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Volume 5 Issue 04 | April 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Democracy and Dogma --Jalal Alamgir
War in Libya: How will it end? --Ali Riaz
Dinosaurs in our Midst
--Mir Mahfuzur Rahman
On the Right Side of History
--Ikhtiar Kazi
Throes of Volatility
--Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
Judges and Constitutions
Photo Feature: Survival of the Fittest
Transcending the Current Conflicts in the Microfinance Sector in Bangladesh--Syed M Hashemi

Basant Festival and Nabo Barsho: Our Bridge across Culture and Religion--Ziauddin Choudhury

House of Cards --Shahana Siddiqui
Battling it out Between 'Two Feminisms' --Kaberi Gayen
'Women as Nation' and 'Nation as Women': Literary solutions to the Birangona problem
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home

War in Libya: How will it end?

The Libyan conflict can take many difficult turns, says ALI RIAZ.

Photo: AFP

Not long after the first French plane attacked the Libyan air defense system on March 19, many people began to wonder: "how will it end?" Backed by the UN Resolution 1973 which authorised the UN members "to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya," French intervention was followed by military actions of the United States, Britain and other countries. Within hours, a war broke out. As days went by, the situation further escalated. How will it end is no longer an innocuous question but a policy issue with no clear response forthcoming from any side of the conflict and which has far-reaching implications.

Even a month ago it was inconceivable that a popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's 41 years of autocratic rule would follow such a dramatic trajectory: developing first into an armed rebellion by a segment of the Libyan population and then escalating to a war between the Libyan regime and the Western nations. In mid-February as the protests began in Tripoli and Benghazi, many were hoping for a replay of Tunisia and Egypt where the protestors achieved successes through largely non-violent means and the regimes collapsed after initial efforts to turn the tide. Little did the analysts of global politics and the policy-makers in the United States and Europe know that Libya is not simply another Egypt and Qaddafi is not another Mubarak. A country with a defining characteristic of tribal loyalty, a prevalent culture of violence and a history of armed resistance took a different path to resolve the crisis. The ruling Qaddafi regime had brutally suppressed opposition and dissent in the past and it did not find any reason to act differently this time around. The opponents of the regime were forced to resist with fire power seized from armouries in the Eastern parts of the country, especially in Benghazi and the support of the defected military personnel. Hence, the spectacular advance of the rebel forces in the matter of a few weeks up to the doorstep of the capital Tripoli. But the force remained disorganised, without a clear command structure, devoid of any leader and with no clear ideological leaning. Watching the developments with some disbelief the leaders of the West, who since 2005 had been in bed with Qaddafi's regime, decided to shift their support to the rebels. For them it was a matter of being on "the right side of history" and of correcting the course they had taken after the Qaddafi regime gave up its nuclear ambition and opened up the economy to external investments. Despite shifting sides, western leaders, including the US president Barack Obama, hesitated to participate in the unfolding events, hoping that the internal conflict would be resolved in favour of Qaddafi's opponents. They called for the departure of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama stated emphatically that Colonel Qaddafi "must leave". Qaddafi was "on the ropes" until he unleashed a reign of terror and his loyalists -- both mercenaries and forces led by his family members -- turned the tide and forced the rebels to retreat. Within days the ragtag rebel force was beaten back and began to lose the cities it had previously captured without any fight. The world watched as a rebellion which had started as a popular uprising was about to be crushed by force and the international community tried to fashion a response through the United Nations.

Until March 16 the Obama administration had been dragging its feet on domestic and international considerations. It did not want to wage another war against a Muslim-majority nation, which would undermine progress made to improve the relationship with the Muslim world on the one hand and deliver the transnational terrorists a victory on the other. The costs of two wars and the dismal domestic economic situation were not conducive to making any moves. But faced with criticism at home from his political opponents for dithering and abroad from the allies that the USA was failing to provide leadership and after the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone, the Obama administration began shifting its position. By March 18 the rebels' HQ in Libya was on the verge of falling into the hands of Qaddafi loyalists; a massacre seemed imminent. Hurriedly cobbling together an alliance and armed with a UN resolution, the Western nations began a military operation.

Rapidly unfolding events on the ground between March 16 and 19 forced the hands of the US and the Western governments. They embarked on a mission with two principal weaknesses: lack of a clear command structure and a clear goal. Despite taking a lead in the beginning, the US didn't want to be seen as the leader of the operation and expected to shift the responsibilities to the NATO. But insufficient discussion among the Western governments took place on the command structure issue before the bombing began. Then the Turkish opposition to NATO's role in the operation emerged. The volte-face of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, and the criticism from Russia also took the US and the allies by surprise. The United States' reluctance to be the leader of the operation was due to the fact that US law requires Congress' authorisation for US participation in any war, which is lacking in this case. However, the command structure issue was not an insurmountable problem. What was and perhaps still is a far more serious issue is the mission goal. Is the intervention intended to protect the Libyan population from the government as stipulated in the UN resolution 1973? Or is it intended to fulfil President Obama and other western leaders' stated objective that Colonel Qaddafi "must leave"? The UN resolution does not allow the removal of Qaddafi or his regime, because the UN cannot authorise such action. Therefore, as the operation began both military and political leaders of the alliance took pains in making a hair-splitting difference between the "political goal of the respective country" and "the military goal of the UN-supported operation". The former is to remove Qaddafi while the latter is to protect the civilians.

