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Operation Odyssey Dusk: The Endgame in Libya

April 28, 2011

(Photo: Benjamin Hill)

by Andrew Parker

Over a month ago now the first coalition bombs fell on Colonel Gadhafi’s armored columns which threatened to obliterate the Libyan rebels’ base of power in the eastern city of Benghazi. This critical action undoubtedly helped to save thousands of lives. Yet as command of the operation to implement Resolution 1973 shifted from the US to NATO, this cover offered to the rebels has tapered off, and the rag-tag group’s once breakneck advance toward Tripoli has faltered yet again. The consequences of a greatly protracted conflict are many to a potential Libyan democracy. So while the no-fly zone and airstrikes have done much good, more is needed to see that Libya has a future without Muammar Gadhafi. After all the bloodshed of his regime, there can be no going back.

Obviously the quickest way to ensure Gadhafi vacates power is to take him out directly. This proposal has many proponents, most notably Sen. Lindsey Graham, who suggested action be taken to “cut off the head of the snake,” presumably through an airstrike or Predator Drone. This particular approach has a few flaws however. The Reagan Administration tried it back in 1986. The attack missed Gadhafi and instead caused heavy civilian deaths. The attack was widely criticized at UN and elsewhere. Gadhafi then exploited the event to galvanize his supporters. Even if an assassination attempt were successful, this use of Western power could send the wrong message to the people of other Arab states. Protest movements could grow complacent expecting the US or NATO to drop a bomb on their respective dictators, and face major setbacks when that fails to happen. It would also cheapen the sacrifice of those Libyans who have fought and died for their freedom. Conversely, if the rebels were able to assassinate Gadhafi themselves, it becomes a completely different story. An attack in Tripoli has a greater chance of hitting Gadhafi successfully due to the added intelligence of a ground strike. There are some indications that such a plan could soon be set in motion. If coalition forces could give at least instructional if not material support to clandestine rebel groups operating in Tripoli, (perhaps via CIA agents already in the country) the war could come to an end much sooner. Even with Gadhafi dead, it is unlikely that one of his many sons or inner circle members will simply take up the mantle. There are many rivalries that could lead to an internal power struggle, which the rebels could easily capitalize on.

Other routes can be taken to assist the opposition short of assassination. Seeing as a good deal of the rebel army is composed of poorly trained civilian professionals and youths, it is probably wise to arm them only with weapons with which they already have some experience (e.g. AK-47s, RPG-7s). Also, it is the very same civilians that will be needed to help in Libya’s transition to a democratic state. With this in mind, it would be helpful if only some became professional soldiers. The focus should instead be on those who have already defected from the existing army.  The military advisers sent to Libya by Britain, Italy and others are proving extremely helpful in organizing these defectors into functioning units. As far as material contributions go, the body armor, communications equipment, and extra ammunition from countries like Qatar have greatly improved the rebels’ capacity to fight. With their existing capabilities and more reliable air support, the rebels could have a shot at Tripoli. It is for this reason that Sen. John McCain and others were right to be critical of the United States ceding control of the mission to NATO. With an overwhelming US-led air war and dedicated, organized rebel troops, Gadhafi’s own soldiers would become demoralized and possibly more inclined to defect. More within the regime’s inner circle would also feel the mounting pressure.

Once the Gadhafi regime is removed from power, forging a democracy in Libya will bring many challenges. As Neil MacFarquhar wrote of Libya in his book The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday, “In theory, the people ran everything. In practice, nothing ran.” Colonel Gadhafi claimed to abolish leaders while concentrating almost every aspect of society under his own absolutism. With such a system gone, the Libyan people will have to start from scratch. They should not have to do this alone. The Benghazi-based National Transitional Council has already been recognized by important European and Arab countries. With the recent visit of Senator McCain to Benghazi, vouching for the NTC’s non-terrorist, heroic character, the United States may soon follow. Calls to release the regime’s frozen assets to the NTC should be answered swiftly. These funds will be crucial to building new state institutions, including a new police force, a reformed educational system, and other vital social services. Libya happens to sit between Tunisia and Egypt, two countries facing similar problems in the transition to democracy. All of these countries can learn from one another through the trial and error of state-building. While Libya’s future is unknown, one hope remains clear: that a long era of authoritarianism in the Middle East will soon come to a close.

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