You will recall no doubt that NATO air forces have been operating under the authority of a UN Security Council resolution to "protect" civilians caught in the crossfire between rebels and troops loyal to noted humanitarian, African "King of Kings," and Brother Leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi. To some of the NATO countries such as Germany and Turkey, even this limited mission was unacceptably broad and all too fraught with the possibility that someone, somewhere, somehow might kill someone else. To other members, the US, the UK, and France come to mind, the only way to accomplish the prescribed action was through the removal of Gaddafi.
Since all NATO decisions must be made by consensus, it was inevitable that the actual campaign would be fragmented, relatively ineffective, and of dubious utility in gaining an end to the obnoxious regime. When President Obama ended the active American combat role in Operation Unified Protector and handed the task over to NATO so as to adopt the policy of "leading from behind," the already lurching effort shambled ever closer to the ditch of failure. It was no surprise that the combination of NATO fecklessness and rebel ineptitude in the arts and crafts of war not only made the loyalist forces appear downright competent in comparison but moved the war to the dead waters of stalemate.
In the past few weeks, the rebels gained new strength, new courage, new competence and went from a stance of barely held defense to one of successful offensive, particularly in the Berber inhabited mountains of the west. The mainstream media seemed more than a bit shocked by the sudden transformation. Many attempts at explanation were offered, but only one seemed to gain traction.
The explanation which stood head and shoulders above all others was the redeployment of NATO aircraft from whatever they had been doing to direct, close, tactical air support of the rebel ground forces. Whenever and wherever the rebels sought to advance they were preceded by (to use the most common term employed by the amateur fighters of the rebels) "Mr NATO." Airstrikes preceded and ran in parallel with rebel attacks such that the rebels were always successful at a surprisingly low cost in lives.
The reports from journalists in the field made it abundantly clear that the rebels had not turned into super-troops during the weeks of stalemate. Often the advances were held up and even routed by a handful of snipers moving from roof top to roof top or apartment block to apartment block. The engagements were almost risible in their small size. The associated body counts were equally small. In short, no evidence of either side having fought with skill or mass was evident in all the myriad accounts coming from the frontlines.
As the NATO air attacks grew in number, there was no significant increase in collateral civilian casualties. That should have raised flags with all observers. There were darn few dots to connect. The rebels were suddenly more effective. "Mr NATO was always there, on time with hot metal on target. There was no ramp up in the collateral deaths and damage.
Putting together the dots confirms one conclusion: The more robust proponents of getting rid of the obstreperous Leader had authorized the deployment of special forces personnel or operations officers of the clandestine service to provide training, advise, and, most decisively, forward air control. In the past couple of days, due in probability to the euphoria of achieving seeming success, the British and French governments have allowed that special forces personnel both active duty and retired had been and continued to be present in Libya.
The Americans have not been so forthcoming--yet. In a sense there is no real reason. After all who but Americans would have been driving black SUVs in conjunction with the advancing Berbers and others from the Western mountains? Who but Americans wearing jeans and bush shirts would have been encountered standing next to the quite atypical for Libya black Suburbans? Who but Americans would have been using very advanced commo gear and laser designators while parked on a convenient hilltop watching the rebels mount out as "Mr NATO" circled nearby?
Positing for the moment that the jeans wearing dudes glazing Qaddafi tanks and missile launching trucks were either Agency operations officers or sheepdipped special forces members, then Mr Obama has been telling the truth when denying the presence of American military personnel in Libya. A narrow, technical truth is nonetheless a truth. The combination of the primarily Berber forces (recall that the Berbers were never well and truly subjugated by the Italians or the monarchy and steamed hot under the heavy oppression of Qaddafi) are made up of men with many generations of guerrilla warfare in their blood and American directed air delivered firepower was highly effective.
The close cooperation of the Americans with the Western mountaineers also had the advantage of putting some blue sky between Washington and the forces controlled (if that is the correct term) by the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. The conflicting agendas and presence of advocates of violent political Islam in the TNC makes the development of an alternative locus of political authority desirable. The Western towns and tribes are under represented in the TNC which makes an alternative locus not only desirable but necessary. The key role played to date by the Western mountaineers in the "conquest" of Tripoli assures that the future government of Libya will be more inclusive--a key American policy goal.