Understandably, the timing of the military operation was dictated by the imminent defeat of the rebels. Had Benghazi not been besieged by Qaddafi forces, the operation may have been delayed, if not avoided all together. But the UN resolution, at least on paper, does not allow the West to provide support to the rebel forces. The airstrikes on the Qaddafi forces are meant to weaken the government's ability to launch any attacks on civilians pursuant to the UN resolution; but its essential result is expected to embolden the rebels to advance and defeat the government. According to military strategists it is an almost impossible task; in simple words, dislodging a regime by airstrikes alone is a long shot. The only example of such an operation is the Kosovo war in 1999. Clinton administration officials expected Slobodan Milosevic to fold quickly after airstrikes by NATO, but it took a 78-day bombing campaign. Whether that can be achieved in the case of Libya is an open question. If Qaddafi was not Mubarak, he is not Milosevic either.

Photo: AFP

The lack of a clear mission goal is a result of another factor: the alliance does not know who they are supporting against the Qaddafi regime. The rapid emergence of the Qaddafi opponents, now described as rebels, precluded identifying any clear leadership and organisation. This is somewhat worrying to the alliance governments. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State and currently a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, stated the problem quite eloquently in an interview with the National Public Radio: "The other problem I think the administration has is that we're fighting on behalf of a rebel army that we literally don't know. Now, they may turn out to be friendly towards the United States should they take power. They may turn out to be unfriendly. But it's one of the first times I think in our entire history that I can think of where we've introduced American military power on behalf of a group of people that we don't know. We don't know them. We haven't met them. We don't know what their collective ideology is even if they have one."

Any war is unpredictable, because no two wars are the same and very few plans work out in a war. But the problems discussed thus far have complicated the situation further and have made it difficult to chart any trajectory of war in Libya. However, there are four possible scenarios for the coming days:

1. Negotiated settlement: Although this seems to be the most unlikely scenario as three parties involved in the conflict have drawn lines on the sand. The rebels and the West can't back out from their position that "Qaddafi must go", neither can Qaddafi surrender to the rebels. However, an exit strategy for Qaddafi can be mapped out by a third party not involved in the conflict. As the African Union has not joined the alliance and has called for a dialogue between the rebels and the government, it can play the role of broker. As a regional force it will have greater appeal than external powers, although Russia and China may play a part as well.

2. Stalemate: Despite the alliance airstrikes, the rebel forces have not made any major advances in the first 100 hours of the operation. If the situation continues, the war may reach a stalemate. This situation amounts essentially to a victory for the Qaddafi regime. But it will provide some time and space to the rebels to regroup and continue to push forward; the rebels will need material support from outside to survive. The current UN resolution will allow the alliance to protect the land from further assault but providing materials support to the rebels will be a controversial move. In essence this means a divided Libya. As of writing this commentary, the way things are shaping up the Libyan scenario unfortunately looks more and more as if it is going to resemble the tortuous and seemingly insoluble Afghanistan scenario rather than the rapidly resolved democratic people's uprising which the West found so comforting in Egypt.

3. Protracted ground war: The experience of previous wars in recent decades shows that air power is not sufficient to dislodge any regime. If the rebel forces fail to make significant advances and the Qaddafi regime maintains its offensive against the rebels and civilians, the alliance may resort to ground operations. US President Obama has clearly stated that the United States will not send any ground troops. UN Resolution 1973 has clearly stated that "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory" is not authorised. If the alliance ends up taking this option, under whatever circumstance, the war will be a long one due to the topography and is likely to spread to neighbouring countries such as Chad, Niger.

4. Regime change: The preferred scenario of the rebels and the alliance. This is contingent upon the strength of the rebels, cracks within the regime, major defection/desertion by the Qaddafi loyalists and a major uprising from within the capital Tripoli crippling the regime's ability to fight outside the city.

Until the writing of this piece on March 24, these possible scenarios have not taken any potential developments in the region (for example, the downfall of the Yemeni regime) and global public opinion into account. Either of these two critical factors can push the war in a different direction. But until any of these happen, we will keep on wondering "how will it end?"

Ali Riaz, PhD, is Professor and Chair, Politics and Government, Illinois State University.

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