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Professor: Stay off ground in Libya

Nicole Toczauer | Wednesday, March 23, 2011

As American and European forces strike Libya from the air, Professor Michael Desch, chair of the department of political science, said the most reasonable military action is to continue its “limited liability intervention strategy.”

“It makes sense for us to intervene in Libya as opposed to other places we have in the past,” Desch said. “We can do so at a relatively low cost and indirectly through missiles and drones.”

Violence first erupted in Libya in February when anti-government opponents rebelled against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The nation is now in a state of civil war as the fighting escalated in recent weeks.

On March 17, the United Nations Security Council authorized foreign military action by U.N. members in Libya. The council’s aim was to protect civilians as Qaddafi’s army approached Benghazi, a large Libyan city and strategic rebel camp.

American and European forces bombarded loyalist Libyan forces with warplanes and missiles but did not attack on the ground. American ships struck first to disable missile, radar and communication centers. An air attack is designed to prevent further rebel and civilian bloodshed, and the United Nations’ action allowed rebel forces to regroup in the east.

Desch said international forces were right to act against Qaddafi’s forces but should not engage the Libyan army on the ground. By limiting American involvement to air and sea attacks, Desch said American forces could set reasonable goals for its involvement in the Middle East.

It would be a humanitarian disaster if Qaddafi forces wiped out the rebellion in its violent manner, Desch said, but with U.N. support in the air, the substantial indigenous force on the ground can draw Qaddafi further from his consolidation of power.

“The challenge now is whether the anti-Qaddafi forces have enough capability to continue their fight on the ground. They have see-sawed back and forth,” he said. “Because the anti-Qaddafi forces are not military professionals, some tactical reverses have had a greater effect on them than they would on disciplined troops.”

European and American intervention bought the rebellion time to regroup, Desch said. However, a stalemate may be just over the horizon because the government’s loyalist forces lack mobility, and rebel forces have no heavy weapons.

“Pro-Qaddafi forces have tried to move heavy equipment to rebel territory. French, British and American forces just shoot them like fish in a barrel,” he said. “But for anti-Qaddafi forces to dislodge them will be a challenge.”

Unlike a traditional army, the rebellion organized loosely, lacks discipline to use heavy weapons and does not possess strong firearms. Pro-Qaddafi forces, while few in number, hold tanks and heavy weapons in their military tool belt.

“The hope is what remains of the Libxyan military will decide the country’s in deep trouble in a state of civil war and install a more popular government,” Desch said.

This military game of cat-and-mouse will need time to play out, he said, but Libyans on the ground must fight eventually.

“The more we can internationalize this, the better, especially with Arab and Muslim countries,” Desch said. “We don’t have a great interest in the outcome aside from preventing a humanitarian catastrophe.”