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Update from the Libyan front

At the time of writing my first post, Qaddafi’s forces were massed outside Benghazi, ready to take the city, and the world was deciding whether or not to stop him. Thankfully, they did decide to stop him, which means that all those who thought we shouldn’t, started imposing unreasonable expectations on both the international coalition manning the air campaign to explain their aims, and the rebels on the ground to turn themselves into an army. My second post was written as the world rained bombs down on Qaddafi’s tanks and artillery the world stood transfixed as it usually does when given a display of military hardware in action.

Some of the criticism of the allies’ motives and objectives are valid, most are not.

What are we trying to achieve? Well this is clear but unstated. Regime change. The criticism that the coalitions’ aims are vague is nonsense. It’s simply maintaining a diplomatic and legal fiction that this is primarily humanitarian. Of course, the main reason Qaddafi must go is humanitarian – he must not be allowed to butcher (as he has clearly threatened) his own people. Remember, just like the only other equivalently murderous leader in the Middle-East/North Africa was Saddam Hussein, so the west is not as many people believe, being inconsistent. You need to be both a recalcitrant git with a WMD habit AND a murderous bastard (10s of 000s) to get bombed into the stone-age by NATO. To my mind this sets the bar appropriately high for intervention in another country’s affairs. Lessons from the Iraq debacle have been learned. Western Ground forces will not be deployed.

This also deals with the nay-sayers’ whataboutery. Bharain’s Government has shot dead a few dozen protesters. Awful, disgusting behaviour, but sending an army into a hostile city it is not. The fact that the US fifth fleet is based there gives the US leverage it would immediately lose were it to start sabre-rattling against the Al-Khalifas. Likewise Yemen. Like it or not, only a fool would intervene in Yemen, a mountainous, tribal country where Al Quaeda holds sway and where the Government’s writ does not run to the whole country (ahem Afghanistan ahem). These countries’ current leaders are not quite as Ghastly as the capricious clown in Tripoli, and they behave themselves, at least as far as western Policy is concerned. We’d be mad to go after them. Ditto China, Zimbabwe and all the other nutty suggestions I’ve seen floating around place.

Many of the opponents of intervention believe themselves to be “realists” who demand to know the outcome before the event. By which time the window of opportunity to act has usually been lost.

Back to Libya. Who are the rebels? opponents of the intervention often ask. Well they’re a mixture of Qaddafi’s army whose deserted and young men from the east of the country with guns. There is a 33-man council, not all of whom are named, as some are from Tripoli. Some of the Council have served with Qaddafi in Government. So the criticism that the Council lacks credibility or experience is harsh. Given that the best-organised resistance to the Military strongmen in much of ME/NA has been Islamic of one form or another, I’d be surprised and wary if they were not represented. There are guys on there who know what they’re doing sufficiently well to be recognised as the legitimate government of Libya by (so far) the Libyan UN delegation, France & Qatar. Finally, any putative Government of Libya would have to be pretty bad to be worse than the existing one. If you’re clinging to Nurse for fear of Worse, and that nurse is Muammar Qaddafi, you’re a dick.

The intervention had the desired effect, in the short term at least. Qaddafi withdrew from outside Benghazi, which appears safe for the time being, and the rebels “took” several towns along the coast. However, it now appears that far from Qaddafi’s forces “collapsing” and “in headlong retreat” they sensibly decided to react to the allied air onslaught by shortening their supply lines and holding more defensible ground. They have subsequently resumed the advance, having halted the rebels just outside Surt.

Caution is the watchword. Wars are always risky, and Qaddafi is a wily, ruthless old fox. Western Journalists, in love with footage of Aircraft taking off from carriers (few of which are being used in this operation, the RAF is using bases in Cyprus and Italy) think that allied bombing is the key to winning wars, perhaps schooled in the wars of the 20th century in which Air power dominated WWII, Gulf War 1. However in asymmetric war – Vietnam or in support of troops insufficiently skilled to use close air support, like Libya now, air power is of less use.

