Friday, August 26, 2011

Analysis of the War in Libya

I find myself extremely frustrated by the coverage and analysis of the war in Libya. The narrative is of an initial surge of revolt along the coast, with counterattacks by the regime eliminating all western revolt except in Misrata, which barely survived, followed by months of stalemate between east and west, and then suddenly an attack on Tripoli from the interior which has now effectively succeeded. I admit, I am an armchair general, but this seems so clearly wrongheaded to me that even I can do better.

Here is my analysis of the war: the initial revolt was, in the east, so comprehensive as to give the rebels a strong base to west of Benghazi. That was rapidly complemented by control of the borders with Egypt and Sudan. However, to the west and in the rest of the south, the regime was able to counterattack because risings were less strong and uncoordinated. As a result, effectively, the regime was able to control not only that stretch of the seacoast, but, more importantly, the southern borders – which meant that it could buy mercenaries from the starving men of Chad in whatever numbers to supplement existing troops. The counterbalance for the rebels along the coast was NATO bombing, which limited the ability of regime troops to attack within the cities of the coast.

This balance was precarious, for the regime. They needed a guaranteed flow of oil for their tanks. They needed recruits to replace the steady flow of defectors. The rebels had some money worries, but as long as Misrata was in play there would be no effective attacks towards Benghazi, and even if Misrata had fallen it is doubtful that the regime could have pressed home attacks towards Benghazi with the extra men in the face of NATO bombings. No, it was a “stalemate” that in all likelihood could be broken by the rebels but not by the regime.

At this point, a second point of insurrection emerged in the west, on a line from deep in the interior on the Tunisia border towards Gharyan midway along the key Tripoli-to-southern-border road. It was by no means a neat, clean, fully controlled territory; but the playing field was effectively tilted against the regime in that area, since the rebels from Tunisia with local support could muster more people to attack more areas than the regime could send troops to counter them, through a long stretch of tough terrain, in order to drive them back into Tunisia. However, the longer the line from the Tunisian border, the shorter the line to Tripoli, and so there was a reasonable prospect that the line between the two would stabilize before it threatened north-south shipments of oil and mercenaries.

The point when it was clear that this push was breaking the stalemate was well over two months ago, when the rebels managed to start attacking the towns that were the last ones before Gharyan. The moment they could do that, they could threaten the north-south flow, and unless the regime somehow managed to counterattack to send the Nafusa push beyond the range of Gharyan, that threat would remain.

But there was another, equally significant development at about the same time, even further south. The rebels, attacking across a wide swath of desert near the southern border, managed to take two of the towns relatively near that border. As a result, the flow of mercenaries was bound to be badly disrupted.

At this point – well over two months ago – the situation along the coast becomes relevant again. Because the rebels attacking via Nafusa were often only hundreds strong. It may seem unbelievable that regime could not send enough troops to the interior to counterattack effectively; but the fact on the ground is, they did not. Why?

The easy answer is, they were tied down by NATO bombings. However, it is clear that NATO bombings played very little role in the fighting in the interior, neither in the Nafusa region nor near the southern border. Rather, the NATO bombings served only to hinder the regime’s ability to attack, and only along the seacoast.

The correct answer, I believe, is that the regime had neither the personnel to spare nor a way of sending enough of them. The choking off of mercenaries meant that the rebels could replenish their troops after battlefield losses in the interior, while the regime could not. Moreover, the regime could not transfer troops from various areas along the coast, because they were pretty much all tied up facing the rebels along the coast.

It is at this point that the “stalemate” along the coast begins to matter. If the regime had drawn its troops from the east, around Sirte, they would have a long way to travel; they would have to skirt Misrata, with the danger of NATO bombing; and they were fully engaged with Misrata and with Brega, the more or less fluid border between the regime and the eastern rebels in Benghazi. That left the troops in the west, and what the current attacks show is that there were enough regime troops short of Tripoli to repel any attack along the coast, but not enough to counterattack into the interior.

That left Tripoli. However, again, it seems clear that Tripoli troops were fully engaged, in the east toward Misrata, and to some extent in the south to protect the nearby airport and the initial stages of the road and oil pipeline south. In effect, the line of the coast between Tripoli and the Tunisian border could be attacked at any point from the interior, and the regime would be slow to respond and would have little to spare.

Nevertheless, according to reports, the actual attack from the interior was so feeble as to invite disbelief. The number of attackers was about 300; they drove to their target in the equivalent of Jeeps, having little military ordnance; and they were a combination of previously apparently separate smaller groups. It is as if those members of the Harvard Class of 2001 who attended this year’s class reunion had decided to attack Stamford, Connecticut, and had all just grabbed a gun and driven down in their BMWs – and succeeded.

