BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for April 2011

Change at the top comes at difficult time for US military

Mark Urban | 17:55 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

President Barack Obama is re-shuffling his national security team at a time when the resources available to them are diminishing sharply.

The White House wants cuts of $400bn over the next 12 years - and that comes on top of more than $100bn already sheared from the Pentagon budget since this administration came to power.

The outgoing defence secretary, Robert Gates, has warned that the military should not be viewed as the place to solve America's federal deficit problems.

He also made explicit his view that the US should not be drawn into a big military commitment in Libya. Increasingly Mr Gates, a veteran of beltway politics, seems to have surveyed a landscape of growing global turmoil and diminished US resources with a weary resignation.

In a way, the foreign policy elite in Washington (and London for that matter) appears to have divided along the lines of pessimistic apparatchiks and politico optimists.

As a former director of the CIA and defence chief for both Presidents Bush and Obama, Mr Gates personifies the sort of experienced insider who surveys events in the Arab world and can imagine all of the ways revolution in Yemen, Egypt, or Syria could go horribly wrong.

His successor, Leon Panetta, as director of the CIA, it is true, has been exposed to the professional pessimists of that agency for the past few years.

But in his bones he is a democratic party stalwart, and a veteran of many political battles in Congress.

Mr Panetta is more likely to share his president's excitement that the Arab Spring offers an exciting hope of change and renewal than many of the hard bitten case officers he will leave behind at Langley.

If your budget is being cut that deeply, it certainly helps to be an optimist.

General David Petraeus is now widely expected to step into the director's shoes at CIA. He does not fit easily into the category of optimist or pessimist and he is certainly no politician. But having commanded US forces in Iraq, then across the Middle East, and most recently in Afghanistan, assuming along the way a good deal of personal responsibility for the strategy being pursued in those places, he is unlikely to feel that it is all going horribly wrong.

Both Mr Panetta and Gen Petraeus will be moving into their posts at a uniquely difficult time. America's on-off air strikes in Libya have shown how reluctant Washington is to become drawn into new military commitments.

As it becomes clear that the drive to balance the books will mean sitting out crises more often the dangers are clear enough: of waning influence; a drop in military morale; and increasing difficulty in foreseeing which of the many global crises of the next few years will prove impossible for the US to sit out.

The task of forming a more effective anti-Gaddafi army

Mark Urban | 15:44 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

TOBRUK - Watching the events in Doha, where ministers from the so-called Contact Group for Libya met earlier this week, anti-Gaddafi rebel leader Lieutenant General Suleiman Mahmoud switched off his television, and murmured, "Yes, this is good".

I had gone to meet Lt Gen Suleiman in his office overlooking the harbour in Tobruk, and he was commenting on the decision to set up a special fund to help the fledgling government that has emerged in eastern Libya.

The general, who is a keen student of German general Erwin Rommel's campaigns in North Africa, and I were discussing what needs to be done in order to create a proper army.

He emphasised the need for a structure of battalions, brigades, and supporting units, improved communications, training, and new weapons.

So far the enthusiastic amateurs who have raced up and down the coast road - one day seemingly victorious, the next fleeing for their lives - have made few concrete gains.

Their incapacity, combined with the stepping back of the US from attacking most ground targets (and thus the disappearance of Nato's most powerful instrument for beating Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces) has given rise to widespread fears of stalemate.

British and French leaders have resorted to cajoling allies to provide more ground attack aircraft, and thinking more seriously about giving more direct military support to the Libyan revolutionaries.

Both nations are now actively engaged in defining the needs of this new army in order to raise its effectiveness.

At a non-descript address in Benghazi, an embryonic defence ministry, called for the moment the Military Council, has been formed.

It is headed by General Abdul Fateh Younis, formerly Col Gaddafi's Interior Minister, and has as its chief of staff General Omar al Hareri.

Several other key figures have been co-opted onto the council including Lieutenant General Khalif al Haftar, another former regime general who spent two decades in exile in the US.

After a brief power struggle with Gen Younis, Lt Gen Haftar has been given the post of commander of ground forces or number three in this hierarchy.

In the office building where they now work, British and French advisers scurry around. They are unarmed and wear civilian clothes.

The advisers soon diagnosed a complete lack of command and control over the rebel forces as their key weakness. They have therefore been assisting the formation of the military council and have provided satellite phones and other communications equipment in order to ease contact with people in the field.

