Why no-fly is flawed strategy

posted at 4:51 pm on March 11, 2011 by J.E. Dyer

John Kerry’s opinion piece in the March 11 Washington Post, which analyzes the no-fly zone option for Libya, throws into useful relief the reasons why the U.S. Defense Department would approach a no-fly zone (NFZ) with reluctance. Kerry’s editorial is quite reasonable; and with the Obama administration so silent on the policy argument, it’s good to have someone in public office lay out a careful case for an NFZ. But Kerry’s case is pretty much what we would expect it to be. The narrow purpose of an NFZ would be preventing Qaddafi from mounting air attacks on his people.

The important military concern about framing an NFZ this way is that it ignores what Qaddafi’s ultimate objective is. He is not using military force because he wants to slaughter his people. He is using it for the conventional purpose of reconquering the territory of Libya. He may not care very much how many people he kills, but his goal isn’t killing them, it’s retaking territory and restoring the status quo ante.

In this, Qaddafi is unlike Saddam Hussein and the Serbian thugs of the 1990s. Saddam sought to put down the ethnic insurgencies that were a perennial problem for him, but he was not fighting a conventional war of movement – of territory lost and retaken – inside his borders. (In only one case, when he brutally quelled the southern Shi’as after the coalition withdrawal from Desert Storm, was reestablishing sovereign control of territory even partly at issue.)

The fundamental feature of the problem for Saddam was the existence of the restive ethnic groups. The Serb leaders in Bosnia in the 1990s were in much the same case, according to their perception. Although territory was in dispute (in a thoroughly non-linear battlespace), that was not the central issue of the conflict. The principal problem, from the Serbs’ perspective, was the presence of Muslims.

In both cases, the strategic objective of the attacks was eradicating ethnic enemies. That is not the kind of war Qaddafi is fighting. There is certainly an element of internal discord in Libya, centered on the tribal structure, but it has little in common with the fathomless, centuries-old Serb-Muslim divide or the divisions within Saddam’s Iraq, which involved the irreconcilable Kurds in the north and the Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” of the river delta in the south, ruled by Saddam’s secularist Sunni cohort. These features are not present in Qaddafi’s strategic problem.

The crucial point for policy and strategy flows from this reality. An NFZ could be largely effective in keeping Qaddafi’s aircraft on the ground, but still not prevent him from retaking Libya. At the moment, the rebels are poorly armed and without coherent strategic leadership. CIA director James Clapper was terribly impolitic in his unnecessary prognostication this week that Qaddafi would prevail, but his analysis wasn’t invalid. (It is illuminating to consider that he and Obama discuss these matters on a regular basis. There is a sort of clinical dispassion about distant events hovering over their public utterances: an assumption they don’t give voice to – because they see no need to – that U.S. leaders can spitball ideas and pop up with prejudicial analyses in public and it won’t matter.)

The NFZ enforced in Bosnia in the mid-1990s is instructive in this regard. Operation Deny Flight was launched in April 1993 and was enforced for more than two years while the Bosnian Serb forces committed many of the terrible atrocities remembered by the West. The siege of Srebrenica in 1993 was mounted with battlefield artillery, as were the near-daily poundings of Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities throughout the period of the NFZ. Srebrenica was held under siege conditions by the Serbs in 1995 with artillery and motorized infantry, even while it was supposedly a UN-protected enclave. The NFZ prevented fixed-wing aircraft from being used by the Serbs, and inhibited (but did not quash entirely) the use of helicopters.  But it didn’t prevent the Serbs from gaining control of territory, holding urban enclaves at risk, and killing Muslim civilians.

What did eventually drive the Serbs back was the air strike and Tomahawk missile campaign of September 1995, in which NATO destroyed the Serbs’ air defenses and gave the Bosnian government’s troops (the recognized unity government led by Bosnian Muslims) the advantage in destroying or capturing Serb-held positions.

Qaddafi can defeat the rebels without the freedom to use airpower whenever he wants – unless the rebels are armed and organized by an outside force. As excruciating as it was to watch Bob Gates give alibi after alibi to Congress about why an NFZ is just too darn hard, there is an important sense in which reason is on the side of viewing an NFZ with extreme reluctance. It doesn’t address the real problem in Libya, which is the fact that Qaddafi could still regain control of the country.

None of this means that there is nothing to be done about the awful events in Libya. It does mean that a narrowly conceived NFZ – one whose purpose is so narrow even John Kerry would endorse it – is mistargeted. If we enforce an NFZ on Qaddafi while he reconquers Libya – then what?

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to HotAir.com.
To see the comments on the original post, look here.


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Too late. Qaddafi won.

Time to move onto the next crisis that Soetoro can dither on, then do the exact wrong thing.

