Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part I

What follows is the first in a planned series of posts (the second of which can be found here)exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya. These will focus primarily on the effects of airpower, special operations forces and the role of the NTC. Possible implications for NATO’s future may also be explored/questioned. The first installment will explore the way operational success can achieve or fail to achieve the desired strategic end state.

A fortnight ago, the Libyan rebels swept into the capital city of Tripoli and have since begun to assert control over territory it seemed only weeks ago they would never lay claim to. The side that spent months teetering on the brink of imminent demise has now become the mortal lock. Now that they’ve reached this position of unrivalled dominance it seems the world is ready to start talking in past tense about the conflict. The clear impression being that the good guys won, the bad guys lost and now it’s time to divvy up the credit. In such a low risk/low reward scenario it’s not hard to find plenty of factions looking for their fair share of congratulations.

Considering that a simple, humble deferral of credit to the Libyan people who fought and died for their own freedom is clearly not in any NATO member’s political best interest, it obviously must have been something we did. Since we only really managed to do two things successfully, providing tactical air support and sending in a small number of special operations troops to train, equip and coordinate, those must have been the two factors that proved strategically significant, right? Before NATO came along it looked like the rebels were going to be flushed into the sea like a dearly departed goldfish, surely it must have been this strategy, understated in its elegance that saved the day.

If such limited contributions of men and resources could achieve such a strategically decisive result here, well this must be the recipe for future conflicts. If so much can be accomplished with so little, well we wouldn’t need large combat brigades, we wouldn’t need to get bogged down in quagmires. Just send in a few A-Teams, a few SEALs, some Combat Air Controllers and the B-52’s, B-1B’s, A-10’s and AC-130’s, shake lightly let sit for 4-6 months and presto! Fledgling democracy made easy….it could work right?

Not so fast, while airpower and special operations forces punched far above their weight in Afghanistan in ’01 and seem to have done so here, it’s important to understand the relationship between these tremendous capabilities and the strategic end state their capable (or incapable) of achieving. The limitations and strengths of these two extremely valuable strategic assets are significant enough to deserve their own post, so that will be saved for future consideration. For now however I want to focus on the first salient point. We have not yet reached a strategic end state. In much the same way as in early phases of the Afghan war, where an SOF/Air Force dynamic duo, routed the Taliban from power in a matter of months. Yet they failed in achieving a singularly decisive strategic result, sowing the seeds for what would soon become a lengthy and protracted battle to hold those quickly gotten gains. A battle that became so lengthy and protracted, in large part, because it lacked a government and security apparatus with a firmly grounded base of public support, unlike say the National Transitional Council that appears to be taking root in Libya.

While it’s simple to draw parallels to Afghanistan ’01, and to an extent they’re valid, just not necessarily in a positive sense. The more relevant conflict for comparison is the Soviet-Afghan War, specifically the final throes. In that conflict a rag tag collection of unlikely allies (both within Afghanistan and outside the battlefield) banded together in the face of a common enemy and with (an even smaller commitment, lacking as it did in airpower) just the addition of light, man portable, weapons and a small number of intelligence/SOF trainers, this force was capable of ultimately defeating the army of a superpower. Yet while one group of bad guys was ultimately defeated the removal of the sole impetus for cooperative effort destroyed any sense of national unity, the crucial unity required to create a stable and secure Afghanistan. The failure to achieve a suitable concluding strategic end state in that scenario proved prophetic for reasons I shouldn’t have to spell out to this readership. In the current conflict in Libya a similar scenario could, ultimately undermine the humanitarian justification for NATO’s entry into the proceedings.

The various NATO states currently bowing for applause could, if they’re not careful become dangerously distracted. By taking their eye off the ball to try and advance the argument that Airpower/SOF saved the day and achieved a singular strategic victory they will both ignore the singularly significant strategic aspect of the conflict (the unification of anti-Gaddafi forces under the banner of the Libyan NTC), and ultimately fail to fulfil the purpose of the humanitarian intervention. After all, what good is removing a brutal totalitarian dictator simply to leave a failed state in his wake?

Case in point, while defeating the forces of Soviet Russia was the primary objective of foreign involvement in Afghanistan in the ‘80’s. The inability of the Northern Alliance and other affiliated groups to evolve from capable fighting force to capable governing force created a vacuum that ultimately destabilised the region for decades. Libya, itself surrounded by fledgling democracies could too become a destabilising force in the region should the NTC fail to deliver on its institutional potential. For now then it would seem painfully obvious. Anyone who emphasizes the war winning, peace-bringing, capabilities of SOF and airpower, as the legacy of Western involvement in this Libyan war needs to stop and consider the fact that the legacy of this conflict will be the success or failure of the NTC. How best NATO and the UN can assure the ultimate success of the NTC, is a question for someone with a very different area of expertise.

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23 thoughts on “Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part I

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  2. Your point is valid, but is the conventional army any better at achieving this objective? I argue it’s not, and that if regime change is the political objective, it can be achieved with much less pain, expense, and destruction to a society when enacted from within, with the help of an unconventional warfare campaign, rather than a wholesale invasion.

