the open gate of the Katiba. Above and around it are tributes to him in looping spray-painted letters: “Mahdi the Hero.” “Mahdi, who liberated the Katiba.”
Stronghold fall, weapons, APCs, tanks and arms are captured, men die, women are raped. This is war.
The rebels are in disarray at best. Chris Chivers:
If ever there was an indicator of a rebel force in disarray, it was this: a lone Libyan rebel in uniform on the highway leading away from the battlefield, unarmed, almost dazed, separated from his unit, trying to hitch a ride.
His name was Abdullah Insaiti, and until Feb. 17, when the uprising in Libya began, he had been a sergeant in the Libyan Army. A career soldier, now 33, he had served almost 13 years as an infantryman, specializing in antitank rockets and heavy machine guns. In February, he and the rest of his unit defected from their base in Benghazi and joined the rebels.
The campaign had its dizzying highs and terrifying lows. And now, this afternoon, he appeared on the highway, staggering home.
His unit, he said, had been scattered under fire in the fighting in recent weeks. He said he believed that eight of his friends had died, but offered that the number was probably much higher than that. Some, he said, had been blown apart in the shelling they had been subjected to out in the desert, where the forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi have been pounding the rebels with all manner of fire.
Asked if he knew where his unit was now, Mr. Insaiti gave a perplexed shrug. From inside his olive-drab coat he produced the two-way, hand-held radio he had once used to communicate with his fellow fighters. Its battery was long dead.
“I don’t know anything more about them,” he said of his friends. [....]
Meanwhile NATO is accidentally bombing the rebels. Sh*t happens.
[...] On Thursday, General Younes said he could not understand how NATO could continue to confuse the rebels and the loyalist forces, particularly in this latest mix-up. “It is not possible to make a mistake with 20 tanks advancing on a large patch of desert land,” he said. “We hope that such a mistake will not be repeated.”
On Thursday, General Younes said he had repeatedly warned NATO about the deployment of tanks to the front lines. “We informed them at the time the tanks were leaving Benghazi, and when they arrived at Ajdabiya,” he said. “We informed them that in the early morning they would be advancing on Brega. We gave them all the information concerning their number, and that they would be carried on tank transports, and their direction.”
How is this working out for the rebels? Not so well.
Despite General Younes’s contention that his fighters had recovered from the NATO attack and regained ground, a rebel-held checkpoint on the western edge of Ajdabiya was shelled by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces around 2:45 p.m. on Friday, suggesting they were still within striking distance of the city.
A small contingent of rebels gathered at a checkpoint there on Friday, passing the hours peering nervously westward in anticipation of another advance by pro-Qaddafi forces. The rebels were an ill-disciplined sight, sometimes firing long bursts of machine-gun fire high in the air, and at one point devolving into a long rebel-on-rebel shoving-and-shouting match.
The immediate question was no longer whether the Forces of Free Libya, as they are called, would be able to retake the oil town of Brega, from which they were ousted this week. It was whether they could hold on to Ajdabiya, which is the next city to the northeast and sits at the strategic junction of the major roads to the north, to Benghazi, and the east, to Tobruk and the Egyptian border.
By morning, pro-Qaddafi forces had moved close enough to Ajdabiya to ambush vehicles on the road less than five miles from the western checkpoint. And by midafternoon, the checkpoint was subjected to enemy fire, either artillery or rockets.
The contingent of rebels and milling civilians there, perhaps 200 people in all, fled en masse when a barrage of at least six high-explosive rounds burst beside them. As the smoke and dust rose, the rebels ran, many climbing into other people’s cars and trucks as they sped past.
Within minutes, the checkpoint was abandoned. The entrance to the city was unguarded.
Since the Qaddafi forces withdrew from the city last month under NATO air pressure, the rebels have controlled the city’s entrance. But they have yet to fortify the position in any way, or to move communications equipment to it, or to dig trenches for their ever accumulating waste, or to provide it and its environs with any sense of order.
And by late Friday afternoon, at least for a short time, they had abandoned it outright.
Whether the loyalists want to recapture Ajdabiya or have been creating a buffer between rebel-held territory and the oil infrastructure at Brega and Ras Lanuf was not known. But there seemed to be no armed rebel presence between the pro-Qaddafi vanguard and Ajdabiya, a city largely deserted by its population and available for the taking from the jittery rebels. [....]
Not so well at all.
What's the latest genius idea of the rebels? Earlier from that story of the 8th, and many other reports:
[...] Rebels in the hotly contested area between Brega and Ajdabiya in eastern Libya said that henceforth they would paint the tops of their vehicles pink to help avoid future friendly fire accidents.
Because, you know, in Libya, the government can't get pink paint.
As the conflict has evolved, however, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have proved adept at mixing in with civilian populations and mimicking the rebels’ vehicles, to sow confusion and deter allied airstrikes.
They adapt: Changing Libyan Tactics Pose Problems for NATO.
[...] But American intelligence reports from Libya say that the Qaddafi forces are now hiding their troops and weaponry among urban populations and traveling in pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s rather than military vehicles, making them extremely difficult targets.
Back to Steven Erlanger at the Times:
“The military capabilities available to Qaddafi remain quite substantial,” said a senior Pentagon official who watches Libya. “What this shows is that you cannot guarantee tipping the balance of ground operations only with bombs and missiles from the air.”
NATO officials, who just took over responsibility for the air campaign from the United States, deny that their bureaucracy is somehow limiting the campaign. “No country is vetoing this target or that one; it’s not like Kosovo,” where in 1999 some countries objected to certain bombing targets, said a senior NATO official, asking anonymity in accordance with diplomatic practice.
“The military command is doing what it wants to do,” he said.
“NATO is not the problem,” the senior NATO official said. “The Qaddafi forces have learned and have adapted. They’re using human shields, so it’s difficult to attack them from the air.” While many Western officials have accused the Qaddafi forces of using human shields, they have yet to produce explicit evidence. But they generally mean that the troops take shelter, with their armor, in civilian areas.
The harder question is how NATO will respond to the changed tactics of the Qaddafi forces, which now seem to have achieved a stalemate against the combination of Western air power and the ragtag opposition army.
What is to be done?
[...]The United States has had C.I.A. agents on the ground with the rebels in eastern Libya for some time, and there are unconfirmed reports that they may be helping to train the rebel army’s raw recruits. Even so, forming a real army that can oust Colonel Qaddafi may take many months, and the coalition is unlikely to be that patient.
That is one reason that allied governments, including the United States and Britain, are urging defections from the Qaddafi circle and hoping that he will be removed from inside. No official, of course, is willing to talk about any covert mission to remove the colonel, except to say that “regime change” is not authorized by the United Nations.
And that is why Britain, Turkey and the United States are all exploring the possibilities of a negotiated solution to the conflict, provided Colonel Qaddafi and his sons relinquish power.
François Heisbourg, a military policy expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said, “Given where we are, any deal that removes Colonel Qaddafi from the scene is a deal we should take.”
As for the current air war, NATO is especially sensitive to the criticism that came most scathingly from the leader of the Libyan opposition forces, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes. He said in Benghazi late Tuesday that “NATO blesses us every now and then with a bombardment here and there, and is letting the people of Misurata die every day.”
We need to stop the blessings.
This is a civil war. It is, for now, a stalemate.
What are the options? I'll explain in my next post, Part II.