Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part I

his blog first appeared on the blog Fear, Honor, and Interest on 1 September 2011. I am reposting it here because I think the author, Nick Prime, was particularly prescient in his analysis and provides some cautionary points for technologically-focused warfare and revolutions in military affairs. This is the first part of a two-part blog exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya. These will focus primarily on the effects of airpower, special operations forces and the role of the NTC. Possible implications for NATO’s future may also be explored/questioned. The first installment will explore the way operational success can achieve or fail to achieve the desired strategic end state. The second piece will be posted in the next few days.

A fortnight ago, the Libyan rebels swept into the capital city of Tripoli and have since begun to assert control over territory it seemed only weeks ago they would never lay claim to. The side that spent months teetering on the brink of imminent demise has now become the mortal lock. Now that they’ve reached this position of unrivaled dominance it seems the world is ready to start talking in past tense about the conflict. The clear impression being that the good guys won, the bad guys lost and now it’s time to divvy up the credit. In such a low risk/low reward scenario it’s not hard to find plenty of factions looking for their fair share of congratulations.

Considering that a simple, humble deferral of credit to the Libyan people who fought and died for their own freedom is clearly not in any NATO member’s political best interest, it obviously must have been something we did. Since we only really managed to do two things successfully, providing tactical air support and sending in a small number of special operations troops to train, equip and coordinate, those must have been the two factors that proved strategically significant, right? Before NATO came along it looked like the rebels were going to be flushed into the sea like a dearly departed goldfish, surely it must have been this strategy, understated in its elegance that saved the day.

If such limited contributions of men and resources could achieve such a strategically decisive result here, well this must be the recipe for future conflicts. If so much can be accomplished with so little, well we wouldn’t need large combat brigades, we wouldn’t need to get bogged down in quagmires. Just send in a few A-Teams, a few SEALs, some Combat Air Controllers and the B-52’s, B-1B’s, A-10’s and AC-130’s, shake lightly let sit for 4-6 months and presto! Fledgling democracy made easy….it could work right?

Not so fast, while airpower and special operations forces punched far above their weight in Afghanistan in ’01 and seem to have done so here, it’s important to understand the relationship between these tremendous capabilities and the strategic end state their capable (or incapable) of achieving. The limitations and strengths of these two extremely valuable strategic assets are significant enough to deserve their own post, so that will be saved for future consideration. For now however I want to focus on the first salient point. We have not yet reached a strategic end state. In much the same way as in early phases of the Afghan war, where an SOF/Air Force dynamic duo, routed the Taliban from power in a matter of months. Yet they failed in achieving a singularly decisive strategic result, sowing the seeds for what would soon become a lengthy and protracted battle to hold those quickly gotten gains. A battle that became so lengthy and protracted, in large part, because it lacked a government and security apparatus with a firmly grounded base of public support, unlike say the National Transitional Council that appears to be taking root in Libya.

While it’s simple to draw parallels to Afghanistan ’01, and to an extent they’re valid, just not necessarily in a positive sense. The more relevant conflict for comparison is the Soviet-Afghan War, specifically the final throes. In that conflict a rag tag collection of unlikely allies (both within Afghanistan and outside the battlefield) banded together in the face of a common enemy and with (an even smaller commitment, lacking as it did in airpower) just the addition of light, man portable, weapons and a small number of intelligence/SOF trainers, this force was capable of ultimately defeating the army of a superpower. Yet while one group of bad guys was ultimately defeated the removal of the sole impetus for cooperative effort destroyed any sense of national unity, the crucial unity required to create a stable and secure Afghanistan. The failure to achieve a suitable concluding strategic end state in that scenario proved prophetic for reasons I shouldn’t have to spell out to this readership. In the current conflict in Libya a similar scenario could, ultimately undermine the humanitarian justification for NATO’s entry into the proceedings.

The various NATO states currently bowing for applause could, if they’re not careful become dangerously distracted. By taking their eye off the ball to try and advance the argument that Airpower/SOF saved the day and achieved a singular strategic victory they will both ignore the singularly significant strategic aspect of the conflict (the unification of anti-Gaddafi forces under the banner of the Libyan NTC), and ultimately fail to fulfil the purpose of the humanitarian intervention. After all, what good is removing a brutal totalitarian dictator simply to leave a failed state in his wake?

Case in point, while defeating the forces of Soviet Russia was the primary objective of foreign involvement in Afghanistan in the ‘80’s. The inability of the Northern Alliance and other affiliated groups to evolve from capable fighting force to capable governing force created a vacuum that ultimately destabilised the region for decades. Libya, itself surrounded by fledgling democracies could too become a destabilising force in the region should the NTC fail to deliver on its institutional potential. For now then it would seem painfully obvious. Anyone who emphasizes the war winning, peace-bringing, capabilities of SOF and airpower, as the legacy of Western involvement in this Libyan war needs to stop and consider the fact that the legacy of this conflict will be the success or failure of the NTC. How best NATO and the UN can assure the ultimate success of the NTC, is a question for someone with a very different area of expertise.

Nicholas Prime is an MPhil/PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies, King's College London. His thesis research is focused on the evolution of American strategic thought in the first half of the Cold War. Follow him on Twitter: @NC_PrimeThe views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

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