America Has Beaten Qaddafi Before

I know, because I helped supply the weapons.


As the world debates how best to stop the slaughter in Libya, it’s worth remembering that the United States has successfully countered Muammar al-Qaddafi’s military before.

Qaddafi has a track record of misadventures extending back to the Libyan revolution, which brought him to power at the head of a military junta in 1969. He supported terrorism all over the world and had a penchant for stirring up trouble in Africa. In the late 1970s he sent troops to support Ugandan President Idi Amin, who was under assault from opponents coming from Tanzania. And in 1983, he launched a massive invasion (by African standards) of his neighbor to the south, Chad.

Chad was of no particular importance to the United States. It was part of Francophone Africa, and the French had the primary interest there among Western countries. Moreover, any resources the country had were in the south (deemed "Tchad Utile" — useful Chad — by the French), not in the desert north occupied by Libya. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a more useless part of the planet.

Nevertheless, Washington did not want to be seen as acquiescing to Colonel Qaddafi’s invasion of another country — even if it was only Chad. Bear in mind that 1983 was an extraordinary year of regional turmoil: The Iran-Iraq war was endangering oil flows in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was attacked in April and the Marine barracks in October, the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in September when it strayed over their territory, U.S. troops invaded Grenada in October, the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party (with ties to the current leadership in Baghdad) conducted attacks in Kuwait including bombing the U.S. Embassy, and Donald Rumsfeld visited Saddam Hussein in December in Baghdad as the United States began to tilt toward Iraq to contain Iran. On the global strategic level, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s "Star Wars" initiative, announced in March 1983, threatened to upset the balance of power between the United States and the USSR.

I happened to be in the State Department’s Political-Military Bureau at the time. Among my other duties, I was given responsibility for security assistance to Chad in response to the Libyan invasion.

With so much on the agenda of senior officials, there was — by today’s standards — a lot of flexibility given to lower-level experts and operations officers. From our perspective, the Libyan problem was one that the United States could address, within certain political limits. The key point was that we did not want to get out ahead of the French in Chad. Nor did Washington want to inadvertently inherit Chad as "its" problem. We had enough other crises on our plates. Nevertheless, we did not want Qaddafi — or anyone else, for that matter — to think that the United States would acquiesce to such aggression without paying a price.

The policy goal was therefore pretty clear — and limited. At the working level, we considered what we could do to assist the limited Chadian "army" in repulsing the Libyan invasion. Then as now, Libyan forces had better equipment than personnel and leadership. They were kitted out with all sorts of Soviet helicopters, aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. And given the vast expanses of territory involved, they had very, very long logistics lines with not much in the way of logistical support.

The Chadians were very poorly equipped. But they had a distinct advantage because most were tribesmen from northern Chad and were accustomed to the bleak desert that the Libyans were now occupying in a handful of military bases at remote places like Faya-Largeau, Fada, and Ouadi Doum (pronounced "doom," and so it was for many of the Libyans sent there). The Chadians were also motivated to defend their land, while the Libyans only wanted to survive and go home as soon as possible.

Our military assistance was limited not only by our carefully circumscribed aims, but also by the difficulty of working in Chad itself. One problem the Chadians had was transport to staging areas in the north from the capital, N’Djamena. So, we provided a number of trucks and less usefully, a couple of old C-130s (Chad had just one pilot at the time). U.S. military weapons were generally too sophisticated and delicate for use by the Chadians — and they had a hard time maintaining them. Moreover, to simplify training, anything that involved indirect fire (such as mortars or artillery) was not really useful. It was pretty much all point and shoot: Jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles, ad hoc fabricated 12.7mm machine guns mounted on Toyota Land Cruisers, simple anti-tank weapons, and regular old rifles.

The one problem the Chadians had was air cover. While the French deployed Jaguar fighters out of N’Djamena airport to prevent Libyan aircraft from attacking further south, they were not inclined to provide air support to a Chadian attack against the Libyans. The French were in a defensive mode only.

They did not object, however, to the Chadians acquiring man-portable anti-aircraft missiles (in this case, Stingers). Although some degree of training is required to operate them, it did not take many gunners to provide a deterrent that kept Libyan aircraft at higher, less effective altitudes. On the rare occasion when Libyans dropped bombs, the aircraft were barely visible from the ground and they were completely inaccurate. The missiles were apparently also successful in keeping Libyan Mi-8 and Mi-25 helicopters out of the way.

Ultimately, the Chadians swept through Libyan positions, and Qaddafi’s forces withdrew to Libya. The Libyans were badly led, badly positioned, and could not make use of their seemingly superior weapons.

Although today Qaddafi’s security forces are fighting a defensive battle on their home turf, there are important similarities to the Chadian events. Chiefly, the United States presumably wants to limit its political commitment, and the nature and type of aid it may consider is also limited. But so are the needs of the Libyan opposition.

Assuming the rebels can achieve at least the level of organization and training of the Chadians, the material and training support can be rudimentary and accomplished quickly by outside experts, from either a government (France comes to mind, since the country has been first off the mark to recognize officially the opposition in Libya) or even a private company.

The most obvious military risk to the opposition is from helicopter gunships and possibly aircraft (the accuracy of Libyan bombing is dubious and the military effectiveness minimal, but the effects on civilians can be horrible). The United States provided Stinger missiles to the ragtag Chadian forces with significant effect. Back then, accounting for the missiles was easier given the very small numbers. Today, if Stinger missiles or similar Soviet weapons were deployed to Libyan opposition forces, the risks of loss would be manageable, and providing such missiles would certainly be cheaper and less of a commitment than establishing a no-fly zone. And if Qaddafi’s forces summon forth heretofore unseen skill and/or courage, a decision on more elaborate air defense could be made later.

For now, however, let’s recognize that there are options for arming and training the Libyan opposition that do not require the massive military and political commitments of a no-fly zone.

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