- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When it comes to Libya, I have been struck by the vehemence of views on both sides of the discussion in Washington. When Americans are so confused, it can’t hurt to help someone from the region what they think. So I asked my friend Yasser El-Shimy, a former Egyptian diplomat now teaching in the United States, for his opinion. See if you can guess what he advocates:
By Yasser El-Shimy
Best Defense Maghreb bureau
Despite what American generals and defense officials have been telling us, Libya is not Lebanon (1982), Somalia (1992) or even Iraq (2003). The common concern voiced against U.S. participation in imposing a no-fly zone over Libya is the fear of "mission creep." The concern is legitimate, but it does betray a lack of understanding of the situation in Libya. Unlike previous American military interventions, the local population in this case is quite willing to carry out the hard task of ground confrontations. Washington could help oust one of the most repressive autocratic regimes in the world without sending a single soldier to the battlefield. The Libyan rebels in Benghazi, Tobruk, Misrata and other liberated cities are ready and willing to fight Qaddafi’s forces, when they are supplied with weapons that can match Qaddafi’s. What is more, given the personality cult that is Qaddafi’s regime, if an airstrike could target him (and his inner circle), the regime would collapse before the dust has even settled.
Another common objection raised against intervention is the potential terrorist ties some of the rebels might have. Whilst we have no method of ascertaining every rebel’s affiliation at this point, we know that a lingering civil conflict in Libya (certain to happen if Qaddafi clings to power) would create ample ground for radicalization and extremist recruitment. Al Qaeda in Maghreb (AQM) would surely exploit the deep resentment and grievances among the revenge-seeking population. Leading an international mission to save civilian lives, and help moderate figures come to power may well help prevent this scenario from taking place. Under no circumstances, however, should U.S. or international troops have a mission on the ground, as this may turn Libyan society on itself, and may become a quagmire akin to Afghanistan’s.
The world needs to understand what is at stake in Libya. First, although hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have perished at the hands of Qaddafi’s brigades and mercenaries so far, these numbers would pale in comparison with the expected massacres, should Qaddafi be allowed to prevail. The Tripoli-trenched dictator would exact ruthless retribution against Eastern Libyans for what he views as their treason. Qaddafi has already promised to "cleanse Libya house by house." If the world decided to stand by while the unfair fight rages on now, they must be prepared to witness acts amounting to genocide on the sidelines later. An intervention then would be far more costly than it would be now, and unlikely to succeed.
Second, the revolutionaries are unlikely to disappear, if Qaddafi retakes liberated Libyan cities. They will wage a protracted guerrilla urban warfare against his troops. This type of conflict usually induces radicalization and chaos. In other words, Libya might turn into a giant Somalia: a failed state on Egypt’s borders with radical groups taking advantage of the mayhem. Finally, Libya’s oil production (13th largest in the world) would not recover quickly from the conflict, and world governments would be hard-pressed to hand Qaddafi billions of dollars in payments for oil. The prolonged disruption in Libya’s oil production is likely to keep prices elevated, thus threatening the fragile recovery of the world economy.
So what is the plan? The plan should be divided into steps that must be immediately taken, and others which should be escalatory if Qaddafi’s intransigence persists. The immediate steps should include a no-fly zone, and an unequivocal recognition of the Libyan National Council as the only legitimate representative of its people, reducing Qaddafi into a warlord. They should also include heavily arming the National Council and its forces, providing them with real-time intelligence on Qaddafi’s attacks, and jamming state television and radio broadcasting. Meanwhile, an UN-backed "coalition" that should include an Arab neighbor, such as Egypt, ought to declare a series of escalatory punishments against Qaddafi and his cronies, as long as they refuse to yield power. A series of two-day deadlines would start off by giving Qaddafi a 3 day amnesty offer, or face a naval blockade. After that, for every 48 hours he stays in power, he should face first an aerial bombardment of his weapons’ depots, then aerial bombardment of his brigades, then bombardment of his headquarters. The ultimate punishment should be his (and his sons’) assassination. In fact, this final step alone, if taken immediately, would end the bloodshed in very little time; mercenaries do not fight, if their paymasters are dead.
Winning in Libya is neither impossible, nor costly. It requires resolve and determination to convey the message to those fighting for the vicious colonel that the game is over. Once Qaddafi’s circle realizes that he and they are becoming walking targets, they are likely to start switching sides. If they don’t, taking out the Qaddafi family would immediately bring about the end of the highly-personalized regime. This plan involves zero soldiers on the ground, and would be passionately welcomed by Arab citizens everywhere, especially if it has Egyptian participation or Arab-backing. Short of demonstrating this kind of resolve, the world should take a seat, turn on Al Jazeera and watch Libyans get killed en masse.