Sunday, March 6, 2011

Civil War in Libya

Turning in weapons
Photo by Al Jazeera English. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Civil war is the ugliest kind of war. It's personal in a way that international wars aren't. It's also ugly for a practical reason: the belligerents start out right next to each other. That means they can get at each other, up close and personal, right from the start.

By now, Libya is in civil war. The situation is still very fluid and confusing, but a picture has emerged. It could play out in any of a number of ways, but the longer this takes, the longer it looks likely to take.

Here's a brief strategic overview.

The revolutionaries appear strongly in control in the East, around Benghazi. There are no reports of fighting on the ground from the past several days; all Gaddafi is doing are sporadic air raids, most of which are not very effective. They're organizing politically and militarily, setting up spokesmen, governing councils, and starting to drill people for systematic fighting.

Gaddafi is in control in Tripoli. The solidity of that control is unclear. There have been reports of fighting from at least some of the suburbs. However, the military actions he has ordered outside Tripoli have been badly coordinated, small-scale, and ineffective. He has managed to seize terrain from the revolutionaries in a number of places, but has not managed to hold it. His air force seems to have been pretty ineffective militarily.

The places to watch out for are Misrata and Sirt. Sirt is under Gaddafi's control; it's his birthplace and the stronghold of his clan. Misrata is under revolutionary control. The trouble is that Misrata is between Sirt and Tripoli, and the area east of Sirt is under revolutionary control. This is a highly unstable situation. If Gaddafi is to consolidate his position in Western Libya, he'll have to take Misrata, and if the revolution is to hold Misrata, it has to take Sirt.

So, if you see lots of news with Sirt in it, that's probably good for the revolution, since it means they're on the offense. If you see lots of stuff about Misrata, that's bad.

So far, the military actions we've been seeing have been small groups of relatively well-trained, equipped, and organized forces under Gaddafi's command – mercenaries and an elite battalion under the control of one of his sons – attacking positions held by revolutionaries, and the revolutionaries have consistently come out on top.

This means that morale on the Gaddafi side has to be pretty bad, because in principle a regular army should be able to wipe out an improvised irregular force in a symmetrical face-off. Indeed, journalists have been reporting on the rebel forces' high "esprit de corps" (they really mean "morale," since there is no corps of which there could be an esprit at this time).

However, taking Sirt is a whole another ball game. Playing defense is relatively easy – you find cover, pile up some ammunition, and when somebody starts shooting at you, you shoot back. Anyone can do it, and it only takes a few days of drilling to put together a pretty effective defensive militia, if we're talking people who are highly motivated. Offense is much harder in every way. Today's news have a rebel force pushing towards Sirt, without meeting much resistance so far. Their best bet for taking Sirt is that Gaddafi's hold on it isn't quite as strong as advertised after all, and they throw their own rebellion once the rebel forces show up. If they're met with coordinated resistance, it's very unlikely they'll prevail. The coming days will tell.

I can think of a few ways in which this can play out. Here are a couple of scenarios to watch out for.

"Short war." The rebels take Sirt, reinforce Misrata, and lay siege on Tripoli. After a few days or a week or two, Tripoli's position becomes untenable, there's an uprising, the rebels march there, there's a few days of intense and chaotic fighting, after which the mercenaries bugger off or melt away, and Gaddafi ends up hung from a lamp-post.

"Long war." Sirt repels the rebels, Gaddafi takes Misrata, and consolidates his hold on Western Libya. The rebels do the same in the East. Both sides will have an army of roughly similar capability – more on that later – and the war between the two will drag on, possibly for years. This would be the worst of the likely outcomes I can think of. (No, I don't think it's likely that Gaddafi will be able to retake Cyrenaica any time soon.)

"Coup." Somebody in Gaddafi's entourage figures that enough is enough, and kills him. Discussions between the revolutionaries and the Tripolitans ensues, and the thing winds down relatively quickly. This would be the best-case scenario I can think of right about now.

There are some less likely scenarios I could think of, involving international actors, but they don't look to be on the table now so I won't get into them.