The real use of Air Power in this campaign is to reduce Qaddafi’s freedom of movement, degrade his forces’ heavy weapons but above all to give the rebels heart that they are not alone. Napoleon Bonaparte remarked “in war, the Moral is the Physical as three is to one”. However recent reports suggest many of the rebels are not fighting very hard. There certainly appears to be no great desire to dig in, defend a build up area and seek a decisive battle. Perhaps they are not yet ready, and they are harassing until they are. That would suggest a level of sophisticated strategy for which there’s no evidence. It certainly suggests a total lack of effective small-unit leadership. Indeed all the reports suggest that rebel command and control is extremely rudimentary.

So, what can we expect from the next few weeks? Well the lines will ebb and flow. Towns will “fall” or “be taken” as one side flees, or advances. Journalists on the ground will continue to be mystified and spout words like “strategically important” as if they knew what was going on. Every rebel retreat will be a “disaster” every town taken by them will be a “triumph”. Meanwhile, command and control structures, manning, equipment and training, no doubt facilitated and co-ordinated by special forces from western powers and possibly Egypt, will steadily improve. To imagine that the rebels could have held a determined Qaddafi two weeks ago is Naive. The Allied air offensive has bought time.

If, and this is a big “if” the rebels can learn and learn quickly how to defend a built-up area, and hold ground in the face of a determined assault, they will win. At the moment they’re running up the front line, expending ammunition in the general direction of the enemy and running away at the first hint of resistance, assuming the rebels’ military effectiveness continues to improve, Qaddafi will lose. He is hemorrhaging authority, and at some point, his army will look at the forces ranged against them and think “you know what? fuck this for a game of soldiers” and change sides while they still can, as will his senior commanders and Qaddafi will be left with a few family and Loyalists in a bunker ’till he’s dragged out and strung up.

There are 4 possible outcomes:

  1. Collapse of the Qaddafi Regime, interim council take over and elections happen 12 months later.
  2. Stalemate: Tripolitania and Cyrenaica split (as they have always historically been). The oil’s mostly in the Eastern half, run by people we supported. This is probably still a win for the west.
  3. Qaddafi wins back control of the country. We’re back the the status quo ante Blair with a hostile Qaddafi at the helm of a weak, isolated and broken nation, at no great cost to ourselves. This, and mass murder on an epic scale in Benghazi, is what would have happend had the west not intervened. This result represents no gain for the west’s expenditure of military hardware and diplomatic capital.
  4. Total collapse of the country into Somalia-style anarchy. This is the only (and most unlikely) scenario which could be a major problem to the west.

If 1 or 2 happen, or possibly even 3, then the west has, at the behest of Libyans and the Arab league gone to war in support of a popular Arab uprising. The Islamist narrative of the west as a boogeyman for Muslims is significantly weakened. It is this, I suspect, which is the major driving force behind the intervention, not oil. Most of the right wing objections (the left-wing anti-war mongs can be ignored – most of them are traitors anyway) are about ceding 3 in order to avoid 4 at any cost, and then hoping the resulting genocide in Benghazi doesn’t trouble their news. The supporters of intervention believe the risk of 4. and the potential military cost is small enough to justify the possibility of obtaining 1. or 2. That’s all it is: a risk/reward, cost/benefit analysis. The difference is the cynicism and pessimism of those who think we can’t and the rebel’s cause isn’t worth helping.

There are major strategic wins possible for the west, even if Qaddafi remains in control of some of the country and whether he remains so is up to the fighters on the ground in the western suburbs of Benghazi and points West. Can they? We shall see. But the risks to the west, assuming our leaders are not totally stupid and leave the boots on Ground in sandy bits of the world which aren’t Libya, remain small. Surely preventing a genocide in Cyrenaica is worth the risk we might not succeed?

No-Fly-Zones & the “Wisdom” of Cowards.

There’s no point setting up a No-Fly-Zone in Libya because the killing is going on, on the ground; and because in any case, by the time it’s set up, All of libya will be Gadaffi’s once more. I think I have summarised the position of Thinking Strategically.

1) An international No-Fly-Zone would have limited, but still some military value to the insurgents. However its main benefit would be to send a powerful signal to the young men facing tanks armed with just .50 calibres on the back of Toyotas, that they were not alone. Never under estimate the importance of such things to fighting men.