Still, to anyone looking at the situation in the middle of June with a critical eye, it should have been obvious that the rebels had a very good chance of succeeding in whatever they tried. This is because the regime at that point had failed in its counterattack – if it even tried. Reporters didn’t notice it; analysts, preoccupied with the NATO bombings, didn’t notice it; but it was vitally important that the regime not only kick the Nafusa rebels out of the towns they were attacking, but attack the towns beyond them, as well; and the regime didn’t do that.

After mid-June, therefore, the stalemate was definitively over and the end of the regime was only a matter of time. Still, it could have been a matter of a fairly long time. The rebel push could have run out of gas around Gharyan, and it might have been months to a year before the full effects of the loss of mercenaries and oil were felt.

It did not take a year because the rebels at this point, as noted above, took a chance. They basically picked a point on the coast between Tripoli and Tunisia, and the moment they fully took the town before Gharyan, instead of sending their full weight against Gharyan, they immediately sent the bulk of their troops in a headlong dash at Al Zawia, the biggest town on the coast west of Tripoli, and closer to Tripoli than the Tunisian border.

This move reminds one of the remark by Steven Brust, the fantasy author, that battles are won when one side fails to make a mistake at a critical moment. There were certainly endless mistakes by the strategists on either side, and especially the tendency of the rebels to send their troops in to attack positions carefully prepared for maximum casualties by the regime, and the tendency of the regime to expose its troops to NATO bombings unnecessarily, instead of just tying up the rebels inside the towns, where NATO would find it hard to distinguish friend from foe. I believe that once the Nafusa offensive reached a certain point, and the southern border was contested, the rebels were pretty much bound to win; but attacking immediately after the coast was in range was what meant that the war would be won now.

The reason the attack on Al Zawia was successful, and that it was then followed by success on all coastal fronts, was that the attack started a cascade of successes in which regime troops surrendered piecemeal, decreasing the regime’s manpower, and the rebels began to decrease the number of fronts on which they had to engage, allowing that manpower to be funneled into the remaining areas. Thus, the eventual success at Al Zawia meant that troops shipped in from the eastern front, where pressure had eased, could supplement troops from the interior in the attack on Tripoli, and cut off any troops between Al Zawia and the Tunisian border. Before, an attack on the coast over that border had failed. Now, troops have swept along the coast to that border and control almost all of it.

However – and here again commentators seem to me to have entirely missed the mark – the war is by no means over. It is not only that Tripoli is by no means secure; it is that there remain pockets of resistance along the coast (the remaining pockets of resistance in the interior, while huge, represent very little regime military manpower, and certainly not enough to threaten the rebels on the coast in the foreseeable future).

The two key points, right now, are Zuwara and Ben Jawad. Zuwara is pretty much the only holdout along the coast between Tripoli and Tunisia [update: It has now been taken, but attack from the interior is still holding troops in play]. Once that is secure, the rebels will add their manpower there to the troops in Tripoli, tilting the balance in favor of the rebels. Ben Jawad is the only town still contested on the coast to the east of Tripoli. Once that is gone, the rebels from Misrata and those from Benghazi will join hands around Sirte. But based on past experience, both of those events can happen tomorrow, or a month from now; and therefore, the final fall of Tripoli and Sirte could be as much as 2 months down the road, in a worst case scenario.

Nevertheless, I believe that there is just about nothing the regime can do, now, to restore any kind of stalemate. Their troops will keep becoming fewer, the rebels, greater, because of inevitable regime surrenders and lack of any way to add more regime troops. The fact that the regime will run out of supplies is only relevant in that commanders will see that and surrender sooner rather than later.

So let’s list the ways that reporters and analysts would have you think, and the ways I disagree. “The rebels were innocents led by inexperienced and flawed commanders that only won because NATO bombed the hell out of the regime” – flatly wrong. The rebels for the last 6 months have had a steady, smart long-term strategy that was just as important as NATO bombings, and that won the war in the interior, where NATO had very little effect.

“The war was fought and won mostly on the coast.” Wrong again; the stalemate was ended decisively in the interior. “There was a stalemate from March until early August”; nope, there was an increasingly tilted semi-stalemate until mid-June, when the rebels clearly established that they would win. “The war is over”. No; as Yogi Berra once said, “it ain’t over until it’s over”; and the news reports clearly establish that there is still plenty of fighting going on.

This experience has taught me one thing, very clearly; most of the analysts I see and hear are pretty much useless in certain cases, reporters or not. There were analysts and statesmen still talking about the importance of NATO bombing civilians and of the stalemate in the region as little as three weeks ago, while members of Congress questioned the President’s power to bomb Libya as if it mattered any more. Meanwhile, Wikipedia was pretty much the only source I needed to see that things were different. Folks, what’s wrong with this picture? How could it be that, almost universally, the authorities we depend on screwed this up?

I’m only an armchair general, and not a very good one, so I don’t know the answer to that question. But I can tell you, the next time there’s a conflict out there, I’m going to Wikipedia first.

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