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Damned if you do and Damned if you Don’t: The Allied Intervention in Libya

Libyan Rebels gather around a destroyed T-72 outside Benghazi

War is the unfolding of miscalculations.
Barbara Tuchman

Back on the 9th of March I wrote this closing line to an article entitled The Guns of March where I discussed the developing situation in Libya and the really terrible options that world and regional leaders had in response to Muammar Gaddafi’s criminal actions against his own people. I concluded that article with this statement.

There are many possibilities for the situation in Libya to get worse and potentially engulf the region in a war that no one wants or really is prepared for.

We can only see what develops but there are no good options only options of bad or worse. Will the region like Europe in 1914 be engulfed in war where there are no winners or will somehow the situation be resolved before it can get that far?”

It is obvious to all that the region stands a very good chance of becoming engulfed in a regional war unless the rebels drive Gaddafi from power, Gaddafi steps down on his own or he is killed or captured. Gaddafi has promised a “long war” against the “colonial and crusader” enemy.

Gaddafi Defiant

In the days since I wrote the referenced article the Arab League spoke up in support of establishing a no-fly zone and the United Nations Security Council voted for member nations to enforce a no-fly zone and take “all necessary measures” in order to stop Gaddafi’s forces attacks on other Libyans. By the time the Security Council acted Gaddafi’s forces had retaken many rebel held cities inflicting great slaughter on civilians and were on the outskirts of the rebel capital Benghazi with Gaddafi threatening to send his forces “house to house” to kill the opposition and promising to show no mercy.  Within a day French and British aircraft were flying missions and striking the spearhead of Gaddafi’s forces outside of Benghazi and United States Navy ships were launching Tomahawk Cruise Missiles at the Libyan air defense system. They were joined by aircraft from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force as well as Canada, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Qatar.  Gaddafi’s forces were decimated outside of Benghazi and forced to retreat and a renewed rebel force, this time acting more like a military organization began a pursuit which has reached Ajdabiya.  In the west Gaddafi’s forces continue to attack the towns of Misrata and Zintan and according to observers and medical personnel inflicting heavy casualties on civilians.

President Obama in a briefing

Around the world there is much criticism of the operation as well as support. In the United States representatives as diverse as Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are raising concerns on the Constitutional issues of the intervention in that President Obama did not secure the approval of Congress prior to sending American forces into battle. Kucinich even calls it an impeachable offense.  Likewise a diverse assembly of politicians, former military and executive branch officials including those with experience at the State Department, the United Nations, NATO and the Middle East are voicing their concerns about the fact that the end state of the operation is not defined and about the possibility of mission creep. The administration has not helped matters in sending a number of messages over the past few days of a desired end state. It is obvious that President Obama did not want this fight nor did he want it to appear that we were again leading an attack on an Arab nation.  His hesitancy has led to some conservatives attacking his lack of decisiveness even as other conservatives criticize his decision to join the military operations. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been outspoken in his opposition to becoming involved in another war and seems to want U.S. involvement to decrease sooner rather than later.

Rebels with damaged 152mm Self Propelled Howitzer

The situation is still evolving by the hour and one thing is clear. The outcome is very unclear and the repercussions across the region are also uncertain. One problem is the apparent discontinuity in U.S. and Western policy to various despotic Arab regimes, supporting the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a military operation against Gaddafi in Libya and very muted and lukewarm support to popular political movements in Bahrain and Yemen. The Bahraini demonstrations have been put down with the help of Saudi forces but in Yemen numerous influential military officers have taken their units to support the Yemeni protestors. Of course the situation in all of these nations is different with the exception of the fact that all are ruled by long term undemocratic and repressive regimes of varying degree. Likewise actors in each country are different as are the geo-political interests of the United States.

A friend of mine pointed out to me that we are not viewed as “the good guys” in much of the Arab World as much as we see ourselves as such. I think that is true to a large extent because of foreign policy choices of the past century in regard to the Arab World as well as the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan where even today photos taken by a rogue Army unit of soldiers posing with the mutilated and dead bodies enemies of the enemy further degrade opinion in the region against us.  But we are also the hope of many of those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other nations and in those places and others popular uprisings have called out to us for political support and in the case of the Libyans military protection.

Parallels of 1989 in the fall of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe are drawn by the optimistic observers of what has been called the “Arab Spring.” However as much as I would like to believe that this is the case I think the miscalculations of 1914 are more readily apparent. There is nothing simple about what is going on and it seems to me that the region is sinking into a war with very unpredictable and grave consequences. Those consequences will probably with us for a generation was were the unanticipated outcomes of the First World War. Of course one of those outcomes was the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries and selection of leaders in the newly created Arab nations and emirates by the victorious Allies. That is something that we are dealing with even as I finish this article.

