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Opinion

Time to arm Libyan rebels: Here's how

The options available to the United States and its partners in Libya have sharply narrowed. As the US did in Bosnia, NATO and others must develop a train-and-equip program for the Libyan rebels that would help the opposition government gain control, oust Qaddafi, and establish a democracy.

By Angel Rabasa / April 13, 2011



Arlington, Va.

The insurrection in Libya against the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi has turned into a military stalemate. The battle lines have moved back and forth in Libya’s crescent west of Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital. Mr. Qaddafi has consolidated control of western Libya, and his forces are laying siege to the city of Misurata, the last remaining opposition stronghold in the west. A proposal for negotiations and a ceasefire by the African Union was rejected out of hand by the opposition leadership on the grounds that it did not provide for removal of Qaddafi, his sons, and his inner circle. With Qaddafi showing no signs of leaving, the options available to the United States and its partners have sharply narrowed.

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To let Qaddafi restore his control of Libya would diminish US credibility. A de facto partition of Libya would generate continued instability and could require an open-ended coalition mission to enforce the no-fly zone and protect the population. An even worse scenario would be if Libya became a failed state like Somalia and a sanctuary for terrorists in North Africa. That suggests an obvious option for the US and its partners: to engage with an alternative Libyan government and help it gain control of the country. At a meeting in Washington, the representative of the opposition Provisional Transitional National Council said that what the opposition forces need is arms, ammunition, and training.

Should the US and its international partners decide to pursue this course of action, the first step would be to give the revolutionary government in Benghazi the military capability to defend populations in the liberated areas in the hope that they could eventually drive Qaddafi out and take control of the entire country.

Just arming the Libyan opposition would not be enough. The revolutionaries also need organization and training. However, it is not in the interest of the US or its partners to send or allow arms to flow to Libya indiscriminately without a way to verify where they might end up.

Train and equip like in Bosnia

In the short term, the opposition forces will have to rely on NATO and military assistance from friendly parties to keep Qaddafi’s forces at bay. Over the longer term – months rather than weeks – the Benghazi government will probably need additional help to create from scratch a military force able to take the field against Qaddafi’s army.

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