By BJ Bjornson
It appears that the six-month long battle for Libya may be reaching a climax as the rebel forces have advanced into and taken control of much of Tripoli. Of course, this is significant, and has been reported as though it marks the end of Gaddafi's regime. I'm less certain of the latter point, and far less certain that it marks the end of real fighting. I found the following post at Lawyers, Guns and Money to be a good starting point to start thinking about what might come next, particularly his second point.
The course of the war vindicates the �Afghan Model� as a military technique, if not as a political strategy. To review, the Afghan Model is based on the idea that airpower and special forces can help indigenous troops can win wars against numerically and organizationally stronger opponents. Special forces take on training, command, and liason roles, airpower conducts close air support, attrition, and interdiction missions, and the indigenous troops force the enemy to defend strongpoints from fixed locations. This model worked very well in the first several months of the Afghanistan war, but it worked rather less well at the start of the Libyan Civil War. Although airstrikes were able to freeze Gaddafi loyalist forces, rebel offensives initially failed.
With what looks like a rebel victory in the offing, the specifically military aspect of the Afghan Model seems to have been vindicated, if in slow motion. However, the Afghan Model is as much a political as a military concept. Politically, the AM is supposed to minimize domestic opposition in the intervening country, minimize nationalist reaction in the target country, and minimize international upheaval. In Libya, the grade is mixed on all three. Cameron, Sarkozy, and Obama probably received more flak than they had expected, mostly because the war stretched so long. The war likely stretched so long at least in part because of nationalist reaction within Libya. The international community remained relatively quiet, although the violence in Syria and the ongoing collapse of the global economy may have played some part.
The other political aspect of the Afghan Model involves post-conflict stability. If Libya crumbles back into civil war in the wake of Gaddafi�s fall, it won�t reflect well on a strategic concept that promises large returns at minimal risk.
While I was also surprised at the time it has taken for the rebels to progress this far against Gaddafi�s loyalists, but then Afghanistan started with the full force of Western military power and logistic ability available, an even less modern military power opposing them, and a far more experienced opposition force to use a proxy.
In the medium term, there is the question of whether or not the myriad rebel groups will be able to get along and share power. I admit to near complete ignorance regarding such prospects. A couple of articles at the Guardian state that the divisions aren't so bad, but that says little of how they will effect matters going forward, particularly if their leadership starts using those divisions for their personal gain, as often seems to happen in dictatorships and democracys both.
The short term is another matter, where we get to ask whether or not the fall of Tripoli, and even potentially the death or capture of Gaddafi, will actually end the conflict that has been raging across Libya these past six months. The times when the loss of a city or a leader signaled the end of hostilities have long since passed. Gaddafi did have support from his own tribe and at least a couple of other closely affiliated tribes, and those kinds of divisions are the type to persist regardless of any change in the leadership or on the ground.
The place I think bears watching now is Sirte, Gaddafi�s hometown and the place where the rebels were turned back more than once before when they appeared to have the upper hand on the regime. It is there where resistance to a non-Gaddafi regime would presumable be highest, and where the campaign to overthrow him may yet find itself facing a tough battle.
In the east of the country, where early on in the conflict there were some fairly dramatic shifts in territory along the coastal road, things have been fairly bogged down while the real action has been focused on the west and Tripoli, with the last report I read talking about fighting over the oil port of Brega. That may soon change, and the central parts of Libya still under the old regime�s control will now face committed opponents on both sides. In this, the fall of Tripoli is significant in that it probably does signify one of the last chapters of the conventional war.
Two things will help determine if the end of the conventional war only signals the beginnings of the unconventional one. The first is just how deep the tribal loyalties and affiliations of Gaddafi�s supporters are, and if they�re willing to continue fighting for their lost prestigious position in the country. Related to that is just how far the rebels go in their purging of the former regime and their allies. If they are too heavy-handed in this, it may spark the kind of resistance-as-survival-mechanism that whatever loyalty those families had to Gaddafi would be unable to support on its own. On that second point, there have been a few worrying reports I�ve read of purges in rebel-captured towns, so it bears close scrutiny.
The real battles now are on the political side of things, despite the very real fighting still going on, which makes it far too early for me to call this thing over. One thing everyone should have learned from Afghanistan and Iraq is that winning the battles is completely different from achieving real peace, and it is only with the latter that this intervention can be called a success.
For that, we�ll have to wait and see.