2) It ain’t over. Gadaffi may have all the toys but is he powerful enough to subdue a hostile city, one which may be recieving material from outside? The insurgents are deploying a handful of tanks, and some artillery. No doubt their command and control are improving daily. The battle for Libya may last a year or more.

3) How popular is Gadaffi? Will young men coming from the Benghazi front in body-bags cause the people supplying the troops to turn against him? If he’s using mercenaries, how will he pay them?

Now chuck the might of NATO plus assorted Arab airforces into the mix, especially if as the US seemed to be hinting today, the planes in question might be doing more than a No-Fly-Zone.

Is it pointless to intervene in Libya?

What about the risks? We lose a plane? Meh (…if we rescue the pilot…). A pilot down, worse, but they’re trained in desert survival, and if they can’t take a joke, they shouldn’t be in the cockpit. Besides if there’s a NFZ, we can get a chopper to them quicker than Gadaffi’s thugs without too much problem. War has risks, which are accepted by the men and women who fight it.

I fail to see how this represents a greater risk than the opportunity to get rid of a dangerously capricious clown whose goons are responsible for 1) the greatest act of mass-murder on British soil 2) consistent support for anti-western terrorists, including the IRA. 3) the murder of a Policewoman and 4) serial and serious crimes against fashion.

We should have RAF jets over libya now. Tomorrow at the latest, last Thursday if possible.

International “Law”, the UN & Libya.

Let’s face it, the only country which COULD help the Libyan insurgents in any meaningful way is the USA. But Obama won’t go without a UN resolution, Which Russia will veto, and he’s shown precious little interest in the issue. Britain & France could conceivably mount a half-arsed no fly zone. We could impose some form of trade embargo against the Libyan regime using the handful of remaining Jets or brace of warships our countries still possess, or arm the Rebels & provide some covert military support: sending the SAS and the Foreign Legion into the North-African desert where they were both born. But they won’t do even that without a UN resolution. And do you honestly think Barak Obama will support Britain & France, former colonial powers, taking action in Africa? France is absolutely correct to recognise the insurgents council as the legitimate Government of Libya, but this demonstrates another truth. France only chooses the morally right side, when they are about to lose, horribly.

To wage war without a UN resolution is “illegal”, and therefore we have outsourced out foreign policy, our ability to make timely war on tyrants, to the lawyers. International law is now a joke – with the vile totalitarianism of China & the amoral, oligarchic Russia sitting in the colon of the security council like an impacted turd preventing any coalition of democracies from taking action to support an uprising against dictators, anywhere in the world. Giving nasty totalitarians a veto over the actions of democracies is constipating our efforts to spread democracy, or indeed do the right thing, anywhere, ever.

Meanwhile, Qadhafi demonstrates to tyrants, including those in Moscow & Beijing that exemplary violence against insurgents will go unpunished and that the west is powerless. Hamstrung by a legal regime based on a corrupt, flawed organisation which can never reach agreement in this multi polar world. The window of opportunity to get rid of this capricious clown in Tripoli is closing, fast and is now measured in hours and days, not the weeks it takes to get a UN resolution.

If you are an “international lawyer”, or think that there is some higher court than the electorate to which the leaders of sovereign democracies are subject, the blood of Libyan insurgents is on your hands. You may bleat about ‘Iraq’ but it’s Colin Powell’s fear of “international law” which prevented the coalition supporting the Marsh Arabs (who now basically no longer exist as a people) when they rose up against Saddam Hussein. Iraq II may have demonstrated the futility of imposing democracy un-asked-for, but that is NOT what happened in Southern Iraq in 1991 and it is NOT what is happening now in Libya.

