A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya: Tactical Successes but Strategic Muddle

Strategy without tactics is the slowest road to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise of defeat.
— Sun Tzu

Several days into the operations against Libya, the coalition seems to be fraying around the edges. The Arab League, whose call for a no-fly zone became the rhetorical underpinning of the US case so far, has flinched at the actual implications of implementation. NATO is divided with Turkey staunchly opposing any NATO role. President Barack Obama's statement yesterday that the US would hand off command of overall operations within "days, not weeks" left open the question of who would take control, and confusion about command seems to be causing some wavering among coalition members. Much of what I'm going to say here has been said before by others, but I want to chip in my two cents worth.

Some of the criticism in the US Congress is just politics as usual, but some stems from a legitimate concern about strategic goals and endgames and exit strategies. No one wants classic "mission creep" as in Beirut 1982-83 or Somalia 1993. But no one wants another Rwanda either, where the West stands by as genocide happens. The problem here, I think, is that the real danger that Benghazi was about to fall over the weekend forced the opening of hostilities: it was a "don't just stand there, do something!" kind of crisis, without the luxury of full strategic planning. Now such niceties as figuring out the strategic objective need to be addressed, though they may divide the ad hoc coalition.

To quote another well-known theorist:
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.
— Karl von Clausewitz, On War (Vom Kriege), Book VIII, Chapter 2
Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 579
The immediate political purpose in this case was to prevent a genocidal attack by Qadhafi on his own people from turning into a humanitarian nightmare. The tactical objective of a no-fly zone seems to be almost if not completely achieved. But the operational objective of which Clausewitz speaks and the strategic endgame are still works in progress.

The US, for obvious diplomatic reasons, continues to say that Qadhafi should leave, but does not define that as its strategic goal since it is not authorized under UNSC Resolution 1973. Both the US and UK have said that the attacks on the Qadhafi compound were not aimed at regime decapitation. Yet, unless the removal of Qadhafi is at least the implicit goal of the operation, it is hard to understand how the commitment can end. Without any ground force component (and believe me, I'm not advocating committing Western ground forces to Libya), it is hard to be sure that the rebels could take Tripoli, even with air cover. One can hypothesize things like Egyptian intervention on the ground, but present realities likely preclude that With overt Western training, arms, and support (as the US provided the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan), and provided the Libyan Army is not more cohesive than we think, there might be a chance but that goes well beyond the UN Resolution. But if Qadhafi survives and the rebels cannot win on the ground and take Tripoli, a long-term stalemate in which a pro-Qadhafi west and pro-rebel east struggle over the intervening land (where the oilfields happen to be) in a drawn-out civil war fought under an international no-fly umbrella becomes a serious prospect. Holding a coalition together under such an open-ended long-term conflict is a real challenge. But absent a change in the ground forces balance, it could produce a situation where the coalition cannot force a victory, but also cannot abandon its air umbrella without dooming the rebels. It is a grim prospect for the coalition, and also for Libyans on both sides.

Not that I have an easy out to offer. To scale back now would guarantee the defeat of the rebels and would give Qadhafi a victory he would trumpet to the world; it would give other autocrats a license to make war on their own people. To commit ground troops is simply impossible barring a return of conscription, which is not in the cards.

That leaves a decapitation strategy, unlikely to be approved by the UN and certainly not by the Arab League. I'm going to go there anyway since I'm sure many are (while preserving deniability) talking about it. And while I'm certainly not advocating assassination, I'm starting to wonder if some won't begin to question if that is the only route out of the muddle in which we find ourselves. So we should at least acknowledge the question is out there.

Our ability to target individuals has certainly improved since we bombed Qadhafi's tent in 1986, but even with Predators we still take out the occasional innocent target in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and Qadhafi's security is much more professional than the Taliban's. Our attempts in 2003 to target Saddam Hussein not only failed, but even though Baghdad fell in April, Saddam was not captured until December. It's not as easy as some people think.

Something more direct, up-close and personal than a Predator, such as a special operations squad targeting Qadhafi, makes a lot of people more uncomfortable than a Predator strike. The US officially abjured political assassination in the 1970s amidst the CIA scandals of the era, though since 9/11 the boundaries have become fuzzier. But there is also a clear tradition of targeting command and control in war, and the old question of whether killing Hitler wouldn't have been better than the mass carnage of World War II is a favorite of debate in ethics classes. The US chose to directly target Japanese Navy Chief Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku in 1943, recognizing that removing the genius behind Japan's naval power would shorten the war. But Yamamoto was a uniformed military man in the direct combat chain of command, and a legitimate wartime target, flying in a military plane in a combat zone when he was shot down, though even so the personal element of the targeting is still controversial. Qadhafi's command role is far less direct, and while he still wears (ever differing) uniforms occasionally, his legitimacy as a target is at best debatable.

But if we don't target Qadhafi personally and no one close to him does either, this could devolve into a long-term civil war in which our role is merely an open-ended commitment to provide air support. We may face one of those awful escalate-or-quit choices which forces us to choose between mission creep and betraying those we intervened to save.

Tactics without strategy is the noise of defeat. Sun Tzu was a very wise man, considering many people think he never even existed.

No comments: