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What To Do Next in Libya

Time to attack Qaddafi’s military equipment.

3:14 PM, Apr 3, 2011 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Such careful calibration is unlikely to succeed. International spoilers will criticize such actions as escalation anyway. The rebels will quickly discover that their capabilities to withstand the kinds of attacks they just faced are not actually going to increase—and they may even wait and adopt a more cautious posture in anticipation of the arrival of new equipment. The risks of such weapons getting into the hands of al Qaeda affiliates has been overblown—it is hard to imagine what weapons we would actually provide that the terrorists do not already have ready access to.  The risk of helping to arm the Libyan population generally for a larger civil war, however, is great. And, considering that coalition warplanes are already bombing command centers, the provision of more AK-47s or anything on that order to the rebels is unlikely to break Qaddafi's will.

Administration strategy toward Libya has closely followed the Clinton administration's approaches to Balkan conflicts. But the administration is now running the risk of skipping a key step. During the Balkans conflicts, the heavy weaponry of the Serb forces was also identified as a key enabler and critical vulnerability. One of the most important military decisions made during those operations was to seek out and destroy that enabler. Regardless of the various diplomatic and public relations challenges it poses, the analogous action in Libya is the next logical step of this campaign.

Attacking Qaddafi’s military equipment—whether it is threatening civilian populations or not—is an essential next step, but it does not guarantee success for the rebels, still less for the U.S. Its advantage is that it does not commit the U.S. or the West particularly more deeply into this conflict than we already are—it would keep the military effort limited to precision strikes against military targets with the aim of supporting the rebels.  It shares its disadvantages with the policy the administration is already pursuing—it leaves the West with no real control over the developing situation in Libya, no greater insight into the shifting motivations, aims, and composition of the insurgents, and little ability to protect urban populations from attack by fighters already among them.  Above all, it is the next step along a path that allows this conflict to drag on, which is one of the most undesirable outcomes. But since the U.S. and its allies have categorically ruled out any measures that could force a rapid resolution to the conflict, it is the best thing to try next.

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