With due respect to the duress Libya’s rebels currently fight under, their last three days unfolded in military tragedy. Being a rookie is no excuse during guerrilla warfare; most guerrillas enter the revolutionary cycle green. So watching them run into the same wall was torturous - once should have been enough to adapt. Instead beleaguered president Muammar Gaddafi adjusted to Western tactics without a corresponding evolution from the rebels.
As the stronger side of an asymmetric war, even a weak government such as Gaddafi’s can temporarily out-muscle and out-pay the insurgency. What Libya’s opposition cannot allow from the very beginning is for Gaddafi to outsmart them.
After sizing up Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and once again streaking to nearby Bin Jawwad, the rebels find themselves back defending Ajdabiya, their only strengthened position before Benghazi. The rebels caught a case of déjà vu as Gaddafi’s artillery halted their rapid advance, complete with anger at the empty skies (NATO jets were grounded by poor weather). With speed equal to his first counterattack, heavy shelling by Gaddafi’s army forced retreats from Bin Jawwad on Tuesday, and Ras Lanouf and Marsa Brega on Wednesday.
Numerically outnumbered an estimated 10 to 1, the rebels stand no chance in a conventional war against Gaddafi’s army. His core force is running out of defectors and although Libyan soldiers aren’t exceptionally trained, even a moderately experienced soldier holds the initial advantage over a freshly trained guerrilla. All the more reason to avoid set battles and ambushes during the insurgency’s formative stage. By now Libya’s opposition must realize that Sirte marks Gaddafi’s red-line, and he won't leave it vulnerable to a direct assault. Fundamental guerrilla law shuns decisive engagements until favorable conditions have been established.
But during one particular trap near Bin Jawwad, rebels advanced straight up a road and into flanks of armed 4x4 trucks and AK-47s. As the rebels regrouped to retreat, Gaddafi’s artillery targeted their positions and turned a retreat into wild flight. The rebels need another plan of attack.
Gaddafi’s methods have also evolved from his original counterattack. Shedding his dead-weight armor and adopting camouflaged, blitzkrieg attacks, Gaddafi’s hardened core has downshifted from conventional to semi-conventional warfare. To hide from NATO air-strikes and blend in with the rebels, who utilize a jarring mix of civilian vehicles on the battlefield, the bulk of Gaddafi’s tanks are either concealed in the desert or inside loyal cities. Flat-bed trucks known as “technicals,” armed with heavy machine-guns, mortars, and anti-aircraft cannons, have become his new transport. And Gaddafi expects the rebels to mark their vehicles, leading to a signal race over target designation.
To compliment his core of "battle wagons,” Gaddafi has deployed armed sedans, SUVs, and minivans to generate a relatively sophisticated swarm attack.
On the opposition's side, sporadic attacks and hasty retreats mark the insurgent principles they most relate to, not ideal traits to lead with. Individual crews decide when to race forward from the front-line, empty their rounds, and vanish. Not that there’s anything wrong with running and hiding; mobility is the essence of guerrilla warfare. The rebels should run more but with controlled movement, constantly roving in cells and dividing the numerically superior enemy across a wider battlefield. Concentrating forces and digging entrenchments gives Gaddafi the offensive advantage. Libyan rebels must run through the country and strike where Gaddafi doesn’t expect.
And if Gaddafi grows accustomed to them running, they need to develop ambushes utilizing feigned retreats and NATO air-strikes.
One rebel officer, Quafe, assures the retreat is tactical, explaining, “We can’t fight in an open area like this.” A good observation for an insurgent to make - before joining battle. While Libya’s desert offers sparse cover, the rebels must adapt their tactics to the terrain. Desert insurgencies enjoy low odds of success against government air-power, odds that increase dramatically in the absence of that power.
The rebels’ temporarily loss of momentum has further exasperated decision cycles in Western capitals, as NATO members fear a protracted, costly stalemate with a suicidal Gaddafi. Such concerns also run high in the U.S. Congress and populace, ensnaring Libya's debate in a black-and-white endgame. Many officials and observers believe the rebels cannot force Gaddafi to surrender without direct ground support, either in the form of foreign combat troops, intelligence agents, or imported arms. Both the rebels and NATO still hope to establish a front near Sirte, which among its strategic advantages would simplify target designation. Then they can connect with the besieged opposition in Misrata and advance the front to Tripoli.
But as NATO wonders how to speed up the revolution and induce Gaddafi’s fall, the international community risks committing a fundamental error in guerrilla warfare. Because America and Europe now hold a direct interest in Libya, its leadership inevitably views the insurgency through conventional Western glasses. Reflexively gagging on a prolonged struggle - a revolution’s natural state - conventional terms like “decisive force” and “decapitation strike” are thrown around in a sincere search for them.
“Open-ended” gives politicians nightmares.
However Libya’s revolution doesn’t demand a speedy resolution; an inherent incongruence exists in the conventional guidance of unconventional forces. Foreign advisers commonly offer technical assistance to guerrilla movements, but the essence of asymmetric warfare must remain intact. The objective remains the same as 50 years ago: defeat a technologically and economically superior force with mass resistance, mobility, and ingenuity. If, as U.S. and EU officials suggest, Gaddafi should be worn out until he falls of his own accord, they must also end the contradictory thirst that craves immediate results.
