August 24, 2011

Flipping Libya’s COIN

The revolutionary assault on Tripoli appears to have created more panic in the Western media than in the opposition’s ranks. Fear is grounded in reality; the whole of Tripoli has yet to be captured and Muammar Gaddafi’s family, now enraged, is roving at large. Nor does the fall of a country’s capital guarantee the end of hostilities, as the Taliban’s retreat from Kabul and Iraq’s “Mission Accomplished” recently demonstrated.

However blind hope isn’t necessary to remain optimistic on Libya’s trajectory.

Since all possibilities must be considered in military planning, three factors will undermine a sustainable rebuilding of Libya’s government and infrastructure. First, Gaddafi and his sons have signaled no intention to negotiate a ceasefire, instead vowing to “kill the rats” that infested Tripoli. In a broadcast on state T.V., Gaddafi took credit for the protesters filling Martyr’s Square and rejoiced in their jubilation, indicating that he will deny - and fight - Libya’s revolution to his end. More recently, Gaddafi claimed to have toured Tripoli in disguise without feeling “in danger," before vowing martyrdom or death.

“We will turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents," added Moussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi’s spokesman.

Disinformation and misreporting aside, the bulk of Tripoli appears to be in oppositional hands. Counterattacks have reportedly begun on the captured airport, but Gaddafi’s remaining forces could concentrate on secondary cities before regrouping in the western mountains or desert. Desperation also makes the Colonel more dangerous than usual. Now might be a logical time, in Gaddafi’s mind, to use any chemical or biological weapons in his possession.

The second major threat to stability is a lack of public institutions and services in a post-Gaddafi Libya. Due to widespread power outages, residents in many opposition-held cities learned of Tripoli’s assault after the outside world. The National Transitional Council will be able to counter Gaddafi’s insurgency if it can perform at the governmental level; thus failure to restore and improve basic services will inflict more damage than Gaddafi’s military campaign. The opposition flipped from insurgents to counter-insurgents almost overnight, and the “building” phase will determine the success of their “clear and hold” operations.

This challenge could be the deciding factor of Libya’s end game.

Many observers don’t trust Gaddafi, the NTC or NATO, a denominator that has become the recurring theme in Libya. Many suspect the alliance of using Libya (and potentially Syria) to rebound from Afghanistan, keeping itself relevant and funded in the process. These fears are anchored in reality; while Western leaders praise their own efforts in toned-down victory speeches, some European and American pundits heralded a new age of “intervention that works.” UK reports talk of a substantial “peacekeeping” force and Richard Hass, president of the powerful Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), wasted no time calling for “boots on the ground.”

NATO trainers could morph into an “international peacekeeping force,” accompanied by heavy economic influences. If these issues are forced on the NTC or the organization underestimates popular opposition, NATO’s presence will provide a lightning rod for Gaddafi and radical elements operating outside the NTC.

The positive side of Libya’s developments offers many countermeasures to prevent a slide into continual warfare. In our opinion negative perceptions from external factors including Western misinformation and hypocrisy, problems that must be separated from Libya’s situation. Western governments promised a quick war to a war-weary public, contrary to the protracted nature of revolution, creating a myth that Libya “took too long” and hence isn’t stable. From this concern spawned a second: the void of state institutions will overwhelm the NTC, resulting in a vicious fracture.

Considering the long odds Libya’s opposition are defiantly overcoming, six months to Tripoli qualifies as a swift uprising. Furthermore, when is a good time for revolution? Why wait for another opportunity after the Arab Spring? If the lack of state and economic institutions is Libya’s main deficiency, why not start building as soon as possible?

Having credited Gaddafi, his family and remaining loyalists as an ongoing threat, the opposite must now be considered: Gaddafi’s apparatus is weaker than ever. Soon after Tripoli’s “fall” spread online, Seif al-Islam surprised journalists at Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel in a dramatic show to prove his freedom. Gaddafi’s son had been reportedly captured but instead found himself chatting with journalists as he flashed the V sign. An inside account of the prison that is now Rixos tells of how Seif confidently boasted, "You've missed a great story. So come on with us, we're going to hit the hottest spots in Tripoli.”

Looking “confident and defiant,” Seif drove through loyalists neighborhoods on his way to Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi’s main complex in Tripoli, “where about 200 men, volunteers defending the regime, were waiting for weapons.” At this point the journalists, held at de facto gunpoint, were returned to the Rixos. NTC fighters stormed Bab al-Aziziya the next day after an intense firefight, showing Gaddafi’s medical records and trinkets to journalists on the way out. None of his sons, including Seif, were found.