    • Well since it has actually achieved regime change at all, I would argue that yes, the conventional army can achieve it better. Since the SOF/AF team has (at present) yet to achieve regime change they’re not better. You can argue that qualitatively the regime change that occurred in Iraq wasn’t a model democracy at its finest but its a democratic government that for the moment appears functional and relatively stable.

      I also think to an extent your missing my argument. I’m not saying that airpower or special operations were misused here. And while personally I didn’t support US involvement in Libya, I’m not actually arguing against our involvement. I’m trying to make the point that what needs to be the most important part of our lessons learned from this conflict is the role of the NTC (should they become a successful government). Its singularly important because its germane to Libya, its legitimate in the eyes of Libyan’s, or at least its more legitimate than something we tried to fabricate out of a group of exiled agitators of the previous regime. Because of this, and because of the fact that it faced adversity and was forced to sacrifice for its success it has greater potential for successfully achieving sovereignty. Though even that is far, far from certain.

      So any notion that we’ve found the formula for regime change on the cheap is laughable. The Libyan people found a means to secure they’re own regime change, we had no hand in that. All we did was help give it a proportionally better chance at success.

      • UW to change regimes goes much farther back than Libya. An UW campaign did defeat the Taliban “regime” in 2001. Maintaining that status was/is a different problem set. But if you don’t buy the TB as a regime, try Iran in 1953. There are other historical examples. But whether our intervention was right or wrong, the TNC would have been crushed like a bug — or at least like their Bahraini and Syrian counterparts — if the US hadn’t led the NATO effort to support them militarily. Again, I’m not saying military or political intervention to effect regime change is easy (or even advisable), just that there are better ways to do it than a wholesale ground invasion.

        It took us seven years and 4,000 lives to “stabilize” Iraq (if you want to call it currently stabilized). Had in 2003 the US commited to the same policy – overthrow Saddam – using UW, how long would it have taken to get where we are today (or farther), and how expensive would that have been in US and Iraqi lives and treasure? We’ll never know, but I’d hope that if ever presented with a similiar task, the military doesn’t automatically dismiss a UW campaign just because big army guys don’t get to play.

      • Again your missing my point. A UW campaign against the Taliban succeded operationally in removing them from power however it was incapable of delivering the strategic knockout punch. Failing to achieve that strategic knock out punch is why they failed to maintain that status. Hence UW succeeded wonderfully at the tactical and operational levels but failed at the strategic. You also seem to believe I’m arguing that UW wasn’t successful in Libya, it was entirely successful in its tactical and operational aims. However it wasn’t, and isn’t capable of achieving the strategic victory of successfully assuring the survival of the ascending replacement regime. Since NATO isn’t willing to get conventional (as yet) they can’t either. Thus the only people who can achieve that strategic knockout punch are the NTC, providing they have legitimacy granted unto them by the Libyan people to continue the fight beyond NATO’s remit.

        Like I said you seem to be getting hung up on the belief that I think UW failed here, or that it didn’t contribute successfully or that it couldn’t contribute successfully again. If it turns out that the NTC does become the successful sovereign regime legitimized by the Libyan people, capable of providing security and basic governance for the people of Libya.Then, and only then, Yes UW will have contributed significantly to the overall strategic success of the campaign. My concern is that people will assume that their actions were more than just strategically significant, they were strategically decisive. They weren’t decisive, the creation of a germane, legitimate replacement regime is what proved decisive in this conflict and its what can prove decisive in future conflicts.

        My point was we shouldn’t jump into another scenario like this willy nilly thinking that UW alone can save the day. It can’t it needs something legitimate on the ground before they arrive, we didn’t have that in Iraq and we thought we had it in Afghanistan but it didn’t work out. If it had the war would have been over years ago.

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  4. We are much further in agreement than you think. I agree completely, that UW isn’t/hasn’t always decisive. What follows any regime overthrow is political, not necessarily military. But why don’t you agree that a conventional army campaign to overthrow a government isn’t always decisive either? A large number of foreign ground troops doesn’t ensure that whatever regime replaces the one who has been overthrown is legitimate in the eyes of the populuation. I’d argue it does the opposite, in most cases.

    To wit, our current troubles in Afghanistan are more rooted in Karzai’s failed legitimacy than in the initial UW campaign (or our subsequent conventional COIN campaign) to prop him up. Vietnam was the same way for some parts of that conflict.

    So whether or not the TNC survives at this point depends on their ability to get tribes and other entities in Libya to recognize their legitimacy. That is all about political power and very little about military power.

    • I never said large scale conventional actions are ‘always’ decisive, there are plenty of failures to point too as well but its been done successfully. I simply stated that they had in fact been achieved successfully by the US military, something we haven’t yet done successfully to date with UW (maybe we have in Libya but the jury’s still out).

      As for Afghanistan I’m of the belief that our strategy was irrelevant, politically its a no win situation. Your simply never going to get the kind of money, manpower and most importantly time, to make that country into something we’d call a success. And when I say time I’m talking decades.

      • So we agree that Afghanistan is currently a strategic mess. What would you have done differently after September 11 to deny AQ’s Taliban supplied safe haven there?

      • That’s a whole other debate I’m really not going to get into right now. Suffice it to say the strategic aims would have been different from Afghan ’01, Iraq ’03 and Libya ’11. More like Iraq ’91.

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