Saturday, March 19, 2011

The US Military's Dual Role on Libya

At 3pm EDT, Saturday, March 19, 2011, the United States launched 112 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles at more than 20 targets on the coast of Libya. The strikes are the first wave of a multinational effort to secure a no-fly zone in Libya and enforce UNSCR 1973. The United States is currently in the lead, given its unique capabilities as a military power, but will switch to a support role in the coming days. The US' immediate tactics in the so-called Operation Odyssey Dawn are threefold:

1) Target the Libyan air defense system
2) Jam communications among Gaddafi's forces
3) Establish Command and Control for the operations

In the coming days, the US military will need to play the dual role of executing the orders of the Commander-in-Chief and simultaneously shaping the end goal towards which those orders are aimed. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Commander of CENTCOM Gen. James Mattis have both expressed concern about the resources needed to enforce such a complex operation. However, given the imperative to design an endstate, the pragmatic approach of the DoD is a strong asset to the policy debate on Libya, even if it has raised pulses at the Pentagon.

Scattered reports suggest that none of the endstates under consideration by the DoD leave Gaddafi in power. This makes sense given the bridge the US has crossed by using military force in a Muslim country. Yet what exactly will occur remains unclear. Future operational plans are classified with good reason, and any endstate would require the assent of the US, Britain, and France at least. Additionally, the success of the campaign will require little to no civilian casualties in Libya as a result of coalition airstrikes. Libyan State TV has already accused the "Crusader enemy" of creating civilian casualties, a report yet to be confirmed.

One possible outcome would be that the intensity of the military campaign forces Gaddafi to divert his remaining military resources from recapturing Benghazi. Military action also could create the diplomatic leverage from the international community to compel Gaddafi's ouster. Conceivably this would look like Mubarak's flight to Sharm el-Sheikh, seeing as how Gaddafi has sworn to die on Libyan soil. But Gaddafi's sons will also have to be kept out of the political arena, and the resistance will need help building the capacity to run the country in a liberal democratic way. Without the help of an army or a bureaucratic corps like in Tunisia and Egypt, the situation could very easily turn into a nation-building mission. On the 8th anniversary of the start of Coalition operations in Iraq, this possibility raises eyebrows in Washington.

While the bad news is that the intended outcome of these strikes remains uncertain, the good news is that they are being led by a military which understands this situation to be the state of play. As the implementation of a no-fly zone moves forward and the thinking of the international community shifts towards the endgame, the US military will have an important leadership role to play in focusing the doctrinal objectives of the international community into strategically and tactically achievable changes to the status-quo in Libya.




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