Western assistance can imbue Libya’s insurgency with conventional notes, enhancing their firepower and communications. Then allow guerrillas to be guerrillas.
Most of the rebels’ military problems and solutions start at the top; their insurgency will flourish once a strong chain of command has been established. The National Transitional Council is charting a steady international course and, for all of its inadequacies, has put the rebels in position to win on the ground. But it must instill immediate order in the ranks by devising a training regiment and comprehensive strategy at the national level. The rebels must be convinced of the leadership’s abilities in order to earn their undying trust. Once the Council establishes a military command and makes sound decisions on the battlefield, the rebels will ultimately overpower the energy of Gaddafi’s last stand.
Libya’s rebels need to drill first, advance second. Each should receive two weeks of basic training followed by two weeks (or more) of specialized training. They need riflemen, mortar-gunners, demolitions experts, spies, engineers, technicians. Elite units must be trained as well, and new commanders must be selected during the reorganization period. Every unit should train unconventionally and semi-conventionally, as the initial advance will eventually transition from one phase to the next.
Much of the opposition's training can be provided by Gaddafi’s defectors, CIA and NATO trainers, and possibly Arab advisers. America isn’t necessarily needed beyond the minimum, a message U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen recently delivered to Congress. The same goes for providing light arms, anti-tank weapons, and explosives. It’s important to differentiate between Afghanistan and Libya, contrary to the remarks of many Senators. Libya needn’t be a weapons dump like Soviet-occupied Kabul.
A modest but steady flow of light arms will suffice with the right tactics and strategy.
Fortunately the seeds of organization already appear to be sprouting. New reports from the front-line paint a more disciplined insurgency, as if a lesson was finally learned from recklessly advancing upon Sirte. Libya’s courageous but inexperienced recruits have been redeployed to the flanks or rearguard, while the most experienced troops (especially those who served in Libya’s reserves) are filling up the front-line. Not only do they have more weapons training, they claim to avoid roads and follow orders.
"We were setting up and training and establishing units all over Libya," said Hamid Muftah, one of Gaddaf’s defectors, as he explained the 25 days of training volunteers received in March. Many have been organized into six or seven-man squads led by a defected officer. And most importantly, they claim to obey orders from the top of the chain. Ahmed al-Shiri, a defected officer from Benghazi, blamed the failure of Sirte’s advances on a "lack of organization.”
Now, "we get orders from the military council in Benghazi. They're in control. The army is in control.”
As Sirte cannot be captured immediately, strategies must be employed to alter the battlefield. The rebels can still harden their eastern front at Brega and, going no further, train the majority of the force behind their lines. They should consider slowing down a month or two, or more, to train an elite guerrilla army. Doing so would speed up their revolution in the end. Gaddafi’s hometown is undoubtedly a tempting prize, and he knows it too well. His defensive counterattacks have systematically driven back the rebel advance with ease, as if he was toying with them.
Seizing the city by direct force poses an improbable, if not impossible objective. At the minimum, Libya’s opposition requires the allegiance of Sirte’s main tribe, the Firjan. Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Gadhadhfa, historically run the city and have alienated the Firjan population, which already participated in the eastern uprising. Col. Khalifa Hafter, a Firjani who defected from Gadhafi's forces in February, is engaged in ongoing talks as chief of the Libyan People’s Army.
While the opposition may envision surrounding Sirte before turning its population, an internal rebellion would make a better distraction for an invasion.
Armed with a stronger, more disciplined fighting force, one alternative would stab into the country’s western heart. In Sabha, another of Gaddafi’s strongholds, members of his Gadhadhfa tribe are supposedly making plans to flee a rebel invasion. A simple act of warfare, conventional or unconventional, is to move the opponent by seizing something valuable. Advancing southwest may distract Gaddafi enough to gain the advantage in Sirte, either by taking out his peripheral command or inspiring Sirte’s occupations to rise up.
At the political level many Warfalla and Magarha tribesmen, Gaddafi's long-standing allies, fear the threats that trickle down through their local leaders. To defy Gaddafi is to become a social outcast - if they’re lucky. Flipping them as the final piece before Tripoli calls for measures beyond military success and senior defections. The opposition must offer Gaddafi’s tribal supporters a viable alternative, including an amnesty program, so that Libya’s minority doesn’t feel as though they’re losing the little they have.
Libya's opposition must develop its shadow government to the point where it can replace Gaddafi’s regime at any moment. The two events should overlap as close as possible.
Although a cornered Gaddafi may hold out for months, Libya’s opposition is steadily acquiring every advantage needed to eliminate his regime. So long as the rebels wage an insurgency until securing the conventional edge, Gaddafi will ultimately lose his political, economic, military, and social advantages. In general they must stay mobile, unlike their present use of flying columns. However light and mobile Gaddafi is moving, the guerrillas must move faster. And premature advances extend Gaddafi’s life by interrupting the revolutionary cycle. The international community must accept the natural speed of insurgency, which can oscillate between fire and ice.
Once ordered and trained, Libya's guerrillas may deliver victory sooner that the West thinks.