Finally, a few thoughts on the practicalities of war.

Mechanized warfare is all about logistics. The Wehrmacht was the first to figure this out, and the US military perfected it. On a man-to-man or unit-to-unit level, the US Army is nothing to shout about; the Brits, Germans, or French could certainly beat the shit out of them in that kind of imaginary face-off. Their strength has always been logistics: being where needed with a shitload of ammunition, fuel, and cheeseburgers. In a way, the US military machine is the world's most expensive parcel service, able to deliver a kilo of TNT to any address on the planet at a moment's notice. That's what makes it as good as unbeatable in conventional war – and as good as useless in the actual conflicts it's currently embroiled in.

This has also led to way too much focus on hardware. Modern military hardware requires massive, massive logistics to use. A tank, plane, or helicopter gunship is completely useless without supply lines feeding it fuel, ammunition, and spare parts and mechanics keeping it running. Whatever logistical network Gaddafi's army had seems to have broken down pretty thoroughly. Besides which, armor and air power isn't much good in urban fighting anyway.

That means that in Libya, hardware no longer matters. The fighting happens with weapons that need minimal logistical support – assault rifles, light machine guns, the RPG-7, and that staple of 21st century warfare, the "technical" – a Toyota pickup truck with a machine gun welded on the back.

In these kinds of circumstances, winning boils down to numbers, morale, and coordination, not necessarily in this order. Until now, the revolutionaries have made up in numbers and morale what they've been lacking in coordination, but that won't last. What we've been seeing is unorganized mob fighting; swarms of civilians with guns mounting improvised defensive and occasionally offensive actions.

It doesn't take all that long to put together a rudimentary but pretty effective army, if you have weapons, men, and some people with the knowledge to do it. Modern infantry weaponry is dead easy to use, it only takes a day or two to drill someone to be able to use an RPG-7 anti-tank weapon, let alone an assault rifle. A couple of weeks more will be enough to get a unit to function as a unit rather than a swarm. On top of that, you need to organize command and control plus supply. This isn't too hard either.

In other words, if this does drag on, I'm pretty sure the revolutionaries have what it takes to put together an army that's good enough to field. Of course, Gaddafi will try to reinforce his army at the same time. That kind of conflict can then take many twists and turns, and drag on for a long time.

I really hope it won't come to that, because Libya will be a real mess, and as usual, ordinary people just trying to get by will bear the brunt of it.



  2. Yup, it does look like Gaddafi got his military shit together, to an extent anyway. His next challenge is holding the territory he's seized.

  3. Yes it is. I think we would have to wait at least another week to see a full resolution to this.
    My guess is Gadhafi is weak and on the losing side, but even with frozen assets, I'm guessing he still has enough money to support his mercenaries for at least a week without them asking for more since they are losing.

    Also, even though the airforce cannot capture cities, it IS a very strong deterrent for a rebel advance. Unless the people of Tripoly revolt, I believe there is very little chance the rebels have to gain the upper hand there. Same with Sirt...

    On the other side of the fight, I don't think Gadhafi is strong enough to take over Benghazi either, even if he takes Misrata. Every fight results in more and more casualties, which is bad for morale on both sides.
    I think it's called a Pyrhus-victory (when the victory resulted in too many losses and ultimately in the loss of the war), correct me if I'm wrong. But I think that whichever side launches the biggest offense is going to lose.

    Like you said, It's very simple to build up a good defense, whereas an offense is much more difficult.

    I think that whichever side launches the offense is going to lose so many people, which then would break morale too... And so in the end are going to get caught in a counter-attack, which doesn't even need to be as well-organized.

    Of course all of this is just my guesses.
    What do you think ?

  4. It's Pyrrhic victory apparently ...

  5. Hard to say. It's rarely as clear-cut as that, things can swing back and forth for a long time. I think the situation is so fluid right now that it's difficult to make any kind of educated guess on how things will go. The longer this takes, the longer it looks likely to take, as the dynamic of war itself picks up momentum.