New Libya challenge: Qaddafi forces march on despite no-fly zone

The challenge for coalition forces in Libya is how to stop Qaddafi loyalists from attacking cities without harming civilians, a top US officer says. It is the classic dilemma of urban warfare.

Heidi Levine/Sipa Press/Newscom
Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Gaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah on March 20.

Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi are stepping up their operations and moving into and out of key western cities, despite reports that some of these troops have pulled back, a top US military officer said Wednesday.

As a result – and now that the coalition has effectively established a no-fly zone – senior US military officials are turning their attention to Colonel Qaddafi’s ground forces.

But there are frustrating complexities inherent in attacking ground forces that are operating in the urban areas, say senior US military officials.

Equally frustrating is that Qaddafi and his military commanders are well aware of those complexities, say defense analysts.

Libya timeline: Air strikes put pressure on Qaddafi in Misratah

As Qaddafi’s troops fight in close proximity to rebel groups and civilians, the most obvious is that the possibility of accidental casualties from coalition air strikes increases – along with the risk that such deaths could create divisions within an already fragile coalition.

What’s more, the current coalition strategy does not address some of the inherent advantages that Qaddafi’s forces currently possess, defense analysts add.

This will be a particular dilemma for coalition forces as the US military turns its attention to cities like Ajdabiya and Misratah in the west.

In these cities, “regime forces continue to clear opposition, increase combat operations, and target civilian operations in the city,” Rear Adm. Gerald Hueber, chief of staff for the military task force in charge of coalition operations in Libya, said in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. “As a result, we are pressurizing Qaddafi’s forces that are attacking those civilian populations.”

This pressure now involves targeting loyalist mechanized forces and mobile surface-to-air missile sites. The US military has also been “interdicting their lines of communications which supply their beans and their bullets, their command-and-control, and any opportunities for sustainment of that activity.”

The US military’s current goal is to try to strike Qaddafi’s forces before they enter the cities, Hueber said – “interdict those forces before they enter the city, cut off their lines of communication, and cut off their command-and-control.”

Urban warfare's 'difficult environment'

Coalition forces have little desire to get tangled up in close urban combat between Libyan and rebel forces, and President Obama – with the backing of US military commanders – has been clear that no US ground troops will be used in the operation.

Urban warfare, Hueber acknowledged, “is an extremely complex and difficult environment.”

The hope is that some of Qaddafi’s forces will stand down in the face of the coalition’s psychological warfare campaign. “It is perfectly clear … what we’ve asked those forces to do,” Hueber said. “And that’s to cease fire. All attacks against civilians must stop; the forces must stop advancing.” Libyan troops must also pull back from key cities and allow humanitarian assistance in.

The question remains: If Libyan troops don’t pull back, then what? Particularly given that they are likely to adopt the militarily savvy strategy of “hugging the rebels” says Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Libyan forces may also choose to take up a defensive position – one in which they have not stood down, but are also not on the offensive. “Will the coalition act aggressively?” wonders Mr. White, who argues that the rebels should be provided with “the military means to take offensive action on their own.” Both prospects almost certainly will be more palatable in some coalition countries than in others.

Tactical psy-ops

US troops could engage in “coercive targeting,” otherwise known as “tactical psy-ops,” says Michael Knights, Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute specializing in military and security policy. This might involve bombing buildings, he says, such as, for example, an empty military barracks building.

Such a move could lead Qaddafi’s soldiers to wonder whether it was bad intelligence or a mistake that led forces to bomb that particular target – or whether attacking regime security forces was the real aim, Dr. Knights adds.

Even if the coalition is successful in sowing this doubt, the Libyan war will remain a difficult one to prosecute in the weeks ahead as long as the current military strategy does not involve going after Qaddafi and his military commanders, who have proved “surprisingly effective” in managing the war to date, argues White. “In most wars, enemy leadership is a legitimate target.”

Yet it is also difficult to compel a regime’s leaders and forces to stand down, Knights cautions, when they think they are going “to be overthrown as soon as” they lay their weapons down.

Libya timeline: Air strikes put pressure on Qaddafi in Misratah

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