Gaddafi now claims that he abandoned the city in a tactical withdrawal, but the distance between him and al-Shabaab - between an insurgency and a government retreating from the capital - is a long fall.

At this point Gaddafi only appears capable of wrecking havoc in Tripoli, not recapturing it. Bombarding the city would waste resources and expose his remaining troops. An assault on Libya’s secondary cities - Zawiya, Mistrata, Brega, Sirte - would prolong the fight longer than a counteroffensive in Tripoli, which is swarming with NATO’s aerial presence. However the opposition possesses enough control in these cities that isolated attacks can be repelled, and Gaddafi will find his insurgency difficult to sustain without a territorial base. NTC fighters have already besieged Sabha in the southwest, and Gaddafi’s final “stronghold” appears headed for Tripoli’s fate.

For their part oppositional representatives have attempted to manage expectations. National Council chief Mustafa Abdel-Jalil advised, "It is too early to say that the battle of Tripoli is over,” while Mahmoud Jibril, Head of International Affairs, appealed to justice in the streets: “We must not sully the final page of the revolution." Yet losing control of the capital will deal an immense psychological blow to Gaddafi’s recruitment efforts. For decades his loyalists and mercenaries fought on the assumption that Gaddafi would ultimately emerge victorious in the end.

Who will join him now?

Conversely, Libya’s opposition appears stronger than generally credited in the Western media. A thriving underground may not have yielded initial organization, but the revolutionary wellspring that rippled across Libya demonstrates a true uprising from the beginning. People of all ages and backgrounds created a great deal in a short amount of time. Although the NTC has a ways to grow before assuming a full-fledged government, Libya's revolutionaries learned from their mistakes, slowed down, and improved their performance as a political organization and guerrilla army.

Removing a dictator without advancing the quality of life could result in stalemate between the new government and people. However Libya’s umbrella of civil servants and activists shows no visible intentions of pulling a Hamas.

While NATO’s enhancement is obviously responsible for part of the NTC’s success, Tripoli’s “Operation Mermaid Dawn” highlights a rising cohesion within the structure. On top of political and military objectives, a surprise attack and symbolic date - the conquest of Mecca - generated maximum psychological effect. As the NTC gradually advanced west and east on a collision course, other troops infiltrated city over a period of weeks and smuggled in weapons (likely supplied by NATO). The NTC was able to converge on Tripoli at the assigned date, shipping in fighters from the east and advancing its western front straight into the capital.

Here the Tripoli Brigade, a unit of the National Liberation Army, spearheaded “Mermaid’s Dawn” and fulfilled its ultimate objective after months of grueling mountain warfare. The Brigade’s leader, Mahdi al-Harati, had returned from Ireland only to flee Tripoli’s initial crackdown in February. After regrouping in Benghazi with a select cadre, al-Harati and his men received UAE training in opposition territory before transferring to the Nafusa Mountains, where they would prove instrumental in the opposition’s takeover. The 500-man unit, which al-Harati claims is strictly civilian in nature, pushed the front into Tripoli under heavy NATO bombardment.

The NTC’s relative purity and organization affords the surest countermeasure against radical Islamic groups. Terrorism works best when the system is broken; a nationalist movement will negate militant influence from al-Qaeda or other radical offshoots so long as the opposition continues to function politically. Groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), now styled the Libyan Islamic Movement, could thrive if the opposition fails to perform, but will be marginalized in the opposite outcomes Libya’s many barriers.

It helps that NATO’s limited invasion falls short of Iraq’s massive occupation, that the opposition has willingly accepted the burden of governance and could reject a substantial foreign presence. Neocons and neoliberals may have simply learned to scale back America’s democracy promotion, but the NTC also demanded Western assistance amidst Gaddafi’s slaughter. Libyan revolutionaries cheered when NATO finally came to the rescue, and remain grateful when they could be aggravated by Western inaction.

Libya operates in a new age, shielded from extremist influences by the collective goodwill flowing from the Arab Spring. This effect works on multiple levels; first inspired by Tunisians and Egyptians, Libyans just became inspiration for protesters across the region. The “spirit of the times” has generated an enormous counterbalance against al-Qaeda, a tilt in favor of real democracy, and Western governments must ride this wave. They must support the end of authoritarianism in the Middle East and Africa - in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and ultimately Saudi Arabia.

Western governments don’t seem to realize that they have more to lose through inaction than action. Rather than ignoring the revolutionaries completely or protecting “friendly” regimes, all protesters should receive equal attention for as long as their struggles last.

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