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As the war in Libya continues, and as the anti-Gaddafi opposition suffers serious setbacks, it is becoming more obvious that the success of the rebels is inextricably dependent on the military might of the NATO-led coalition’s forces. Yet U.S. intelligence regarding the composition of the rebellion already paints a grim and ominous picture: that the anti-Gaddafi insurgency is fortified with militant Islamists and even al-Qaeda-linked operatives who were formerly in the business of killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. CIA agents are only now being sent in to survey the extent of this influence, and while coalition diplomats refuse to rule out arming the Libyan rebels, allied forces must seriously come to grips with just who they are poised to bring to power — and whether it will be worse than Gaddafi himself. That this matter rests in the hands of the Obama administration, which has showed all signs of weighing American national interests last, is worrisome — to say the least.
The situation on the ground remains fluid. The Libyan military, still loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and the eastern-based rebels that have risen up against him, continue to trade territory and towns in fierce battles. Tracking the action from abroad is difficult — it seems the same few towns have been conquered and reconquered with every update. The town of Ras Lanuf, which the rebel forces captured to great celebration only days ago, has fallen back under Gaddafi’s control. This is typical of the ebb and flow of this war. When Ras Lanuf was under rebel control earlier in the week, experts and observers were expecting the rebels to roll into the Gaddafi-held town of Sitre, symbolically important because the dictator was born there. The rebels tried, and paid a heavy price when they failed. And now they are on the retreat once again.
The bleak situation for the Libyan rebels on the ground puts the West in an impossible position. Several weeks ago, when the allies began their campaign after securing UN approval, there was a sense of urgency. The rebels appeared to be on the verge of collapse and Gaddafi was threatening revenge on the civilian population of those areas that had risen up against him. America, Britain and France all launched their own military campaigns on short notice, and it took weeks for NATO to agree to take command of the entire operation under the command of a Canadian general. Now that NATO is running the show, however, there is still the issue over what comes next.
It speaks to the haste that the war against Libya was organized that only now are we truly beginning to have a full understanding of the situation on the ground. It has become clear, given the setbacks suffered by the rebels in recent days, that Gaddafi, despite the damage taken to his forces, still has sufficient firepower to hold the rebels in check. While the rebels can operate in areas swept clean of resistance by NATO airstrikes, when left on their own, they are outclassed by Gaddafi’s better armed and better trained forces. Having committed to protect Libya’s civilians, allied powers now face the unpalatable possibility that the fighting in Libya will effectively become a stalemate, leaving NATO in the awkward position of having to decide under what conditions it will leave Libya.
Indeed, the only thing worse then the stalemate may be breaking it. If Gaddafi remains in charge of Libya, he will likely revert to state sponsorship of terror. And yet, there is a disturbing lack of knowledge about who, exactly, the rebels we are now supporting really are. In a rush to head off the massacre of civilians, the allies have gone to war in Libya to assist people who might otherwise be our enemies.
Emerging intelligence reports paint a grim picture concerning the character of “our” side in Libya. Admiral James Stavridis of the United States Navy, currently serving as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO’s European forces, told Congress during testimony this week that intelligence is showing “flickers” of al-Qaeda and Hamas influence inside the Libyan rebellion. This colorful phrase seems to mean that though the rebels are mainly anti-Gaddafi in their outlook, they are drawing support from anti-Western terrorist organizations out to topple Gaddafi. This is crucial knowledge to have, as up until now, precious little information has been available as to the composition of our de facto allies in Libya — even though we have already committed ourselves to battle on their behalf. If Obama has ignorantly stumbled into a war in which he contributes American power and treasure to an al-Qaeda takeover of a nation, it would be a nightmare of catastrophic proportions.
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