Arming Libya's rebels: A cautionary tale
- 30 March 2011
- From the section Africa
As the fortunes of the Libyan opposition forces rise and fall, there is a growing concern within the coalition that its air power may not be enough to prevent the rebels' defeat, raising the spectre of atrocities threatened by Col Gaddafi.
Given the clear disparity of military power between the two sides, there is already talk by some coalition countries of effectively setting aside the apparent restrictions of the UN arms embargo on Libya, to arm and train the rebel fighters.
Of course, we have been here before and the lessons of the past present a cautionary tale. In Bosnia during the early 1990s, Muslim forces were totally outgunned by the Serbs. The UN arms embargo simply served to freeze this disparity.
After President Bill Clinton took office in Washington, there was a growing debate both inside and outside the administration for a dynamic new approach to the Bosnian crisis. It came down to four words: "lift", "arm", "train" and "strike".
The idea was to lift the arms embargo, arm and train the Muslim forces, and while this was being done strike with US air power to keep the Serbian forces at bay.
In the event, this policy was never implemented. Nonetheless Nato became increasingly drawn into the conflict first through the use of air power implementing a no-fly zone. (Does this sound familiar?)
This turned into a fully fledged air campaign against Bosnian Serb targets. A subsequent peace agreement was maintained by some 60,000 Nato troops on the ground.
Afghanistan provides an even more cautionary tale. During the early 1980s, the US boosted its funding to anti-Soviet Afghan rebels. Much of the money to buy arms was funnelled to the Afghan fighters via Pakistan.
Money and equipment went inevitably to hardline Islamist groups which were in the vanguard of the fighting and on whom Pakistan relied to further its own strategic goals in the region.
This US policy returned to haunt future administrations. Once the Soviets had left Afghanistan many of the groups that had been armed with US money shifted their horizons toward global jihad and this placed the US firmly in their sights.
No wonder then that the comments from the US Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Adm James Stavridis, that US intelligence had shown what he called "flickers of potential al-Qaeda" amongst the ragtag rebel forces is causing some alarm.
But beyond all these political questions about the wisdom of arming the Libyan opposition fighters, there are crucial practical questions as well.
Time may not be on the rebel forces' side. Equipment, even relatively simple equipment like light anti-armour weapons for example, requires a degree of proficiency to have any real impact on the battlefield.
Beyond equipment it may be organisationally where the rebel forces are weakest. Many of them are little more than armed civilians.
Sign of a wobble
True, they appear to have some tanks and missile launchers operated by defectors from the government forces. But tying all of this together into a functioning military capability is the work of months not weeks.
If there were to be sufficient time, where might the training take place and who might be best to provide it? Might it require foreign expertise and trainers?
This is the sort of job that US Special Forces have taken on in many places - but this again all heads in the direction of boots on the ground.
The fact that this debate about arming and training the opposition has started at all is a sure sign of a wobble in the coalition camp; a fear that the defeat of Col Gaddafi's forces may not be inevitable even with the huge dose of coalition air power that's been applied.
If rebel reverses continue, the debate will only grow louder.