The results to date make manifest the effectiveness of the direct training, command, and control as well as forward fire direction services provided by British and French military personnel. Without these critical components as well as the equally important intelligence and targeting assistance coming from the Europeans, the rebels would still be dithering around many, many klicks to the east of Tripoli. In short, the discrete assistance made the rebels something more like a fighting force and much less of a source of comedic relief.
The important take away is the "victory" to date of the rebels is not a credit to NATO per se but rather to the decisions taken by three major members of the alliance. NATO has not come back from the graveyard of obsolete political assemblies. Rather the effectiveness of "Mr NATO" and the rebels came despite the alliance not because of it. On the ground, under the pressure of real world events, what started as a purported out-of-theater operation by NATO became a "coalition of the willing" in the same model as that patented back in 1990 by George H.W. Bush. But, as a polite fiction the credit will be given to NATO.
A second, parallel polite fiction is already being written by the Obama administration and its supporters in congress and among We the People. That fiction holds Mr Obama as a pillar of triumphant diplomatic policy and his "leading from behind" policy paradigm as the most important new foreign policy development since the Marshall Plan. Hooey! Obama did what he did in the way he did for domestic political reasons alone. He attended closely to the polls which showed We the People had no inclination for one more war in a Muslim majority country. This political reality was reinforced strongly by the simple fact that the US had no definite, marketable national interest in play in Libya other than a vague, emotional commitment to the ideal of democracy and a strong distaste for Qaddafi. There was neither reason nor way in which even the most limited of wars could be sold to We the People and congress--and Obama did the only thing he could do other than abandon the UK and France as well as the Arab League to their own devices with the result that US influence would go even deeper in the tank than it is now.
There is a final polite fiction. That is the tale of the "fall" of Tripoli. Leaving aside the tragi-comic features of the last twenty-four hours, the fact remains that Tripoli is not under any sort of rebel control, military or governmental. The companion fact is that even if Tripoli becomes fully under TNC authority, it does not mean the war is over let alone that a new Libya is well under construction. The simple, ground truth, the brute fact of life in Libya is that the Libyans will have to be very, very lucky and careful in order to prevent the start of a long, bloody, and destructive set of internal wars. Beyond that, a successful outcome (defined as a stable Libya with some plausible semblance of democracy) will depend upon the outsiders--the British, the French, the Americans, the UN, the brigades of ever ready NGOs-- to do very little.
The danger from outside Libya is that the well-intentioned foreigners both governmental and NGO will try to do too much rather than too little. Particularly if there is a period of settling scores, of payback violence, of armed quest for political authority, there will be an almost irresistible temptation to interfere, to impose and keep the peace, to "teach the Libyans to elect good men." No matter what happens, no matter how much blood might flow, no matter how loud and obnoxious the rhetoric might become, it is critical, utterly central, that the outsiders keep their hands off. For Libya to emerge eventually as a stable, peaceful, hopefully democratic society and polity, it is imperative that the processes leading to that end state be organic to Libya and the Libyan people.
A new polite fiction is emerging to the effect that we, particularly the British but also the Americans, have learned the big lesson of the dreadful and avoidable experiences in Iraq. That may be true in an abstract, academic way, but down deep in the emotional brain which drives the really big decisions, it is not. Should Libya enter a period of adjustment marked with retribution and revenge, it is doubtful that the Deep Thinkers in government and media throughout the US, the UK, France, and elsewhere will be able to kick back and remind the critics, inform the anguished humanitarians, chastise the eager to intervene, that this time the mistakes of Iraq will not be repeated.
The biggest challenge ahead for Libya and its people will not be the capture or killing of Qaddafi. It will not be which way should the TNC go in preparing for its eventual demise. It will not be transforming the fighters of the deserts and mountains into a professional constabulary capable of keeping the internal peace. It will not be who will try the criminals of the former regime. None of these begins to match the really, really big challenge.
Simple, bucko, the make-or-break of Libya's future is found in a short and easy question: Can the High Minded and Lofty Thinking of the West keep their hands off and their mouths shut.
If the past is any guide, the answer is short and bitter: No.