Why more weapons wouldn't help Libya's rebels – at least not right away

The lesson of the past week is that Libya's rebels don’t need arms as much as training in how to use them. They also need a communications network and a command structure.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
Libyan rebels retreat after forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi attacked them near Brega in eastern Libya on March 30.

The Libyan war is still young, and the international community is still groping for some kind of consensus on what its appropriate role should be here – not least of all, whether it should arm the rag-tag militias fighting Col. Muammar Qaddafi's forces.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen dismissed the idea in a CNN interview yesterday, saying “we are not in Libya to arm people, but to protect people.”

He noted that UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which allows "all necessary measures" to be used in protecting Libyan civilians, authorizes the enforcement of an arms embargo. But the US has interpreted the resolution as also allowing the arming of rebels, if that step is deemed necessary.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told reporters on Tuesday that his country is “ready to discuss” arming the rebels “with our partners.”

The lesson of the past week, however, is that the rebels don’t need arms so much as technical and tactical training in how to use them, the creation of some kind of communications network, and a command structure that might help them become a cohesive fighting force.

The panicked flight of Qaddafi’s army from Ajdabiya this weekend in the wake of heavy airstrikes left behind rifle ammunition, mortars, and the means to fire them, as well as less precise stand-off weapons like the Grad rockets, adding to the similar weapons the rebels had already taken from former Qaddafi weapons depots in the east.

The problem is that rebels have shown little ability to use these weapons effectively so far, either with accurate firing or by maneuvering themselves into safe firing positions.

More weapons – which the rebel militia is now clamoring for after rejecting the whole notion of foreign intervention less than a month ago – won’t solve that problem. And some foreign leaders are clearly worried about additional weapons someday being turned on their own interests, particularly since there’s a contingent – albeit small – of Islamist fighters with the rebellion.

Rebel leaders like Abdelhafez Ghogha, a spokesman for the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council, insist that regular army units who defected to the rebellion are playing an increasingly important role. But there’s little evidence of such units at the front.

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