As I wrote in another article I believe that acting to prevent the slaughter of Libyans by Gaddafi was the right thing to do.  Unfortunately as most observers know the people of Libya will not be safe unless Gaddafi leaves power. I think by backing Gaddafi into a corner early, even before he began his offensive against what were peaceful protestors and not giving him a face saving way out that we may have brought about a war that no one wanted and has few possible good endings. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.


Padre Steve+


Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, Military, national security

Strike on Libya: The Unknown outcome of Operation Odyssey Dawn

Libyan Rebels among tanks and vehicles destroyed by coalition air strikes outside Benghazi (AFP photo)

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Field Marshal Helmuth Von Molkte the Elder

“War is the province of chance. In no other sphere of human activity must such a margin be left for this intruder. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events.”
– Karl von Clausewitz

Under the authority of a United Nations Security Council resolution the military forces of a number of NATO nations began air and missile strikes against Libyan air defenses command a control facilities and ground forces.  While the United States and British Royal Navies lobbed salvoes of Tomahawk cruise missiles aircraft from France, Britain, the United States launched the initial air strikes. They have been joined by or soon will be joined by aircraft from Italy, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Canada and Qatar, the first Arab nation to participate. A number of other Arab countries may join the force as operations move from air strikes to the enforcement of the no-fly zone itself. The French Navy has deployed the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle from Toulon and it will join the naval forces in conducting air strikes and enforce the no-fly zone.

Air strikes have significantly degraded Libya’s air defenses and blasted Libyan forces arrayed against the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The attacks on the ground forces stopped the Libyan attack in its tracks and the rebels have returned to the advance after appearing to be on the verge of a last stand against Gaddafi’s forces. In the past few days Gaddafi and his son Saif Al Islam Gaddafi have said that they would destroy the revolt and show “no mercy” in doing so. It is my belief that Libyan military officers and forces which have been “on the fence” will join the revolt in short order as the rebel forces renew their advance to the west as their loyalty to the regime is tenuous at best.

The strikes though extensive seem to have avoided doing to the Libyan people what was done to the Iraqi people and not targeted power plants or other infrastructure needed by the Libyan people. In other words NATO is trying to make sure that the Libyan people do not suffer for Gaddafi’s crimes. Gaddafi is trying to play up the attack as an attack against Libya by the “Crusader or Colonial enemy.”

Gaddafi has said that he will wage a “long war” and that he would arm a “million civilians” as loyalists gathered in his compound to act as a human shield to protect Gaddafi.  Gaddafi is known for his propaganda and his ruthlessness so we have to believe that he will at least attempt to resist but arming a million civilians is likely beyond his logistical capabilities while under heavy bombardment. The United States and NATO have said that they have not targeted Gaddafi but of course as everyone knows no one would object if Gaddafi happened to be in the neighborhood of a military target.

As the operation is in its early stages it is unknown how it will turn out. Morally and under the United Nations charter it is the right thing to do as Gaddafi was killing civilians and on the verge of killing many more and making the humanitarian crisis even worse. Unfortunately when any military operation is undertaken the consequences are and outcomes are never pre-determined. One hopes that the strikes will keep Gaddafi from killing more of his own people and causing greater chaos in the region. One also hopes that it will encourage the pro-democracy and secular movements that began in Iran but was crushed but which has taken root in Tunisia and Egypt to continue to spread across the Middle East. One hopes that other Arab nations will help Libya recover from Gaddafi and do what is right for the Libyans and for their own people. One also hopes that the strikes will level the playing field enough for the rebels to overthrow Gaddafi and bring him to justice.  So analysts in the Middle East believe that this will be the case. Al Jazeera reports that “Faysal Itani, deputy head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis tells Reuters that Gaddafi’s use of heavy weaponry against civilians has narrows his options considerably. He says: The doors are really shut for negotiation …  We think Gaddafi will be killed, or commit suicide or simply run away. It’s over.”

Of course one never knows. Gaddafi has stated that he has issued a cease fire but witnesses in Misrata which has been under heavy attack for the past week state that Gaddafi’s forces are still waging a campaign against civilians in that city. Likewise as Nicholas Burns a former United States Undersecretary of State notes that “one of the gambles that Britain, France and the United States, and indeed the Arab League, have taken is not having an agreement on what the mission is. Is the coalition trying to protect civilians in harm’s way, or in essence trying to overthrow Gaddafi? The coalition has intervened in a civil war on behalf of one of the protagonists. They have got to straighten out exactly what they are trying to accomplish.”

