With the military situation in Libya possibly drifting towards a stalemate, there seem to be increasing numbers of calls for the imposition of a no-flight zone — particularly as now Libyan rebels themselves are calling for outside help. General James Mattis addressed the issue a few days ago, and it’s been highlighted by Abu Muqawama and a few others, but the implications of what he said really don’t seem to have sunk in. That’s a pity, because it goes a long way to show exactly why military intervention is such a messy business, in Libya and everywhere else.
I have never served in the US or any other military. However, I did spend a fair amount of time accompanying US units in Iraq, and learned something about the doctrine and the philosophy of the military. I would invite anyone who has served to correct any of the points I’m making here.
The US military places a very high emphasis on “force protection” — specifically, on allowing US units to take what immediate steps are necessary to defend themselves. A commander would feel extremely uncomfortable encouraging his or her men and women to hesitate, and by hesitating to allow any of their buddies to be killed. In practice, however, this means that there are going to be a lot of civilian vehicles which are mistaken for suicide bombers, or journalists with cameras mistaken for militiamen with rocket launchers, etc. There is a direct link between the freedom of US troops to protect themselves, and the amount of civilians around them who will be killed. Even though this is fairly well-recognized, we’ve seen in Afghanistan that troops in harm’s way will deeply resent any attempts to place limits on how they can deal with potential threats.
This is how it works in ground combat. In aerial operations, there may be less “clutter”, but it can be just as hard to interpret data and decide what may or may not be a threat. You’re going to see radar spikes that might be associated with a surface-to-air missile battery. This is particularly true as the rebels now have some anti-air assets, and they are going to be keeping an eye out for Qaddafi aircraft.
But Mattis testimony goes a step further — not only will US aircraft be keeping an eye out for threats, but it is US doctrine to pre-emptively destroy the other side’s anti-aircraft capabilities. All the evidence we have suggests that Libya’s military is still largely uncommitted — pro-rebel officers refraining from mutinying because their families may still be in Tripoli, for example. Mattis’ testimony suggests that these officers would be bombed prior to the imposition of a no-fly zone, because there is no way of knowing whether a given unit is pro-regime, wavering, divided, or even rebel-leaning until it shoots at you.
Unless this doctrine can be modified, in other words, applying a no-fly zone is likely to make the US, and the rebel cause, a lot of unnecessary enemies.
My experiences in Iraq notwithstanding, I would support the use of US military force in some circumstances — to prevent the collapse of the east were it seriously threatened, for example. Essentially this would mean a long-term military alliance with Benghazi, similar to the US alliance with the Iraqi Kurds. It could produce any number of complications down the road, and the circumstances now do not seem to call for it — when this article was written, rebel forces based out of Ajdabiya had just won a battle in the nearby oil terminal town of Brega. But wars are unpredictable, and Qaddafi could consolidate control over enough units to threaten the east again.
But for now, I think that there is little that can be done militarily that would not cause more harm both to US interests and to the rebels than it would avert. Providing humanitarian aid however is a different issue.