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03.18.11

The Best Military Option for Libya

Now that the U.N. Security Council has authorized military action in Libya, will a no-fly zone be enough? And how would a no-drive zone or arming the rebels work? The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon on the logistics—and whether the U.S. will take the lead.

French planes opened fire on a Libyan tank, hours after an international coalition made up of European and Arab countries and the U.S. announced they would take military action against Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Following an emergency meeting in Paris of world leaders, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced fighter planes from his country were already patrolling Libya after Gaddafi reportedly ignored international demands for a cease-fire. Gaddafi issued warnings to President Obama and other world leaders, writing that Gaddafi is an essential ally against al Qaeda. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rebuffed Gaddafi, saying “we will stand with the people of Libya and we will not waiver (in our effort) to protect them.” This marks the largest international military intervention since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Will a no-fly zone be enough? And how would a no-drive zone or arming the rebels work? The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon on the logistics—and whether the U.S. will take the lead.

The U.N. Security Council’s decision to authorize various types of possible military action against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya, excluding a ground invasion but potentially including many other options, raises several pressing questions. So does President Obama’s statement Friday that the U.S. role will be real but that Washington will continue to defer to Britain and France. And even more questions surround Libya’s claim that it is unilaterally imposing a cease-fire.

First, let us consider the options. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned of the difficulty of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, pointing out that it involves not just patrolling the skies but dropping ordnance on air-defense facilities. A no-fly zone would be an act of war, even if a limited and justified one.

If a no-fly zone, no-drive zone, or weapons transfers don’t work, it is hard to believe that no one would consider deploying a coalition of foreign troops into rebel-held areas.

But creating such zones is eminently doable and not particularly risky, especially given Libya’s location and geography. It is no cakewalk, though. Libyan military personnel on the ground—or civilians deliberately deployed near radar installations, air-defense control sites, and the like, as human shields—could be killed. NATO pilots could be lost, especially if they fly at low altitude to crater runways or pursue attack helicopters.

There are, moreover, various ways to impose no-fly zones—and I am not convinced that Britain and France have enough deployable airpower to handle the bulk of the more robust approaches themselves. Maintaining constant vigilance over all Libyan airfields and near all rebel-held cities, with quick-response forces available should Gaddafi try to attack the NATO planes, could demand more than 100 planes. By contrast, if we were prepared to tolerate the occasional short helicopter flight, or simply detect that flight so that the helicopter could be subsequently destroyed once it landed, smaller numbers of planes might suffice, and European allies plus a couple of Arab states might be able to accomplish the task.

Either way, a no-fly zone might not accomplish its goals of fending off Gaddafi’s brutes and foreign mercenaries, as their major weapons are not exclusively airplanes. It is encouraging that the prospect seems to scare Gaddafi, but that is not yet conclusive proof that the effort will work.

What about a no-drive zone? Mercenary forces have been moving into Libya from abroad, and Gaddafi has been massing his forces near various rebel strongholds around the country. Most, presumably, are moving on major highways near the coast; that is where almost all Libyans live, and the country is small enough in population that its infrastructure and road system are limited in scale. Outside airpower could therefore probably be quite effective in attacking these forces when they mass on highways. Such an approach also could be used to strike if they try to move off highways for final approaches into cities.

That said, distinguishing lighter types of military vehicles from civilian vehicles can be hard, and targeting mistakes could occur, especially if weather conditions turn poor. And many of Gaddafi’s forces have already deployed around the country, of course, so it may be too late for this option to be used to its greatest effectiveness. That said, if Gaddafi were to try to mass forces for a larger assault, say on Benghazi, in the coming days or weeks, this approach could work to prevent their movement.

On balance, I would surmise that the sum total of a no-fly zone and no-drive zone would be enough to prevent the rebel strongholds from being overrun. But this is informed speculation, not a definitive assessment.

Should we equip the opposition more robustly? So far the rebel forces appear to be surviving through a combination of defections from the army, ransacking of military warehouses, and use of personal weapons or improvised devices of various sorts. Alas, the resulting portfolio of weapons in rebel hands has not been enough, ultimately, to hold off Gaddafi’s legions—and it certainly has not been enough to march on Tripoli, if that is our goal for the opposition.

Arms transfers can happen fast once authorized. Delivery of antitank and antiaircraft weapons of some types can be carried out within days—that is, if we know who needs them and who can be trusted with them. They can supplement no-fly and no-drive zones. But of course they run risks. How to deliver the weapons, and to whom, are two difficult questions, for starters.

The notion of an invasion has been ruled out by the U.N. resolution, as well as by President Obama. But if all the above steps are attempted in the coming days and fail, it is hard to believe that no one would consider deploying a coalition of foreign troops into rebel-held areas to help in their defense.

Roughly two brigades of outside forces, say 10,000 to 15,000 troops, could deploy to Libya with light weapons within a couple of weeks and protect at least the major rebel strongholds in union with opposition forces.

Clearly, it would be especially important for such a force to include Arabs and other Muslims rather than be NATO-led. And with American forces so preoccupied elsewhere, it would be best if the U.S. contribution could be limited to providing logistics and communications support. An invasion could be accompanied by a formal Arab League/U.N./NATO/African Union joint resolution, ideally, stating that its only purpose was defensive and that it would not be used to move on Tripoli or overthrow Gaddafi.

Beyond this taxonomy of options, the big question is this: What outcome are we seeking with any military intervention? Interestingly, as the president has underscored, it is not the same as our preferred end-state in this crisis—the departure of Gaddafi from power. As such, the dangers of escalation, while real, are probably limited, as we are not seeking to depose Gaddafi or help anyone march on Tripoli.

Looking down the road, some foreign forces might be needed, under U.N. auspices, to monitor a cease-fire and ensure that rebel-held areas are not attacked. That peacekeeping force could be juxtaposed with a negotiation to create a power-sharing arrangement with Gaddafi. This approach might or might not ultimately force him from power down the road. He might refuse to negotiate such terms, hunkering down in Tripoli indefinitely under the cease-fire, with limited oil revenue or control of national territory. We could probably live with such a protracted cease-fire, though it would take some effort to maintain.

On balance, I believe our military options are reasonably appealing for the future. But of course, we are nowhere near out of the woods yet.

Michael O’Hanlon is director of research for foreign policy at The Brookings Institution and co-author of the new book Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.