Senior Fellow LTG James Dubik on Libya - 'Choices and Consequences'

Choices and Consequences

by ISW Senior Fellow LTG James Dubik, U.S. Army (Ret.)

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While President Obama did an effective job of explaining why it was important to take military action in Libya, his admission of the possibilities of reversing rebel successes, a lengthy stalemate, and continued civilian deaths at the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces indicate that relying on air power alone is unlikely to work. NATO needs to deploy combat air controllers and advisors or trainers to augment its air forces and begin contingency planning for a NATO-Arab peacekeeping mission.

In my 37 years in the U.S. Army, I’ve commanded in a number of interventions around the globe, served as one of the senior leaders who helped change the tide in the Iraq War in 2007 and 2008, helped developed the plan to accelerate the growth of the Afghan National Security Force, and trained and operated with a dozen different armies.

I have the greatest respect for NATO’s ability to control the skies, and am proud of the success in the mission so far. In only a few days, U.S. and allied planes have reduced Libyan air defense systems, halted pro-Gaddafi aircraft from flying, eroded the ability of the Libyan military to coordinate a response to our bombing campaign, stopped the advance of pro-Gaddafi ground forces en route to attack civilians, and averted what would have been a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi and elsewhere. But Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians continue, and we cannot be assured that air power alone can stop them.

The regime’s repertoire of forces include militias, special police, and intelligence units in civilian clothes—forces that are hard to attack from the air without risking harm to the very civilians we are hoping to protect. Furthermore, what’s left of Gaddafi’s conventional forces will become more difficult targets to attack by air because they are now mixed amid the civilians in the areas that they still control. When Gaddafi’s forces are close to the civilians we hope to safeguard, the utility of our air power is greatly reduced, but they retain the ability to use artillery, mortars, and ground troops. We’ve seen all this play out even as our planes have succeeded in establishing the no-fly zone. Using air power by itself is an incentive for Gaddafi’s forces to get closer, not farther away from those we seek to protect.

Now that we’ve established the no-fly zone and eroded Gaddafi’s forces, conditions have changed. The “easy” targets are slowly drying up. Two additional steps need to be taken. First, we must place NATO combat air controllers on the ground, to include Americans. They are skilled at the precise direction of airpower, even when close to friendly forces or civilians. This precision is not possible from the cockpit of a fighter. Second, we must provide advisors and trainers to the rebels, and perhaps some equipment. Right now, they are more like “guys with guns” than an organized force and they need help. Air power in support of Croats in Bosnia or the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan worked because both indigenous forces were well organized and capable of taking advantage of the air support we and our allies provided. The rebels are no such force. Air power, together with a proficient rebel force, increases the probability of success in protecting civilians and extending that protection westward. If we’re not willing or able to take these actions, pro-Gaddafi forces can be expected to keep up their brutalities.

If the U.S. or NATO decides to send troops, the number required would be small. By no means would it resemble an occupation force, and by no means reminiscent of Iraq, as the President alluded to last night.

Some might argue that these actions would prove de facto support to the rebels in order to erode Gaddafi’s military capability and set the conditions for his removal, objectives which are beyond the UN Resolution that underpins the intervention. This may be so, but the bombardment of Libyan military assets also weakens Gaddafi. It’s misleading to pretend otherwise. More importantly, the brutal reality on the ground is this: the exclusive reliance on air power cannot be decisive in protecting Libyan civilians.

There are other reasons to think beyond airpower. The end result of our intervention is the elimination of Gaddafi’s regime; the President acknowledges as much in his speech. The on-going meeting in London is about finding non-military means to hasten Gaddafi’s departure, though the timeframe for his ouster is by no means resolved.

In the meantime Gaddafi hangs on. We will be protecting Libyan civilians in parts of the country where the rebel force operates, but not elsewhere. Our air power and an improved rebel force may erode pro-Gaddafi forces and hold them at bay such that he may not be able to win, but a stalemate could last for some time. Even if Gaddafi is killed by one of our attacks or an assassin, or if he decides to leave, others in the regime could take up the fight in another form. Those with power rarely yield it freely or easily. In any case, the longer we allow such a situation to continue, the more we may watch unfold the very humanitarian disaster we sought to avoid—at least in parts of Libya. If a stalemate does emerge, how long will allied support be required? Are we willing and able to meet this requirement for months, or even years?

Adding a small number of NATO air controllers and advisors is within the U.N. Mandate and will have two positive effects: it will extend the areas in which civilians are protected and hasten Gaddafi’s demise.

And what happens when Gaddafi departs, his regime falls apart, and the rebels are successful? In the ensuing vacuum, what or who will provide security? Air power alone will certainly not be effective. What kind of humanitarian crisis might ensue following a rebel victory? How many lives might be lost in the discharge of years of pent up frustration? I saw revenge killings as part of the cycle of violence in Bosnia and Iraq; there’s no reason not to expect them in a “liberated” Libya. We will not be able to rely on the Libyan police or army, for they have been part of how Gaddafi imposed his dictatorship. By the President’s own logic, we cannot stand by to watch this unfold any more that we could have watched a disaster in Benghazi.

And will the new rulers of Libya have any capacity or ability to govern? In both Haiti and Iraq, I saw government facilities stripped clean of furniture, equipment, supplies, even electric wires and fixtures. Will this happen in Libya as well? Are the rebels prepared to deal with all this and run a nation? The President himself admitted that after 40 years of dictatorship, Libya is fractured and without civil institutions. What will we and our allies do post-Gaddafi? Certainly this is a task for the Libyan people, but would it not be more responsible to think beyond airpower and prepare a NATO-Arab peacekeeping force, in which the United States participates, to prevent liberated Libya from sinking into chaos and help them build the future they want? We’ve seen the result of not preparing for the post-combat phase of an intervention before. Why make the same mistake again.

Military forces are instruments; their utility is measured in their ability to attain strategic aims. We have chosen an instrument—airpower—which is powerful but cannot attain our humanitarian or strategic aims by itself. Our operations have been “good so far,” but interventions have beginnings, middles, and ends—and they don’t unfold in expected ways. We now need to adapt our means and rethink our aims so that we are prepared for whatever outcome our intervention produces.


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