That is a big question mark. The real danger in this kind of unscripted intervention is the unforeseen consequences of each action taken. Even an action undertaken with the noblest of reasons can run afoul of unforeseen and undesirable outcomes. Thus only time will tell and we can only hope that freedom comes to Libya and that the bloodshed will end, hopefully with the Gaddafi regime thrown upon the ash heap of history by the Libyan people.

The die has been cast….


Padre Steve+



Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, Military

All necessary Measures….the Coming End of the Gaddafi Regime

Gaddafi (Reuters photo)

After weeks of dithering the United Nations Security Council has authorized a “No Fly Zone” and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from the onslaught of Muammar Gaddafi’s military.  The vote came after days of urging by the French, British, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League and belatedly the United States. The vote of 10 for and 5 abstentions authorizes member nations to act together to protect civilians in Libya and comes as Gaddafi has threatened to attack the rebel capital of Benghazi and to “show no mercy” in doing so. Gaddafi responded to the vote by proclaiming “The UN Security Council has no mandate. We don’t acknowledge their resolutions” and he promised to respond harshly to any UN-sponsored attacks stating “If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too.”

While Gaddafi pledged to mount an attack against Benghazi tonight his forces were repulsed for the first time by rebel forces at Ajdabiya with the rebels using tanks and artillery of their own for the first time. Gaddafi’s air force launched attacks on Benghazi but it is my assessment that these strikes were to instill terror in the civilian population and break the back of rebel supporters. His announcement that his forces were coming “tonight” was obviously a propaganda claim.

It is true that the situation on the ground has shifted in favor of Gaddafi’s forces and that they have enjoyed a run of success over the past week and a half. However the success is illusory as it came at the expense of ill equipped and trained rebel forces in the western part of the country near the main operating bases of the forces that Gaddafi has employed with the greatest effect. Likewise his success east of his tribal home of Sirte has come against rebel forces which had advanced too far and had neither the training or firepower to hold the ground that they had taken. Deployed on open ground with no air support they were no match for Gaddafi’s forces. The further east Gaddafi’s forces go the more that they will face military forces which went over to the rebels, forces that will do better than those in the west and this was evident today at Ajdalbiya.

The repulse at Ajdabiya is significant and more significant than some people will believe. Gaddafi’s Army is now operation far from their home bases and the trek across the Libyan Desert is probably facing logistical problems. The first is that they have had to advance hundreds of miles. His armored forces are probably not well maintained and likely are experiencing mechanical difficulties especially since logistic support in most of the Arab World’s militaries is not a high priority. Lacking skilled mechanics and technical personnel they have probably lost a good number of vehicles. Photos of Libyan forces show no military cargo trucks accompanying the Army which indicates to me that the pro-Gaddafi forces are operating at the edge of their logistical support system.  Anyone who has operated in a dessert war can testify to this fact. Should the rebels yield to him at Ajdabiya they will fall back to far more defensible terrain to the southwest of Benghazi, the heavily forested and mountainous uplands of the Jebel Akhdar which would even the playing field in favor of the rebels who until now have been fighting in open terrain which would even the playing field.  To further help the rebels the first confirmed shipments of Egyptian arms have reached rebel forces.

Another component to the story is that Gaddafi’s forces are divided. He has a significant number of troops attempting to overcome rebel forces at the town of Zindan about 120 kilometers southwest of Tripoli.  These forces are operating in a region less hospitable than those near Ajdabiya but because they are closer to their supply base have a better chance of success than those in the east.

However all of this goes away once the airstrikes from American, French, British and Arab air forces start pounding his exposed forces at Ajdabiya. These forces are operating outside of the range of the Libyan air defense network. What little anti-aircraft capability they have will not protect them against modern air forces. As soon as Gaddafi’s tanks and APCs start getting “brewed up” by air attacks the forces manning them will give up the fight.  Likewise the air defenses that Gaddafi has in his arsenal are antiquated and no match for what will be coming after them. The fact is that many of the officers in command of these forces only stayed loyal because it appeared that the world would not stand up to Gaddafi and until today they were correct. This marriage of convenience will end once the bombs start falling.

What looked like a certain victory for Gaddafi will disappear as fast as a mirage in the Libyan Desert. At some point the officers that had reluctantly supported Gaddafi will turn against him as they would have weeks ago had the actions of world leaders matched their words. There will not be a need for ground troops and thankfully the U.N. authorization does not authorize occupation.  The Libyan’s military and people knowing that Gaddafi stands alone will topple his ruthless regime on their own and because the west, led by the French acted to support them Al Qaeda and its allies who were hoping to commandeer this revolt will be left in the dust. As for Gaddafi he will be luck not to avoid the fate of another dictator who ruled Libya, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and end up handing from a meat hook.

