WASHINGTON -- Jubilant Libyan rebels racing westward to reoccupy the towns of Ajdabiya, Brega, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf are joyfully anticipating the imminent collapse of the Gaddafi regime, but their celebratory gunfire may be premature. Libyan army units, under the pressure of U.S. and allied airstrikes, are withdrawing in a relatively coherent fashion, suggesting that Gaddafi still has significant command and control of his forces. Analysts said the next few days may tell whether Gaddafi’s forces will shatter, effectively ending the dictator’s 41-year-rule -- or will hunker down and hold, handing President Obama and the allies a new set of challenges in dealing with a wounded but defiant tyrant.
Until now, the anti-Gaddafi rebels have had a relatively easy time, advancing without opposition as allied warplanes strike Libya’s command centers near Tripoli and work to sever the army’s access to resupply of food, water and ammunition. In response, Libyan army units have moved to shorten their supply lines and to strengthen their defenses in what may become a pivotal battle of the war, in Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown.
Sketchy reports from that coastal town, roughly halfway between Tripoli and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, suggest scattered skirmishing has begun. One rebel report said Libyan commanders had handed out weapons to Gaddafi loyalists in preparation for extended street battles.
With dozens of allied warplanes overhead, it’s unlikely that Gaddafi’s forces could counterattack. Battle damage assessments show that the air strikes have demolished T-72 tanks, BMP armored personnel carriers, BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and 155mm artillery tubes. What the assessments do not show is the army’s ability and willingness to fight inside urban neighborhoods. If their supplies and esprit hold out, the conflict could settle into a protracted and bloody stalemate, leaving the United States and its allies few palatable options for prying Gaddafi out of power.
To help with the morale of his army and inner cadre, Gaddafi has at his disposal a huge cache of gold -- almost 144 tons worth, according to the International Monetary Fund, worth over $6 billion at current market prices.
In a televised speech Monday night, Obama concluded with evident satisfaction that “we have stopped Gaddafi’s deadly advance." He predicted that Gaddafi’s rule is coming to an end, although “it may not happen overnight." And Deputy White House National Security Adviser Denis McDonough told reporters Monday that the rebels’ relatively bloodless victories are “feeding some sense of momentum through out the country, not just in the east."
But military analysts watching the conflict with a cold analytical eye weren’t convinced. “We’re only 10 days in -- we shouldn’t feel too good yet," said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “Where this is going is un-knowable. It all looks promising, but there is a distinct possibility of a stalemate."
Libya’s flat expanses of desert, with major towns dozens or hundreds of miles apart, make it difficult for either the army or the rebels to move long distances into battle while keeping their supply and communications lines intact, said Steven Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Libyan army units are pinned down by western air power day and night, unable to move their vehicles or armor without risk. The rebels, under the nominal command of the Interim National Transitional Council in Benghazi, “lack the organization, equipment or logistical capacity to project such power themselves over such distances," Biddle writes. “This could produce a deadlock in which neither side can prevail," resulting in “a drawn-out, grinding stalemate."
Of course, the Libyan military, which relies heavily on mercenaries and conscripts, could throw down its weapons and flee. “They were not a very good military to begin with," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Middle East analyst at the CIA and the White House and now at Brookings. They have a sizable inventory of weapons, but much of it sits idle because “they don’t know how to use it," he said. “They don’t shoot terribly well. But they can do a lot of damage. Six tanks can be a killer."
Apart from the continued suffering it would impose on Libyan civilians, a stalemate with Gaddafi clinging to power would leave the United States and its allies with few options. One would be to infiltrate Special Operations Forces into Libya to coordinate with the rebels and direct air strikes on Gaddafi’s remaining forces -- much as they did in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 when they worked with the Northern Alliance to send the Taliban reeling from power.
The coalition also could ship weapons to the rebels, an idea that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said would be legal under the U.N. Security Council order on Libya. But while the rebels seem not to lack enthusiasm, they do lack training. The U.S. and the allies could provide weapons and training, but it would take “years" to turn the rebels into a competent military force, Pollack said.
Meantime, little is known about the rebel leadership and how it might manage during what likely will be prolonged political turbulence and insecurity ahead. As Obama said in his speech Monday night, “40 years of tyranny have left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions," and the transition to political freedom “will be a difficult task."
The interim council includes some prominent former Gaddafi officials including his minister of justice, minister of trade and interior minister. The latter is Abdul Faten Younis, who currently serves as the interim council’s military chief of staff. The council also includes long-time opponents of Gaddafi, including Gen. Omar al-Hariri, who took part in a failed coup in 1975 and spent 15 years in prison.
But according to an analysis by Jamsheed K. Choksy, a Middle East expert at Indiana University, there are perils ahead whether Gaddafi is able to cling to power or not.
“Several of Qadhafi's old cronies are lining up with the populist uprising hoping to at least save their hides and at most to profit politically and financially," Choksy cautions in an essay in Small Wars Journal.
Toppling Gaddafi is only a first step toward the opposition’s aspirations of freedom and representative government. Whether the rebels take power in all of Libya or merely the eastern half, they will have to manage tricky political maneuvering and meet the public’s appetite for speedy economic and political reform -- perhaps struggling with opposition within their own ranks.
“If the rebels gain control of Libya, they will then have to grapple with those individuals within the interim council linked to 42 years of repression," Choksy writes. Ultimately, he cautions, “the rebellion may not bring appropriate change but could represent the political survival of an old guard linked to the Middle East’s 'mad dog' or even the rise of Islamism."