Small Wars

This Week at War: The Jawbreaker Option

Forget no-fly zones; if Obama really wants to be rid of Qaddafi, it means changing the balance of power on the ground.


For Libya, think ‘Jawbreaker,’ not ‘Southern Watch’

The current struggle in Washington and European capitals over what to do about Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi sounds very much like a case of déjà vu. A ruler of an oil-exporting Arab country — a veteran of military confrontations with the West — faces an armed uprising from citizens in rebellious provinces. He responds by counterattacking with regime loyalists who are supported by air power. Western military forces stationed near the fighting watch as the bombardment and street fighting proceeds. The U.N. Security Council issues a condemnation and the ruler’s overseas bank accounts are seized. Western leaders discuss imposing a no-fly zone while a few openly hope that a palace coup will remove the ruler from power.

Two decades ago, this was the situation with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, just after the remnants of his destroyed army limped back from Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush and his advisors felt certain at the time that Saddam would not last more than a week or two against Kurdish and Shiite revolts that sprang up after his defeat in Kuwait. Little did they know how much irritation he would cause two succeeding U.S. presidents. Although U.S. policy toward Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War resulted in open-ended frustration and then another war, some policymakers apparently seem willing to follow the same path today with Libya.

Just as with Saddam in March 1991, last week Qaddafi seemed certain to go down. One week later, it seems very possible that he could hold on. Although numerous, widespread, and enthusiastic, Libya’s opposition is essentially leaderless, disorganized, and untrained for military operations. It now seems a reasonable bet that Qaddafi’s trained and ruthless defenders — supported by loyalist air power — could scatter the resistance.

The question for President Barack Obama and his officials is whether they are willing to tolerate the damage to U.S. prestige that would occur should Qaddafi crush the revolt and restore his authority over Libya. Qaddafi would join Iran as a U.S. adversary that would have successfully used repression to hang on to power while the Obama administration looked on. Meanwhile, U.S. friends in Egypt, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere have not fared nearly as well. Fairly or not, the president may decide he is willing to run some risks to avoid this characterization of his administration’s foreign policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made plain his concerns about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone — similar to Operation Southern Watch, imposed over southern Iraq from 1992 to 2003 — would have to begin with a large-scale attack on Libya’s air defense system, which includes surface-to-air missile batteries, radars, military airfields, and command-and-control units. Such spectacular bombardment might be politically acceptable if it resulted in a rapid and decisive outcome against Qaddafi. But it wouldn’t. Previous U.S.-imposed no-fly zones over the Balkans and Iraq merely resulted in indecisive sieges with no material change to the military balance on the ground.

If Obama decides that a Qaddafi victory would be intolerable, he should consider dusting off the plan (code named Jawbreaker) that routed the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001. After the 9/11 attacks, CIA paramilitary and U.S. special operations teams made contact with the Afghan Northern Alliance that opposed the Taliban. The U.S. teams, which at their peak amounted to only a few hundred men, helped the Northern Alliance organize its ground forces for an offensive, provided critical battlefield intelligence to rebel commanders, and directed U.S. air power against Taliban targets in support of a ground offensive. The Taliban’s ground forces were shattered and the result was a quick decision rather than a protracted siege.

In Libya, U.S. assistance would aim to provide the resistance with decisive battlefield support it could not otherwise generate on its own. This could include the identification of loyalist military positions and capabilities, surface-to-air missile defense of resistance positions, communications support for resistance field units, electronic jamming of loyalist communications, a shutdown of Qaddafi’s propaganda media, training of resistance militia, and staff and logistics support for resistance field units. The vast majority of this support would be non-kinetic and hidden from view, and could be enough by itself to be decisive against Qaddafi.

Naturally, there is a risk that such support would not be decisive. In that case, Obama would face the choice of escalation, employing U.S. air power and perhaps ground forces to break a battlefield stalemate. Another risk is that after successfully deposing Qaddafi, U.S. goals would shift in a way that resulted in another prolonged U.S. military deployment in an Arab country; after toppling the Taliban, U.S. policymakers then decided that indefinite suppression of al Qaeda in the region was necessary, which explains why the U.S. military is in Afghanistan nearly 10 years later.

Against these risks, Obama must weigh the consequences of a Qaddafi victory should the United States opt to provide no material support to the Libyan resistance. A no-fly zone, on the other hand, seems like no choice at all — committing the U.S. to an expensive and open-ended siege without any effect on the ground, where Qaddafi’s fate will ultimately be decided.

Is asking the Army for a quick ending asking too much?

In last week’s column, I asserted that U.S. Army and Marine Corps leaders, who are already planning for reductions in their forces after their engagement in Afghanistan concludes, may face even further reductions if they cannot explain how U.S. ground forces will be relevant to security problems in the post-Afghanistan era. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated to some U.S. policymakers that general-purpose ground forces may not be a very good tool for solving many of today’s irregular security challenges.

Nathan Freier, a retired U.S. Army officer and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is among a rare group of analysts openly discussing what the future holds for the Army after Afghanistan. In a recent essay for the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Freier offered up his recommendation for what the Army should prepare for. If soldiers thought Iraq and Afghanistan were unpleasant, Freier thinks the next challenges could be even tougher.

Freier asserts that Pentagon planners would be wise to begin with some stern assumptions. Resources, especially for the Army, will be in decline. Allies will be of little help. Adversaries will continue to use irregular warfare techniques to avoid U.S. military strengths. And Washington will expect U.S. forces to solve a greater variety of "small war" security challenges, but will demand that military planners avoid risks, casualties, and long campaigns as they do so.

Freier’s worst-case scenario is a "large-scale limited opposed stabilization campaign." In this scenario, the United States would face a political collapse and a security breakdown inside a politically fragile country, resulting in either large and uncontrolled refugee flows or the loss of control over nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons. Freier further posits that the population of this country is hostile to U.S. intervention and that there is no functioning central authority as a useful partner. Even if U.S. officials would prefer to remain detached from the chaos, the security and humanitarian consequences of benign neglect would be too painful to endure.

In such a scenario, Freier foresees the need for 90,000 to 230,000 soldiers deploying to the immediate theater of operations to conduct stabilization operations. At the high end, such a force would be more than twice the force currently in Afghanistan and nearly 50 percent larger than the maximum "surge" force in Iraq in 2008. Freier suggests that U.S. planners should count on a two-year commitment at this level followed by a much smaller but lingering presence, a forecast that would imply an extensive mobilization of reserves and at least one rotation of fresh brigades to the war zone.

It is on this point that Freier’s properly gloomy planning assumptions become improbably bright and sunny. The United States has no record of such a prompt exit from such a large military campaign. The only way such a prompt exit could occur is if U.S. forces were able to rapidly train indigenous security forces to replace U.S. forces. Such "security force assistance" must become an essential tool of U.S. government policy. Although a critical tool, there is no record of the United States executing a security force assistance mission both rapidly and on a large scale. More likely, and contrary to what Freier expects, would be many more rotations of U.S. general-purpose forces — in other words, another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Faced with that less sunny assumption, U.S. policymakers will demand a major rewrite of the plan. They will ask for options that get to the finish line faster. Freier has alerted policymakers to the difficulties ahead and has challenged military planners to prepare options that are both militarily and politically realistic. Unfortunately, no planner knows how to write such an operations order.

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