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Libya’s Colonial War One Year Later

RIA Novosti military commentator Konstantin Bogdanov

17libya165582494.jpg

February 17, 2012

The uprising against the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi started in Libya one year ago, on February 15, 2011. France and Britain conducted the supporting military operation with great difficulty and much deeper involvement than they had planned, hoping initially for a quick colonial campaign.

The fleeting rebel war

The desultory guerrilla warfare waged by the rebels was transformed into a victory by direct foreign intervention – both the air and missile strikes of the NATO forces against Gaddafi loyalists as well as all kinds of secret missions, from sending instructors and advisers to the direct participation of special forces in the assault on Tripoli.

Despite the widespread belief in Russia, the United States was cool toward the Libyan operation from the start. Washington did all it could to minimize its involvement in the war. It performed the bulk of the initial strikes on Libyan targets in late March with its warplanes and over 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

However, responsibility later shifted from the United States to NATO and then, due to disagreements within Europe, the mission was taken over by the French and British.

There was no stable frontline in Libya; fighting took place near major cities and strategically important infrastructure facilities of the Gaddafi regime. Hostilities would flare and subside. Neither side was terribly effective, to put it mildly.

But the mediocre rebel command and total lack of combat training of their fighters were compensated for by NATO air strikes on Gaddafi troops. Otherwise the scattered units of "freedom fighters" would have been smashed by tanks.

However, even in these almost ideal conditions, the Libyan rebels were still essentially good for nothing. Having cleared the sandbox for its younger brothers from France and Britain, the United States withdrew from battlefield in early April. The long-distance involvement of France and Britain could not turn the tide of the war in favor of the rebels.

Corsairs under the Qatari flag

Late last spring it suddenly dawned on the coalition that the Gaddafi regime was not going to collapse any time soon. Moreover, despite the daily pressure of NATO’s overwhelming air superiority and the use of cutting edge reconnaissance equipment, Gaddafi forces managed to carry out limited but painful attacks on the rebels.

Something had to be done with the "army" of the rebel Transitional National Council immediately or the stalemate could have dragged out for years. The cost of running the war was a heavy burden for both Paris and London. The Obama administration vacillated, without promising either resolute military support or America’s complete withdrawal from the Libyan mess.

This is why coalition instructors began training the rebels. First, they wanted to at least teach them the ABCs of military discipline and enhance their coordination in combat, even if they would never be fully combat ready.

Second, instructors planned to resolve the control issue by taking over the rebel command.

Third, they wanted to conduct reconnaissance and use communication equipment to target Gaddafi positions.

Shortly before the assault on Tripoli, the "Toyota war" intensified. Equipped with large caliber machine guns, rifle guns, anti-tank weapons and even multiple-launch rocket systems, pickup trucks were an extremely effective combat vehicle.

French military advisors had successfully used this novel form of warfare against the Gaddafi army during the Libyan invasion of Chad in 1986-1987. The civil wars in Chad and Sudan were also Toyota wars.

Did this help? As we see from the results of the assault on Tripoli in late August, the answer is "yes." It was even possible to coordinate the rebels’ actions in the operation and during the sea landing.

It is still unclear to which extent the 22nd regiment of the British SAS (their presence as "commanders" was officially acknowledged) took part in the hostilities. The same applies to the involvement of special units from France (their participation was officially denied although French were seen by many) and from the armies of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Unlike the hypothetical Franco-British involvement, Qatar and the UAE took a direct part in the hostilities. There are no official confirmations of their participation, but no one is hiding it too hard.

There is one more open question – who were these 21st-century Corsairs and Marques under Qatar’s and other convenient flags? Nobody yet knows the real scale of the involvement of tanned Europeans whose typical faces are flickering for years on a broad arch from the Congolese jungle to the remote opium corners of the Golden Triangle.

For instance, last year the UAE government officially signed a half a billion dollar contract with the private military company Xe Services (this is the rebranded Blackwater of Iraq notoriety). Under the contract it will receive an effective battalion of more than 800 mercenaries of European origin (Americans, white South Africans and Columbians were mentioned). And this is but the tip of the iceberg.

Europe’s cheap imperialism

Perhaps one of the main conclusions from the Libyan affair concerns the drivers of the process – Britain and France – and, more broadly, European powers in general. This conclusion provides scant consolation – the combat effectiveness of their armies is rather limited.

Much has been said in the last decade about the problems of American troops in hot spots, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it was difficult to doubt the efficiency of the U.S. army’s combat operations against any more or less organized enemy. The invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 is a vivid example.

Now it has become clear that France and Britain, the United States’ closest NATO allies, have extremely limited capabilities for conducting contact-free punitive operations in the Third World as compared with their overseas partner.

However, the desire with which the newly established Entente-2 rushed into the Libyan adventure betrays big ambitions. Obviously, both Paris and London wanted to create for themselves a "mini Iraq" in which they, rather than Washington, would play first fiddle.

As a result, they conducted a dirty, drawn out colonial war that had to be ended with a ground invasion, albeit a limited one. Moreover, they had to pit one group of locals against the other – the historical memory of Africa’s former owners is still there. Cheap imperialism rarely produces brilliant results.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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