Of course I could be wrong, but I expect that within a week the situation which looked so bleak for the rebels will look very different and Gaddafi will be fighting not for the survival of his regime but for his life. But it has to go down this way. Neither Egypt Tunisia nor Europe can handle the influx of refugees should Gaddafi survive. They all have a vested interest in stopping Gaddafi now as do we as we cannot let Gaddafi remain in control and turn Libya into a haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

One can hope that the carnage in Libya will end soon and that something of a democratic and peace minded Libya will be the result.  Somehow I think that there is a chance for this now.


Padre Steve+



Filed under Foreign Policy, middle east, national security

To the Shores of Tripoli: The Flames of Revolution Spread to Libya as Gaddafi Fights Back

Muammar Gaddafi: A Fight to the Finish

The regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is now in a fight to the death against the Libyan people in the streets of the capitol Tripoli.  In the eastern part of the country it appears that the revolutionaries have gained control of major cities including Libya’s second largest city Benghazi.

Gaddafi has ruled his own country with brutal force and exported terrorism throughout the Middle East and Europe for decades. When I served in Germany during the Cold War it was Libyan agents that attacked American servicemen and women and blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland.

Saif El Islam Gaddafi: Civil War

The Gaddafi regime has turned to brutal force to attempt to curb demonstrations that began in the wake of the successful Tunisian and Egyptian revolts that overthrew Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Gaddafi is a ruthless animal when it comes to his readiness to violently crush any dissent against his regime and has not hesitated to use political assassination on Libyan dissidents abroad.  However he is survivor who knows how to use money and oil to get his way with governments. He has occasionally reached out to appear in a more moderate and reasonable persona such as when he gave up his Weapons of Mass Destruction to the Americans and British in 2004 and when he paid 271 million dollars to the victims of the Lockerbie attack.


Libya is different than Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. The rulers of those countries, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt while dictators they were not psychopaths and ceded power peacefully. Likewise the Bahraini leaders have backed down to opt for negotiations over the heavy handed force that they employed last week. Gaddafi has long viewed himself as the leader of the Arab World and Africa although his stock has fallen in recent years. He will not go peacefully.  His son Saif El Islam a Western Educated Ph.D. went on state television last night and predicted thousands would be killed in a prolonged civil war and said that “Libya is at a crossroads. If we do not agree today on reforms, we will not be mourning 84 people, but thousands of deaths, and rivers of blood will run through Libya…” He further said “We will take up arms… we will fight to the last bullet… We will destroy seditious elements. If everybody is armed, it is civil war, we will kill each other.”

Saif’s threats are being taken seriously. Since the protests broke out Gaddafi’s security forces have launched vicious attacks on protests and even the funerals of those killed. Using heavy weapons, aircraft and helicopter gunships Gaddafi has turned dogs of war against his people, reportedly using mercenaries from other nations to do what native Libyan soldiers and airmen will not do.

Protesters are being joined in some places by Libyan soldiers and elsewhere two Libyan Air Force Colonels defected with their fully armed Mirage F-1 fighter aircraft to Malta stating that they refused to fire on their countrymen. Around the world Libyan diplomats are condemning the regime and even in the country the Justice Minister and many judges in Benghazi have joined the protests. Other reports suggest that Libyan Border Guards and Coastguard personnel have left their posts along the Egyptian frontier. Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s told reporters on Monday that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has “declared war on the Libyan people and is committing genocide.”

Protests in the city of Tobruk (Reuters Photo)

The situation is escalating. On Tuesday the United Nations Security Council will meet for the first time to discuss the issue. Some have suggested that the Security Council impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace to keep Gaddafi from flying in more foreign mercenaries or use his air force against the protesters.

What is certain is that blood will continue to flow and that if Gaddafi goes down he and his sycophants will kill as many of their own people as they can.  The most interesting thing about this whole situation is that if Gaddafi falls it will be the first time an anti-Western or American regime has fallen signifying that the flames of protest and revolution are much more about overthrowing despots and bringing the people some measure of freedom than anything else. The situation is dangerous, fraught with peril and fluid but it could be the start of a change in the Middle East that takes the wind out of the sails of Al Qaeda and other terrorists groups who draw their support from those repressed by dictators.

It shall be interesting to see how this continues to develop. Pray for the people of Libya.


Padre Steve+


Filed under Foreign Policy, History, middle east, Military, national security