Boots on the Ground

The Obama administration should prepare for the inevitable in Libya. To win this fight and prevent a coming anarchy, it's going to take a lot more than a no-fly zone.

US Marines with NATO forces patrol in a deserted market in Marjah on February 17, 2010. Afghans have raised their flag over a bazaar badly damaged by fighting with Taliban militants in a major US-led offensive to drive out the Taliban from a southern Afghan town. The leader of southern province Helmand, Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, toured the battlefield on the fifth day of the offensive but said Marjah had not yet been "cleared" completely of militants nor the mines they had planted. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Altaf Qadri (Photo credit should read Altaf Qadri/AFP/Getty Images)

The way the United States and its allies have intervened in Libya has placed them on a dangerously slippery slope. Air power alone has not protected Libyan civilians, the declared objective in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the military intervention. Nor have the rebels proved capable of making significant advances against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces. To effectively enforce the Security Council resolution, the coalition would need to put combat air controllers, advisors, and trainers on the ground — steps it appears unwilling to take. Where does that leave the coalition when it comes to developing a coherent war strategy? Mostly empty-handed.

I’ve learned a thing or two about using force to attain strategic aims in my 37 years in the U.S. Army. I’ve had command positions in three interventions — Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq. My last was as a senior commanding general in Iraq in charge of accelerating the growth of the Iraqi security forces during the surge period in 2007 and 2008.

From my standpoint, the reality is that Qaddafi is unlikely to give up even if his forces have stopped moving east and continue to battle in and around key cities. The coalition’s choices are few, and none are good: 1) hold what it has and risk the rebels being cornered in some small portion of the country or ultimately forced to surrender at the point of Qaddafi’s guns; 2) decide to take the steps necessary to actually enforce the writ of the Security Council resolution — sending in the ground forces and supplying the rebels with weapons — while increasing nonmilitary pressure on the Qaddafi regime; or 3) continue doing more of the same — the minimum militarily.

Based on where things stand now, I believe that the second course has the highest probability of success in enforcing the Security Council resolution and bringing Qaddafi’s regime to an end. But the coalition appears to have selected the third option, betting that they can muster the political will to maintain the no-fly zone and sustain the rebel force for however long it takes to pressure Qaddafi to leave. Anyone can argue the advantages and disadvantages of these three options, along with their likelihood of succeeding. But doing so misses the larger point.

Suppose the coalition does succeed. What happens once Qaddafi is gone, his regime collapses, and the rebels win? When such vacuums emerge, the results are unpredictable, at best. The world needs no further example of the costs of not preparing for the post-combat phase of an intervention than what it has seen in Iraq. A satisfactory endgame depends on the choices that Washington and its allies make right now.

Failure to do so, should Qaddafi fall, will likely condemn the country to a state of near anarchy — in both the security and political realms. And this is when the dark side of human behavior is truly unleashed. I saw revenge killings in Bosnia and Iraq. Conflicts don’t cease when arms are officially laid down.

There’s no reason not to expect the same in a “liberated” Libya. President Barack Obama said in his March 28 speech that the United States and the world would not be able to stand by and watch “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” By this logic, the United States would not be able to stand by and watch a similar massacre unfold in the “free Libya” it helped create. But contrary to the president’s assurances, the only long-term political solution for Libya will require having Western troops on the ground. How would security otherwise be provided in a post-Qaddafi Libya? Not by air power and a few intelligence operators on the ground. Nor by the Libyan police and army, for they have committed crimes and atrocities against Libyan civilians on behalf of Qaddafi. And given that we don’t really know the composition of the rebel force, can we expect it to behave with kindness and mercy?

The president himself has admitted that after 40 years of dictatorship, Libya is fractured and without civil institutions. Repairing this splintered society is first and foremost a task for the Libyan people, but a NATO-Arab peacekeeping force, in which the United States participates, should also play a role. Washington must plan for this contingency now, before it’s too late.

Let me be clear; this is not a simple task. A peacekeeping mission is not necessarily peaceful. If the regime falls, former Qaddafi supporters may not simply yield power. In fact, they may carry on the fight by other means. Some could become insurgents. We saw this in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is little appetite for yet another large-scale ground commitment, but wartime realities have a way of forcing themselves on those involved. And by intervening in the first place, however noble the motivation, the coalition is already involved in shaping Libya’s political fate. Once again, no one hopes that a post-Qaddafi Libya will be reduced to anarchy. But if that’s what happens, the coalition has the same moral responsibility — perhaps even more than before the intervention — to not let Libyans succumb to chaos. And from a purely security perspective, nor could the West stand by if the pro-democracy rebel force it helped were eclipsed by the Islamic fundamentalist inclinations of some of its members.

Granted, this was not the type of limited conflict that Obama promised the American people. And there are plenty of reasons to focus on the immediate fight (the success of which is still in doubt) instead of Libya’s long-term future. But Qaddafi has shown he is willing to use force to impose his will in Libya; is the coalition? This is what war is about, like it or not.

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