Learning About the Libyan Rebels

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says we don’t know much about the Libyan rebels we’re providing air cover for, and might soon be arming, but “we’re picking up information.”  What have we learned so far?

Some of them have fought against us in Afghanistan, and the thundercloud of rebellion contains “flickers of al-Qaeda.”  They’re not doing very well against Qaddafi’s forces, even with American and NATO air power preparing the battlefield.  That’s probably because there are only a thousand of them.

Say what?

In an interview with CNN’s Eliot Spitzer, New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson sized up the opposition force as follows: “Effective number of fighting men, well under 1,000. Actual soldiers, who are now in the fight, possibly in the very low hundreds on the opposition side.”

Did we know this before we volunteered to serve as their air force?  Shouldn’t President Obama have mentioned it during his speech on Monday night?  If the whole rebel force numbers about a thousand men, how many al-Qaeda operatives are contained in a “flicker?”

The last few days have seen numerous reports of rebel forces fleeing in disarray after Qaddafi’s goons pound the crap out of them.  This highlights the difficulty of pitting irregulars against well-trained forces.  Modern combat requires discipline.  The wrong end of a rocket or artillery barrage is a terrifying place to be.  It is not easy to train people to stand and fight under those conditions, no matter how motivated or desperate they might be.

The great equalizer for irregular forces is asymmetrical warfare, i.e. terrorism.  This is not a tactic available to the Libyan opposition, because Qaddafi’s forces are not terribly concerned with civilian casualties.  Ruthless aggression turns body shields into soft cover.  And, of course, we could never remain allied with the Libyans if they used such tactics, or remain engaged during the long, slow grind of a guerrilla rebellion.

The coalition madate for the Libyan non-war does not authorize us to directly support rebel forces in combat against government troops.  We’re just supposed to protect civilians from butchery.  This includes forcing Qaddafi’s troops to break off their siege of rebel cities, but that’s it. 

Human Rights Watch describes the “protesters” as “nice, sincere people who want a better future for Libya, but their strength is also their weakness.  They’re not hardened fighters.”  There’s no way a thousand nice, sincere people are going to storm Tripoli and defeat Qaddafi’s professional soldiers and bloodthirsty mercenaries.  In fact, the Human Rights Watch assessment might be the worst thing we’ve learned about the Libyan opposition so far.  Are we ready to commit to the perpetual defense of these nice folks from the merciless tyranny President Obama swears we will do nothing to defeat?