The Good News and Bad News about ‘Sneakers on the Ground’

There is good news and bad news about the report that the Obama administration authorized CIA teams to go into Libya to liaise with the Libyan opposition before instituting a no-fly zone over that country. (The phrase “sneakers on the ground” has emerged in response to the administration’s firm insistence that there are no US boots on the ground there.)

Get the map out

The good news is that the administration, despite prior appearances, does indeed have a strategy in Libya: siding with the rebels in their effort to depose Muammar Qaddafi. The bad news is that siding with the rebels in their effort to depose Muammar Qaddafi is not a good strategy.

It is probably important to make clear at the outset that I do not mean to overstate the stakes here. I am not suggesting that the Libya intervention necessarily will produce a Vietnam or Iraq-scale blunder. And it is always possible that Col. Qaddafi will be deposed swiftly and a reasonably orderly transition to a reasonably decent replacement will take place.

But I would not bet on it.

Why not? For one, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper yesterday described the opposition itself as a “pick-up basketball team.” This, to my ear, does not sound like a group of people prepared for modern governance of a national state.There also have been somewhat murky reports that jihadists, if not inner-circle al Qaeda types, number among the opposition with whom we are siding. It is probably worth noting that Paul Wolfowitz, a vocal advocate of throwing our lot in with the Libyan opposition, responded to a question (at 56:50 of the video here) whether he could name the leaders of the opposition by admitting that he could not, advising instead that “you can Google and find out.” We just don’t know these people terribly well.

In addition, it is far from clear that the pick-up basketball team can win. A “senior U.S. intelligence official” yesterday reported that Qaddafi’s people have rather rapidly adapted to the no-fly zone:

Gadhafi’s forces have adopted a new tactic in light of the pounding that airstrikes have given their tanks and armored vehicles, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. They’ve left some of those weapons behind in favor of a “gaggle” of “battle wagons”: minivans, sedans and sport-utility vehicles fitted with weapons, said the official, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss sensitive U.S. intelligence on the condition and capabilities of rebel and regime forces. Rebel fighters also said Gadhafi’s troops were increasingly using civilian vehicles in battle.

The change not only makes it harder to distinguish Gadhafi’s forces from the rebels, it also requires less logistical support, the official said.

This seemed to me a blazingly obvious approach for Qaddafi to take, given that were he to move his armor or artillery, it would almost certainly become a target for the coalition, but it would be much harder to detect small groups of men armed with small arms. You fight with what you can use.

All of this seems to mitigate in favor of the government, but it should be pointed out that the unsophisticated, poorly led, and poorly armed rebels have some notable advantages as well. A reasonably unsophisticated force in Afghanistan currently has the modern world’s mightiest military power bogged down in that country with only limited organization, arms, and leadership of their own. From a defensive standpoint, a few thousand men with small arms who are willing to fight and die can cause a big headache for counterinsurgents, particularly were Qaddafi to attempt to retake Benghazi with these men he’s shipping eastward.

Secretary Gates was right to say that there is no vital U.S. interest at stake in Libya over the weekend, and he is right to threaten to quit if the administration moves to insert U.S. ground forces. It wasn’t worth war to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi two months ago, and it isn’t worth war today.