Too much is being made of the debate over whether to arm the Libyan rebels. We now know enough to conclude that we should do so. As General Carter Ham of AFRICOM has noted, they remain outgunned and probably outnumbered just by the relatively small ranks of Qaddafi loyalists within the Libyan army. Even for the limited goal of being able to end the air campaign at some point and not see the rebels overrun, we need to help them.
In response to NATO supreme commander Admiral Jim Stavridis’s recent US Congressional testimony about the possibility that al Qaeda elements may be found within rebel ranks, we need to take two steps. First, we need more intelligence about the rebels. Second, we need to discourage them from any further collaboration with terrorists and reassure them that they can be effective without such nefarious influences. Both these measures require expanded contact with the insurgents and some degree of assistance to them.
Our declared national policy is that Qaddafi must go. Even if that takes months or more, and a ceasefire leaves him temporarily in control of Tripoli and environs as we use economic, diplomatic, and legal means to finish the job, his regime—and his army—will not lead the country much longer. So the current rebel army will be at least part of the country’s future armed forces. Thus it makes sense to start working with them now, since it is only a matter of time in any case.
The U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing the air campaign to date precludes foreign armies of occupation but not the types of special forces that would be needed to transfer weapons to the rebels and train them in proper use of these military supplies. And as US Secretary Clinton rightly argued in London this week, the resolution also allows broad enough measures to stave off Qaddafi’s forces that it can be interpreted to allow some arming of his opponents despite the general ban on arms transfers also (regrettably) included in the document.
But arming the rebels does not mean preparing them to march on Tripoli necessarily. That is a key point being lost in the current debate. Military analysts will often argue that the distinction between offensive and defensive weapons is not so clean as people like to assume in general. Even a weapon that just helps you hold your position in one place, and thus appears defensive, can enable you to swing more forces to a simultaneous offensive operation elsewhere, serving a more ambitious agenda. But in the case of Libya, given the terrain and the military laydown of friendly and enemy forces, the distinction does have some meaning. For now at least, we should provide defensive weapons but not offensive ones.
To overthrow Qaddafi, rebels would need ground vehicles and logistics systems capable of moving several hundred miles to the west from their current positions. Providing these would require major numbers of large western airlift sorties at a minimum and probably sea delivery of some of the equipment. It would also represent a clearly discernible escalation.
By contrast, providing the rebels with things like good antitank weapons and communications gear, as well as medical supplies and other logistical necessities, is a prerequisite to a stable outcome. If the air campaign is not to endure indefinitely, we need to start making the rebels’ positions more robust. That will require a combination of better capabilities for them, and perhaps too some type of international monitoring force interposed between them and Qaddafi loyalists down the road, unless we get lucky and the Qaddafi inner circle splinters in such a way that a rapid ouster of the mad dog of the Middle East becomes feasible in the coming days and weeks.
In short, one need not envision a military overthrow of Qaddafi to favor arming the rebels. The latter option is appearing increasingly necessary for simple defensive purposes, as well as for the broader diplomatic and strategic purpose of beginning to build an alternative Libyan government.
The endgame here may well be a ceasefire, continued sanctions on Qaddafi combined with a lifting of such sanctions on eastern Libya, and a protracted international effort to make Qaddafi see the inevitability of his departure. Even that approach will require making him realize that the rebels cannot be defeated, and that they will someday (even if not soon) be capable of overthrowing him should he try to stay in power indefinitely. Again, a limited effort at arming the liberators of Libya is a necessary part of such a strategy. It is time to begin.