Rebar on March 11, 2011 at 4:54 PM

text “Red Cross” to 90999

Help Japan people.

JustJP on March 11, 2011 at 4:57 PM

Still struggling to reach a consensus, Obama can’t move without a consensus. We need a panel of experts, perhaps a poll so the experts can tell us what to think.

Obama can bring us together, compromise on our differences, find common ground, to reach out, across the aisle, and just as soon as that happens, Obama will be the first to tell us.

Skandia Recluse on March 11, 2011 at 5:01 PM

What would this useless twit know about it?

petefrt on March 11, 2011 at 5:03 PM

I think we should play the same strategy as was used in the Iran/Iraq war.

Arm both sides and prolong the fighting as long as possible. The more that Muslims are busy slaughtering each other, the less time they have devoted to targeting us.

sartana on March 11, 2011 at 5:04 PM

Too late. Qaddafi won.

Rebar on March 11, 2011 at 4:54 PM

Yup, looks that way. Smart power.

petefrt on March 11, 2011 at 5:05 PM

If a successor government, that we help create with a NFZ, is any more benevolent than Qaddafi, it would be a miracle. I suspect that the only reason Qaddafi’s side is the more ruthless today is that he has the tools to be more ruthless.

RBMN on March 11, 2011 at 5:09 PM

Why the Long Face, John? A horse walks into a bar and orders a drink…

Del Dolemonte on March 11, 2011 at 5:19 PM

A NFZ will do several things:

1. Remove air power card from “Qaddafi Duck’s” hand and thus allow the freedom fighters one less thing to contend with.

2. Give these freedom fighters a much needed morale boost.

3. Give Qaddafi a physical, concrete example on whose side we are on and that his time is limited; give him something else to worry about and hamper his forces. They may still win, but it will be harder. Much harder.

4. Couple this with a No Libyan Navy zone. Not that the Libyan Navy is such a threat but there are reports out that Libyan patrol ships have been shelling costal areas. Remove this card as well.

Plus recognize this “new government” as the French have and state we are doing this at their asking. Now you have diplomatically legitimized this revolution.

It may still fail, but Qaddafi’s toast whether it fails or not and we will have been seen to support those who wish to overthrow tyrants; as the United States should be seen.

This assumes two things:

1. We have a president who wants to the United States to be seen as a beacon of hope for all those wishing to overthrow oppression and recognizes our place as the leader of the free world.

2. We have a president with a pair.

Unfortunately, with Barry O both assumptions are not valid.

Bubba Redneck on March 11, 2011 at 5:22 PM

Will Kerry want a no fly zone over Saudi Arabia too if things start getting violent over there?

albill on March 11, 2011 at 5:25 PM

So if NATO attacks Libya is Libya at war with France or Italy? Marseille, France is 850 miles away & Naples, Italy is a quick bombing run of about 550 miles from Tripoli.

albill on March 11, 2011 at 5:34 PM

The German chancellor noted there was no legal basis for a no-fly zone, and said she would reconsider only if a legal basis were established.

Yesterday, the US blocked a no fly zone, today it’s Germany.

It’s not an ‘intervention’, it’s not a ‘no fly zone’, it’s going to war, a military attack on a sovereign state.

Skandia Recluse on March 11, 2011 at 5:35 PM

Obama is more WTF than NFZ.

profitsbeard on March 11, 2011 at 5:38 PM

Do any of these political idiots have an idea in the world what they are doing?

rplat on March 11, 2011 at 5:38 PM

So if NATO attacks Libya is Libya at war with France or Italy? Marseille, France is 850 miles away & Naples, Italy is a quick bombing run of about 550 miles from Tripoli.

albill on March 11, 2011 at 5:34 PM

You really have no idea what you are talking about.

The Libyan air force is utter garbage. France is out of range of the Libyan air force and a single squadron of Italian fighters would wipe the Libyan air force out if they attempted any such attack. Most of the Libyan pilots would bail out or land in Malta if they ever got the order.

sharrukin on March 11, 2011 at 5:39 PM

Thank you J. E. Dyer. So few words needed.

Qaddafi’s ultimate objective is [:] He is not using military force because he wants to slaughter his people. He is using it for the conventional purpose of reconquering the territory of Libya. He may not care very much how many people he kills, but his goal isn’t killing them, it’s retaking territory and restoring the status quo ante.

Caststeel on March 11, 2011 at 5:39 PM

I don’t care about a NFZ, Gaddafi has American blood on his hands, bomb and kill him.

rbj on March 11, 2011 at 5:39 PM

Bubba Redneck on March 11, 2011 at 5:22 PM

Hey, the World’s policeman is broke. That changes the threshold for action. It has to. And in the end, we’ll just trade some new Libyan dictatorship for the old Libyan dictatorship. There’s no capable freedom-loving opposition ready to take over the nation–only dreamers.

