NATO Success in Libya and the Future of U.S. Military Operations

September 19th, 2011

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On August 23rd, Libyan rebel groups seized the capital of Tripoli and stormed the compound of Muammar Gaddafi, effectively ending his decades of tyrannical rule in Libya. The success of the rebels is in no small measure attributable to the military assistance provided by the U.S. and its allies through NATO.  The assistance that was provided was devoid of any significant troop or “boots on the ground” presence. Rather, NATO provided technical guidance, intelligence and most importantly defensive and offensive air support.  The success in Libya presents a low cost and comparatively low risk alternative to the large scale campaigns that the U.S. and its allies launched to depose despotic rulers in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. However, despite the advantages in employing the Libya strategy, the U.S. should not assume that it can simply limit its future operations to providing assistance to pre-existing rebel movements without investing ground forces or marinating a longer term presence.  

The approach taken by NATO offers considerable benefits over the Iraq or Afghanistan model, the most significant of which being that the Libya approach is considerably less expensive; in terms of financial and human cost. In Libya, NATO forces limited their role to assisting the Libyans themselves remove Gaddafi and President Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will not deploy ground forces to Libya. This is in marked contrast to the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan where coalition forces were not only in the lead in terms of removing the pre-existing government but also became responsible for establishing security and assistance to a new government. The process of fostering a sustainable government in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven to be a complex, expensive and dangerous mission, as it involves not only engaging in full spectrum counter-insurgency operations against anti-establishment insurgents but also paying for development projects and investing in training the security forces of those countries so that they can competently provide for their own defense.  The process to complete what was started in Iraq and Afghanistan is on-going, but it’s already cost hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

The missions in Afghanistan and Iraq fostered unwillingness amongst American policymakers and the public to launch similar campaigns in the immediate future. This was recently illustrated by retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. During a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he stated “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.” The preference for lower cost ventures like Libya is buttressed in this era of major budgetary constraints 

There are however significant limitations to the Libya approach which should be addressed. The NATO operations in Libya are characterized by an almost entirely hands-off approach to the rebels. The nature of the force structure is such that NATO has limited command and control over the rebels or their future actions. This is eerily similar to the CIA- led operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In that context, American paramilitary entities provided a limited but important role in assisting Afghan fighters to defeat the Soviet invasion. This was followed by a quick departure from Afghanistan which ultimately allowed it to fall under the control of the Taliban and become a haven for Islamic terrorism and the planning and training ground for the September 11 attacks.

There is also the question of what to do if there is no rebel movement. It is entirely possible that the brutality of an administration is at such an extreme that organizing a rebel movement is simply impractical. It is also possible that a rebel movement may have once been attempted and was crushed, thereby leaving the populace with a sense of hopelessness. The latter is what occurred in Iraq after a failed uprising following the first Gulf War. The U.S. could theoretically limit its role in areas where pre-existing rebel forces exist.  However, even in those circumstances if the assistance is limited to the kind in Libya, then the same pervading limitations of having no command and control exists and ultimately risks allowing those nations to deteriorate into chaos.

It is entirely too early to predict if Libya will go the way of Afghanistan. However, what is clear is that a military operation that assists a rebel group in overthrowing a government without any substantial control over that group is risky. Therefore, the U.S. should be cautious about adapting such a strategy as the way of the future for U.S. military deployments. Despite the advantages, the Libya example should not be seen as a permanent low cost alternative to larger scale operations.

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