War is risky, but it is the right of sovereign democracies to wage it against tyranny, and the job, it seems of international lawyers to prevent it & thereby support the self-serving (even more amoral and self-serving than ours) foreign policy of Russia & China which is to actively support vile dictators (with whom it’s easier to do business than businesses operating under the rule of law) and loot their countries of resources. Supporters of international Law give, in effect, a Chinese & Russian veto on Western foreign policy. Russia and China are NOT so encumbered, knowing that the west are not going to go to war in support of, say Gerogia. Supporters of international law, and the Chinese/Russian veto, are every bit as responsible for what is going to happen to the people of Benghazi when it falls to the regime as the Libyan soldiers pulling the trigger. Indeed, more so. Most Libyan soldiers don’t really have a choice.

The Libyan insurgents are crying out, begging for our help, yet the Lawyers are saying “Russia says no, so we can’t go”. If the idea of a free Libya is going to be killed, let it at least take the bloodstained UN and the idea that “international law” is in any way binding, with it. I hope the cameras are rolling when Qadhafi’s tanks roll in, so those Lawyers can see clearly happening what the west COULD have prevented. Not that those cold-blooded reptiles will give a shit.

In the mean-time all I can do is hang my head in shame at what my country has become & weep for the lost opportunity for the Libyan people for whom this is not 1989, it’s 1956.

Optimism, for now.

For the first time since the invasion of Iraq, I now see an end to the “war on terror” with Egypt holding out the hope of a free and democratic Middle East, which exports more than oil and suicide bombers. The peacful and enthusiastic attitude of the protesters in Tahir Square, even after the regime-sponsored thugs tried to provoke violence; the measured response of the Army all bode well for the future, and give the lie to the idea that democracy isn’t suited to the Arab street. It may mean the next revolution is Yemen, or that the next uprising in Iran may be successful and the last region of the world which resisted democracy starts the long march to free society.

Egypt now has a military interregnum, and many dissapointments may lay ahead – the military may not give up power, undemocratic forces may win a flawed election and so on. And even if a free democratic system takes root in Cairo, I would urge Egyptians to contain their expectations – democratic systems are not perfect, and do not in themselves lead to freedom and the rule of law, nor do they always lead to good government. What it does ensure is that tired, ineffectual or repressive regimes get booted out before they become a liability and stupid ideas such as socialism, get tested to destruction.

But whatever happens – there is now reason to be optimistic about the world right now, until politicians and religious leaders get together and screw it up for everyone, and for that optimism we can thank the Egyptian people.

Tarok Kolace, Ben Tre, all over again?

Whatever the logistical and military reasons for destroying something, the costs of doing so run wider than the immediate operation. In this case a commander decided upon using 25 tons of explosives to flatten an Afghan village as it was so thourougly laced with IEDs that to clear it would have taken longer and cost lives. This is, on its own terms a reasonable tactic, given the local circumstances. It also demonstrates why we cannot “win” in any meaningful way.

The Taliban chased locals out of Tarok Kolache, in Kandahar province to the west of Helmand (which is synonymous with ‘Afghanistan’ to the UK media). The village was destroyed without civilian casualties, but it resulted in significant damage to the orchards – harder to replace than the mud huts. The US commander, rather than risk his troops fighting house to house, flattened the village with 25 tons of bombs and artillery and the local civilian population appear to be unhappy (y’ think?) about having their homes flattened. Whilst rebuilding has been discussed at Shuras, meetings with local people, this is not the way to win hearts and minds and secure the loyalty of the people to the Afghan government, nor has any reconstruction yet started, so many of the displaced will disperse to other villages with tales about what happened.

Just as Vietnam was lost, not because of any military victory by the NVA, but by the steady erosion of the peasant’s loyalty, we are at risk, by “destroying villages in order to save it“, of making the same mistakes all over again. I am NOT suggesting that such actions are thoughtless, nor am I suggesting that the US forces in Afghanistan are suffering the same fate as their fathers in Vietnam. Just that there are parallells. There comes a time when the presence in this type of opertaion of Western forces becomes the reason the war is continuing. Too many flattened villages and you have a sullen and hostile population who are ready to support the Taleban.