RBMN on March 11, 2011 at 5:42 PM

Libya sent more fighters to Iraq, on a per capita basis, to fight against us than any other country. The majority of them came from eastern Libya where the rebels are concentrated. I say, let karma have it’s way.
http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2011/03/oncesecret-iraqi-documents-off/

a capella on March 11, 2011 at 5:55 PM

Bubba Redneck on March 11, 2011 at 5:22 PM

Hey, the World’s policeman is broke. That changes the threshold for action. It has to. And in the end, we’ll just trade some new Libyan dictatorship for the old Libyan dictatorship. There’s no capable freedom-loving opposition ready to take over the nation–only dreamers.

RBMN on March 11, 2011 at 5:42 PM

I have no interest in getting involved in a civil war in Libya.
I do have an interest in getting Qaddafi out and with luck and a JDAM, dead for he has, as stated by the poster just before you, American blood on his hands.
As for the Libyans, if they put in a new dictator then sc**w them.
If they wish democracy and freedom then we should support them.
Dreamers can build a democracy! Look at our Founding Fathers.

Bubba Redneck on March 11, 2011 at 5:56 PM

When you are agreeing with John Kerry, I think it’s time to rethink your premise.

thebrokenrattle on March 11, 2011 at 6:06 PM

The picture should show Kerry pointing at the President’s ear because its this lunatic that he’s listening to.

He’s always been wrong Barack, that’s not going to change.

Speakup on March 11, 2011 at 6:29 PM

I say arrest Qaddafi — as the old saying goes — Dead or Alive ..

wheels on March 11, 2011 at 6:30 PM

Drones.

Hellfires.

Airport and heliport facilities.

Dumb looks and shrugs.

You can’t fly if you have no where to take off from nor facilities to support you, and you don’t need to engage aircraft that never take off from the ground.

If the rebels can’t handle the ground part… that is their problem. They should have formed up some sort of interim government or junta, sought recognition and asked for help. They were coming in days late on each of those marks. If you want help, you have to help yourself, first, and do the right thing. Even with that, the hard part is still left up to the locals… Japan as a friend and ally is a bit more important than who is ruling in Tripoli… drones and hellfires are cheap, and a quick targeting of air assets and C4I posts is about what we can do in the way of ‘help’ without risking lives.

America is busy.

You are basically on your own out there in the cold, cruel world.

ajacksonian on March 11, 2011 at 6:58 PM

ajacksonian on March 11, 2011 at 6:58 PM

The rebels first and probably most fatal mistake ocurred during thse first, few, heady days when they thought they were winning. They turned up their noses at outside intervention and just wanted the NFZ. Now, they are learning that Gaddafi can crush them with conventional weaponry, regardless of air power, but it is too late. Gaddafi will win this and proceed to eliminate every trace of rebel DNA from the planet, which means their families, etc. It won’t break my heart. A great many fighters operating against us in Iraq came from the eastern part of Libya, the stronghold of the rebels. Karma.

a capella on March 11, 2011 at 7:18 PM

The unpleasant truth is that a massive, sustained – and may I say savage – attack on key Libyan military assets would be required to set the stage for a successful no fly zone. Europe can’t do it. Europe couldn’t sustain it. It would be up to the USA. This however would mean physical destruction, environmental damage, killing of military and civilians, Muslim sniveling, rhythmic shouting, coordinated fist thrusting, hands-around-face female ululating and keening as well as ugly press coverage on a level the Obama administration could not abide. The Obama-ites would surrender first even if it meant sharia law in the United States (a feature not a bug?). After all, Libya is a long way from home and Allah will dispose.

Mason on March 11, 2011 at 7:53 PM

Any scenario is Libya is bad but there is a distinct possibility that anybody who replaces the Q-man will be both more fanatic and more competent. The US should not stick its nose in every foreign civil war. This is one good example.

MaiDee on March 11, 2011 at 8:08 PM

NFZ plus bombing of armoured vehicle columns and artillery positions… that’s completely doable and will give the civil population a chance against the tyrant.

NORUK on March 12, 2011 at 5:00 AM

Whose side are we on and why? Ka-daffy is one of the biggest skunks in the world, but are the insurgents any better? Will they thank us if they win? Where is our national interest in the outcome?

Whichever side wins, oil will continue to flow from there. This is one time when PBHO needs to stick to his campaign rhetoric and not “meddle” in their internal affairs!

MJBrutus on March 12, 2011 at 6:18 AM

Kerry is such a piece of garbage that I’m surprised Obama didn’t make him Secretary of State. Obama doesn’t make decisions so why is Libya any different. When you are a narcisstic eunuch it is easy to see this happen.

volsense on March 12, 2011 at 11:07 AM