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Besides Gaddafi’s determination to stay on, probably the most important military factor influencing the British decision to send in ground troops is the weakness of the rebel forces. So far, the rebels have proven inadequate in battle against Gaddafi’s better-armed and better-trained troops, and apparently will remain so for some time yet. The Wall Street Journal reports, however, that the rebels’ battlefield performance is improving, possibly with the help of Western Special Forces troops. But NATO intelligence agents on the ground in Libya assessing the opposition forces have probably told their governments there will be no quick victory and removal of Gaddafi due to the rebel troops’ poor fighting condition.
However, a quick defeat of Gaddafi is needed if NATO is going to realise its other goal of resuming oil shipments as soon as possible. Libya is the major source of crude for France, Great Britain and Italy, who also have large investments in the North African country. Saudi Arabia is currently pumping more oil to make up for the Libyan shortfall.
To make matters worse, the fighting in Libya is currently taking place around Brega, a major oil facility and critical revenue earner. It would be harmful to both Libyan and NATO interests if the conflict should settle there into a stalemate, paralysing the oil flow for an extended period of time. Of all the goals the British hope to achieve with troop intervention, restarting the oil supply is the most important in the short term and may see the British troops only seize the oil terminals.
NATO appears to have ruled out negotiations with Gaddafi, although Gaddafi’s son is proposing a peace plan that would see a transition to a constitutional government. But this insistence on the Libyan dictator’s removal may not produce an end to the violence. Like in Afghanistan at the end of the Soviet conflict, the victorious tribes may begin to fight each other, especially over the prized oil areas. Moreover, the danger exists that radical Islamists, strengthened by weapons they looted from army arsenals, will attempt to move into any post-Gaddafi power vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood is already regarding Libya as new territory for expansion.
The British will likely get around not having a UN mandate to send in ground troops by labelling the mission a humanitarian one. This intervention by a former colonial power, however limited, will undoubtedly anger Arab and other Third World countries. But after 11 days of air attacks, the Gaddafi regime is proving to be a resilient one, prompting, NATO believes, the need for a quick end to the war. It is also a need that would already have been conveyed to Obama and with which he is in agreement. But with no disengagement strategy and Libya continuing to disintegrate, once Western troops are ashore, past experience has shown it is never easy to get them out.
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