“Victroy” in Afghanistan will be when western forces leave in 4 years, leaving a stable Government more or less in control of most of the country and a big US base in perpetuity. That’s the best we can hope for. Democracy? And uncorrupt Government – under Karzai? You’re joking right? The problem is that our political masters schooled in stories of VICTORIES! like WW2, the Falklands, Gulf war 1, and so on expect, egged on by a more or less ignorant electorate, the same thing from Afghanistan, and as a result forces will stay in theatre expending blood and treasure long after a rational cost benefit analysis would suggest it’s time to go, in chasing a chimeric victory which remains forever on the horizon. I’m starting to think the Afghan campaign is almost getting to that stage.

Like the end of the Cold War?

Old Holborn‘s post on the Tunisian revolution is eloquent.

The uprising in Tunisia was caused by a simple act of desperation. An unemployed man, unable to earn money and not fed by the Welfare state decided he would sell vegetables to his fellow citizens. To the State, this was intolerable. No permit, no official permission to earn a living and stay alive. So the sheepdogs, the police, confiscated every single thing he owned.

Mohamed Bouazizi, realising he was never to be free in his own land, simply set fire to himself.

There have been self-imolations all over the Arab world – Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania following the event which set off the Tunisian revolution.

I do not know enough about these countries to add enlightening commentary and to my shame (and that of the Western media) I was unaware of developing events until some western Holiday-makers were caught up in the fighting, which shows a warped set of priorities. The desperation these people felt to take such an extreme course of action must have been extraordinary. People yearn to be free, and that is as true of the muslim world as it is of the West. Cultural relativists are little better than the dictators for whom they are apologists.

The sad fact is revolutions are easiest in the softer dictatorships which retain sufficient humanity to not wish to turn the guns on their people. The likes of Iran are all too willing to use grotesque force to keep their people in line. But just as the prison states of Eastern Europe fell, one by one, the Middle-Eastern tyrants responsible for so much pain and mayhem within their borders and around the world know that, unless they are very lucky, this is the fate that is awaiting them.

A Myth of Competence?

On some points, I am a tin-foil hatted conspiracy loon, but only when I can apply Ockham’s razor to the conspiracy. It must be a simple conspiracy, which isn’t subject to events, in someone’s interest and fewer than a dozen have to be in on the con. So, I ask myself is there something the State dept REALLY wants someone to believe in Wikileaks’ recently published cross between Skynet and Tobermory

For those of you who don’t know the short stories of Hector Hugh Munro, Tobermory was a talking cat, whose trainer was eventually killed by an Elephant, (which is no more than he deserved for attempting to teach it German irregular verbs). Tobermoray himself talked but lacked the hypocrisy needed for diplomacy in society and told people uncomfortable truths.

Of course most of Wikileak’s revelations are in the “y’think?” category. Putin wears the Trousers and Nigel Farage Medvedev is a puppet, Ahmadinnerjacket is a loon, Quaddafi kaddaffi Gadaffi shags about, Gordon Brown (isn’t he dead yet?) was a fruitcake, Silvio Berlusconi parties a bit too hard for a man of his advancing age (but don’t we all secretly admire him for it), and so on…

Which brings me to a conspiracy theory. Back when the Thatcher Government was trying to stop Peter Wright publishing “Spycatcher“, and granting them masses of publicity in the process, I thought “they can’t be that stupid, can they?”. Surely there must be something in the book that we REALLY REALLY wanted the Russians to believe, and therefore pursued them through the courts safe in the knowledge that whatever was there was more believably as a result. Such subterfuge is surely possible: The only people who would need to be in on the conspiracy are Peter Wright and a few people very high up in MI5 and Government. No more than a dozen people. All those people in court need not know, the conspiracy was “fire and forget”.

Of course, the Berlin wall came down, and all those people in on it would have been publicly patting themselves on the back for being so jolly clever. So clearly, MI5 was indeed “bugging and burgling it’s way around London” and Roger Hollis WAS a spy, and I was wrong. Though in my defence, I was 10 at the time. Wikileaks, of course makes the whole process simpler. If the CIA was in the slightest bit competent, it isn’t, but pretend for a minute it is, all you needed to do was feign embarrassment and everything in the “leak” would be believed. It’s a godsend for misinformation, which could allow anyone with an eye for PR to create any myth they liked. Like that of a competent CIA which was in control of shit…

Ah. QED.

