August 24, 2011

Libya: Finally, but what now?

Given the recent fall of the Bab al-'Aziziyah compound, the Tripoli stronghold of Libyan leader Mu'amar al-Qadhafi, it is apparent that the regime has collapsed. Of course, much of the credit goes to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, more commonly known as NATO, and its principal power, the United States.

My friend and colleague retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, whose opinion I respect, gives President Barack Obama a B+. Karl Rove, who I do not know but whose opinion I also respect, gives the President a B-. I must respectfully disagree with both. I think I have more experience dealing with Qadhafi's Libya then either Ralph or Karl (and certainly more than this President) - I give Mr. Obama a D at best.

Why the low grade?

Simple - this operation took six months. Most of the blame for that rests with the President and NATO. This should have been over in three weeks. Instead of six months of continuous bloodshed, there could have been a short, albeit bloody, conflict which in the long run would have resulted in less casualties on both sides.

I have a close friend and mentor - a retired and highly-decorated Air Force colonel who is a true hero in his own right - who will accuse me of "Obama bashing." I guess that is true. Had the President exercised the leadership inherent in the office of President of the United States - often referred to by the Administration as "leader of the free world" - less people would have died in the fighting in the North African nation. I guess my question is, "Do you favor actions that result in less deaths or not?"

I really abhor the President's self-described theory of "leading from behind." Never in over three decades of military service and as a military operations analyst have I ever heard of such an oxymoronic concept. There is a reason for that: it does not exist. You cannot lead from behind. The basic leadership tenet of second lieutenants in all American (and other) services has always been "Follow me," as opposed to "Go ahead, I'm in charge back here...."

Here's how this should have played out. The United States should have continued to lead the operation, not ceding control to France and the United Kingdom. This operation should have happened whether or not the United Nations authorized the action. We should not be hampered in doing what is right by the collective reasoning of a group that does not share our values or interests.

American aircraft led the initial strikes, as they should have. However, after initial successful sorties, the President - for whatever reason - decided to take a back seat to NATO and only play a supporting role. That sounds great, but in reality, the only forces in NATO capable of sustained military operations are those of the United States. Although the Obama Administration would have you believe otherwise, NATO could not have executed this campaign without American support. Put more bluntly, besides American command and control, reconnaissance, refueling, intelligence, surveillance, precision guided munitions, airlift, etc., NATO did a great job. Those of us who have had the misfortune to work with NATO during our military careers refer to the organization as "Not After Two O'clock."

After the initial strikes, we should have introduced the weapons systems that could have changed the course of the battle. The U.S. Air Force has developed at great cost the AC-130 Spectre gunship and the A-10 Thunderbolt II (although most of us call it "the Warthog") to deal with these types of targets. Application of these devastating weapons platforms would have essentially shredded the Libyan army in short order and brought the situation to a quicker close. Shorter battle, less casualties (on both sides).

But no, we had to pull the much more capable American weapons platforms out in favor of the more politically correct but far less capable NATO systems. Dedicated aircrews to be sure, but not equal to state-of-the-art American aircraft flown by combat-experienced pilots.

Bottom line: it took longer. "Leading from behind" always will.

The paradox: the Arab (and at time Muslim) nations of the Middle East and North Africa view this as an American intervention no matter what spin the Obama Administration puts on it. That was a good thing. For the first time in decades, we had popular regional support for our policy, yet we chose to squander that away by invoking NATO cover. Incredulous. The Arabs and Muslims know that although this operation had a NATO fig leaf, it was due to American military power that it succeeded. This was a highly popular operation - in this instance, we should have taken the credit.

So here we are. The Qadhafi regime will fall, if it has not already. Now what? As I watched the coverage of the fighting on the various networks, it was clear that many of the fighters are not just Muslims, but Islamic. Does that mean that we can expect an Islamist group to emerge as the power broker in Libya? I don't know, but I did hear many religious chants as the Qadhafi regime fell.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood make a play for the new Libya? Have the younger Libyans adopted Western technology and social mores, or will they revert to tribal control?

I fear that the Libyan rebel leaders are adept enough at international politics to convince our current gullible American diplomats (led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) that they are on the path to a Jeffersonian democracy. Given my experience in the region, I have to say that I doubt it.

I hope that Qadhafi is found soon and brought to justice. Unfortunately, he may be able to escape Tripoli and start an insurgency. It may take some time before he is tracked down and pulled out of a hole like Saddam Husayn in Iraq in 2003.

In any case, there will be a new government in Libya. That's a good thing. We don't seem to have much influence because we were "leading from behind." That's a bad thing.