US critics warn that arming of rebels could lead to land war
MILITARY CAMPAIGN:CRITICS OF the military intervention in Libya are warning that a decision to arm the Libyan rebels, if taken by President Barack Obama, could place the United States on the slippery slope to a land war in North Africa.
“You can’t just give them weapons,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA officer, says.
“They need to be organised and disciplined to go from being an armed mob to a force capable of dealing with Gadafy’s troops. That means sending trainers and advisers, which means putting boots on the ground.”
The question of arming the rebels, a move strongly advocated by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, dominated the conference on Libya in London on Tuesday. Obama told NBC News he was “not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in”.
The administration interprets United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to permit arms transfers to the rebels. The debate is preoccupying the White House, state department and Pentagon.
Defence secretary Robert Gates learned the hazards of arming insurgents from Afghanistan. He was a CIA official when Washington helped Osama bin Laden and the Mujahideen fight the Soviets in the late 1980s. The same men subsequently transformed themselves into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
“The US has a deep, often unsuccessful, history of arming insurgencies,” the New York Times recalls. These included Jonas Savimbi’s anti-communist Unita in Angola, and the Contras in Nicaragua. The danger of arming the US’s future enemies is the main argument against helping the Libyans.
Benghazi and eastern Libya “have long been a stronghold” of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Riedel notes.
“There is evidence that some of the rebels fighting today got combat experience with al-Qaeda . . . They could be 1 per cent or 50 per cent [of the rebels]. The first thing the coalition needs to do is to get a much better feel for how high is the risk of arming a very dangerous element. We are not going to have any good choices.”
There are three possible outcomes to the Libyan crisis, Riedel says: “Living with a divided Libya, which means a Gadafy rump state that is more aggressive and violently anti-western than ever before; putting troops on the ground to take control of the situation; or trying to make the opposition into something we can work with.”
Riedel compared the situation to Bosnia in the 1990s, when Iran and jihadist groups helped Bosnian Muslims. It took the US years to persuade the Bosnians to throw out the Iranians.
“We have to move on an accelerated schedule in Libya,” he says. “The problem is the use of force cannot be done in bits and pieces.”
Gadafy can only be overthrown by ground forces, Riedel says.
Obama has ruled out the use of US troops. The Europeans are not willing to commit soldiers either. “The only way to get rid of Gadafy is to arm the rebels to do it,” he argues. But arming the rebels would be “a fairly momentous decision”, he points out.
“It was inherent in the game from day one. I would like to be assured that people thought this through from the beginning. The decision-making process here looks to have been quite rushed.”
Obama explained on Monday night that the US had been forced to act quickly to forestall a massacre in Benghazi. “But there is a strong viewpoint among people like Colin Powell and the military that you need to think through all these problems ahead of time,” Riedel says.
“I am sure they are making that case very strongly now.”
Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for MSNBC television, reported yesterday that the rebels are again losing ground because Gadafy’s troops have changed tactics and are now coming up alongside the rebels and firing mortars at them, whereupon the rebels retreat.
The rebels have plenty of AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, from defectors and abandoned weapons depots. Providing them with artillery and training would be time-consuming and demand a ground presence.
“What the rebels want is close air support from Apache helicopters, who would fly a few hundred feet above the battlefield and take out Gadafy’s forces,” says Engel.
“But they’re not going to get it.”