Homage to a Government

Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings, 1964.

Strategic Failure

The most tactically perfect army ever to take the field was the Wehrmacht of WWII. German soldiers (and often their equipment too) was so consistently superior that they could be relied upon to defeat any adversary, given roughly equal numbers. Thence sprang the belief that if you look after the battles, the war will win itself and the German army found itself fighting in North Africa, Greece, Cyprus, Norway, the Atlantic, in the Air over Germany and disastrously, Russia; all simultaneously. In losing sight of what the third Reich wanted to achieve (or never having a realistic vision of such) the supreme competence of the Wehrmacht led directly to overstretch and then being confronted by OVERWHELMING force deployed by countries who had thought strategically enough to deliver numerically superior, but technologically and motivationally inferior, forces in a hammer-blow which came quite unforeseen.

Nazi Germany thought tactically. Churchill was tactically naive, but strategically sound. Biff the Nazis where they can be found, in order to keep the Soviets onside and the Germans on their toes until we’ve gathered enough strength (ie get the USA into the war) to deliver the coup de grace in Normandy.

The strategic failure of Nazi Germany is similar to the that of ‘the West’. Western soldiers (since Korea, when the US at first fielded the worst army ever deployed by a democracy) have been better trained and equipped than any army or group they are likely to face. British, American, Dutch, and even French soldiers can be relied upon to prevail in any shooting match they go into.

As a result – a direct result – of this competence, the British Government for example though that fewer than 10,000 soldiers could pacify a querulous Afghan province, and NATO in General has completely lost sight of what it wants to achieve from its military adventure in Afghanistan in a global context. We’re bogged down in Tactics, as was the US in Vietnam, focusing on tactical-level measures and losing sight of the strategy. The AfPak ‘strategy’ for example is more a mantra than a reality.

Whilst this is of no great import when the maximum downside is the appearance of getting kicked out of a broken 13th century country, but in a dangerous world, if we lose sight of what the point of acting as a world policeman is, then the downside and cost could be much greater – catastrophic military defeat. Like it or not, we’re in a toe to toe fist-fight with radical Islam. To continue the boxing analogy, the Islamists are the smaller and less skilled fighter, but with an Iron jaw, he keeps getting up. Oh. And he fights dirty.

Thinking strategically, Iran’s nuclear bomb is a far bigger threat. If there’s a country asking to be invaded, like right now, it’s North Korea. But our armies are bogged down in Iraq (90 -odd thousand US troops) and Afghanistan (100-odd thousand Nato forces). That’s as near as damn it a quarter of a million fighting men who could be saving the world from a nuclear armed Iran or North Korea.

And the sad thing is that they would be better providing the means to deal with this threat with their feet up in Minnesota or Surrey than eating dust in Southern Afghanistan. After all, what’s scarier to Kim Jong Il: An Army at war in Central Asia, or an Army who could be on his border in 2 weeks? Whilst I have confidence the of the Strategy of ISAF in Afghanistan with respect to that conflict, in the big, global picture, that’s Tactics. We’re bogged down and overstretched and cannot therefore threaten great violence to those who deserve it. That is why nation building is so dangerous. It’s a nebulous concept, there’s no finish line where you can declare victory so it ties up troops, money and resources; and it stores up just as much resentment as colonialism. The temptation is to outstay your welcome.

The fact is the Neo-Cons were right. We shouldn’t do nation-building. We should go in, shock and awe, biff those we don’t like and then leave; leaving the aftermath to the locals and do-gooding NGOs to rebuild. Take sovereign bases if desirable, but otherwise fuck off once the shooting stops. American and British forces shouldn’t need to stick around to provide targets to suicide bombers, and so shouldn’t be in a war with anyone who can’t surrender on the deck of a battleship. If I was convinced that Iraq and Afghanistan were ‘clearing the decks’ before a Pincer-move on Iran, I could be persuaded, but I don’t think there’s the stomach for the fight.

That’s the reason the Boys should come home. Not because they “can’t win”, they can; but because they are better unused except as a threat.