FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Good intentions not enough to defeat Gaddafi
, April 2, 2011
It is a well-understood principle of military action that clearly defined and achievable objectives are necessary to win a war. The American defeat in South Vietnam, and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, were a consequence of the failure to develop a coherent military strategy and then pursue it.
The attacks on Colonel Gaddafi’s military forces in Libya risk failure for the same reason: there is confusion over what the Allied military action is to achieve, and existing divisions — within the Allied forces as well as the Arab world — will be exacerbated as the war goes on.
The background to the imposition of a “no-fly zone” along Libya’s Mediterranean coast followed the successes of Gaddafi’s military forces in routing a rebellion, centred on Benghazi, aimed at deposing Gaddafi.
The rebellion was itself a product of the popular uprisings which have swept the Middle East since last December, leading to the overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, where autocratic leaders have been forced to resign.
When opponents of Gaddafi rallied in opposition to their despotic leader, a number of Gaddafi’s government ministers defected to the opposition, and called on the Libyan President to resign.
At the same time, military leaders in the east of the country also joined the opposition and an interim government was formed in Benghazi which promised to revise the constitution, which centred all power in Gaddafi’s hands, and to hold free elections.
Several cities in eastern Libya defected to the opposition, and France formally recognised the interim government.
However, Gaddafi’s military forces rallied and launched counter-attacks which, within days, overwhelmed the untrained militia which had been formed by the opposition. Confronted by Libyan Air Force fighter-jets, the opposition was driven back towards Benghazi, and it seemed only a matter of time until Gaddafi seized the main opposition base.
Gaddafi promised bloody retribution against those who had taken up arms against him.
After days of anguished hand-wringing, the United States and its NATO allies secured the backing of the Arab League — which has been repeatedly insulted by Gaddafi — and the UN Security Council for the establishment of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s air strikes.
On the basis of these decisions, massive air power was unleashed against Libyan military and political targets. On the first night, over 110 US cruise missiles slammed into targets in and around the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and they were followed up by bombing raids conducted by the British, French and Italian air forces.
Immediately, protests came from some Arab leaders, and from some Democrats in the US Congress. Even the political and military leaders of the United States and Great Britain were divided.
While President Obama called for regime change and British Defence Secretary Liam Fox declared that Gaddafi was a “legitimate target”, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that “the focus of the UN Security Council was really Benghazi specifically and to protect the civilians”.
Similarly, when asked whether the Allied military options including killing Gaddafi, the chief of Britain’s defence staff said, “Absolutely not.”
A military plan with such uncertain objectives is unlikely to achieve anything other than a continuation of a war on the ground between Gaddafi, well entrenched around Tripoli, and the opposition, entrenched around Benghazi, for the territory in between.
In the meantime, the popular uprisings in the Arab world could lead to the overthrow of the pro-Western President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has run the country for 21 years.
After weeks of protest, several senior military leaders, with their units, have defected to what is called the “youth opposition”, and have demanded the resignation of the President.
However, the embattled President has refused to step down and, in a defiant television address to the nation, warned of a protracted and bloody civil war.
The wave of defections has left President Saleh reliant on a dwindling band of military forces still loyal to him, including elite Republican Guard units under the command of members of his family.
Those units have positioned tanks around the presidential palace and along the capital city’s main highway to protect the President from any potential rebel strikes. Other loyalist Republican Guard forces are stationed directly outside the city.
Many prominent tribal leaders across northern Yemen, including from President Saleh’s own clan, have pledged their support for the revolution and have demanded that the President resign from power.
Yemen, strategically placed south of Saudi Arabia, and with sea coasts on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, has faced simmering insurgency for years.
If Saleh is overthrown civil wars could erupt in both north and south. The Saudis would be rattled and possibly intervene militarily. Iran would almost surely exploit the chaos and the US would be dealt a major setback in containing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yet the US and its NATO allies are utterly powerless to intervene.