So far, Nato countries have been hesitating with arms supplies, and are concerned not just to get the legal formalities right, but also to work out how they might train raw Libyan troops to operate new weapons quickly enough to have any effect on the contest with Col Gaddafi.

When I asked Lt Gen Haftar about arms shipments, he said, "we have received some promises... but nothing so far".

So the revolutionary army has been reduced to scavenging the former regime's bases and its fleet of "technicals", or armed pick up trucks, now features a bizarre array of weaponry ranging from rocket pods taken from helicopters, to light anti-aircraft guns.

While the task of forming a more effective army gets underway, the revolutionary authorities rely on Nato to keep Col Gaddafi's troops at bay.

Lt Gen Haftar says that his officers give Nato co-ordinates for enemy forces that need to be hit, and the alliance then takes action. The Americans were initially reluctant to act as the "rebel air force" but as the alliance's involvement in Libya deepens, the policy has shifted.

If the regime holds out in Tripoli and the current stalemate endures, what will Nato try next? The bad tempered briefing that has been conducted by some British and French officials against Italy and Spain for not providing more military support suggests there is nervousness about how long even the current, reduced, air campaign can go on.

Gen Mahmoud, sitting in his office in Tobruk, argues that a British military training mission would be most welcome. He remembers working with such a team back at the time of Col Gaddafi's 1969 coup, and asks rhetorically, "We know them, why not?"

Tobruk itself is an iconic place for the British. It was there in 1941-2 that Allied forces were besieged by Rommel's Afrika Corps. The place fell to those besieging forces but was later recaptured as the British 8th Army swept across North Africa after its victory at El Alamein.

Victory in that desert war required strategic patience and vision. The question now is whether the Libyan revolutionary forces and their Nato allies share those qualities.

Libyan rebel mood changes after Nato bombing error

Mark Urban | 19:36 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

BENGHAZI - The Nato airstrike against a column of rebel tanks has caused shock here, but it also shows what a difficult stage the campaign has entered.

People on the streets say they are bewildered at what Nato has done, but they are also adamant that they do not want foreign troops here.

I understand that the aircraft responsible were either French or Canadian, although Nato refuses to specify the nationality.

The incident has changed the atmosphere here in many ways.

When General Abdul Fateh Younis, effectively the commander of the rebellion, said on Thursday at a press conference that it did not need or want soldiers from other countries to become involved, Libyan journalists burst into applause and started cheering.

It is also only fair to say that many Nato countries would have deep reservations about the possible "mission creep" involved in putting forward air controllers or training teams on the ground.

Although it is widely assumed that some British, US, and French intelligence and special forces personnel are here, it seems that their role is confined to maintaining high level communications with the rebel leadership.

If not, how could Thursday's mishap in which 20 armoured vehicles were sent south by Gen Younis without Nato knowing about it have happened?

The general and the alliance spokesmen flatly contradict each other over whether or not the rebels passed on information about their intended assault. But spotters on the ground would most likely have prevented yesterday's error.

Given the recriminations, and the reluctance of Nato to get drawn into acting directly as the rebel air force, it does not seem like any rapid change in this confused situation is possible.

There have already been three accidental Nato strikes on rebel columns, and it is quite possible there will be more.

As the casualties in these incidents multiply, it is bound to feed the doubts that some Nato members have harboured about this campaign since the outset.

In addition to the likelihood of accident, the current limited state of co-operation is also likely to slow down a military resolution of the conflict.

The sharp reduction to the number of missions being flown by US aircraft will have a significant effect on the damage being done to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

The initial "coalition of the willing" air assault on Libya (in which the great majority of the ordnance was delivered by America) hit air defence and command installations.

But knocking out anti-aircraft missiles, rusting migs, or bunkers has had a very limited effect in the Gaddafi forces' ability to harm the rebels.

Ground operations consist of fast moving attacks with pick up trucks, armoured vehicles and artillery. The number of individual targets of this kind belonging to regime forces probably runs to several thousand.

Perhaps a few hundred have been destroyed so far and the British, French and few other countries still attacking ground targets (as opposed to patrolling Libyan airspace) can add two or three dozen to that tally each day.

At this rate of attrition it could be a long time yet before Col Gaddafi's forces are broken.

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