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.
Even if the anti-Gaddafi rebels aren’t reporting directly to Osama bin Laden, they are certainly drawing on the valuable experience of jihadist fighters who cut their teeth battling NATO troops in Afghanistan or coalition troops in Iraq. Libyans formed one of the largest groups of foreign fighters who battled with the American-led coalition in Iraq, and many of them are now battling Gaddafi, while American, British and Canadian pilots risk their lives to make it easier for these former insurgents to advance. Gaddafi, for all of his atrocious and unforgivable terrorist acts, did serve at least one strategic purpose for the West — he fought al-Qaeda’s influence in Libya (and initially blamed them for the protests against him) because al-Qaeda would like to see Gaddafi gone.
Such reports of the composition of the Libyan rebellion become more worrisome by the day. Since the rebels are clearly having difficulties defeating Gaddafi, and since the NATO forces are essentially stuck there until they do or Gaddafi chooses to leave, there has been speculation that the allies might choose to provide the rebels with the kinds of heavy weapons that would let them fight Gaddafi’s forces on a more equal footing. No announcement along these lines has been made, and rightly so. While arming the rebels would allow them to fight Gaddafi on a more equal footing, at this point, with no clear leadership among the rebels, no clear goal and no reason to expect that they are not at risk of falling under the influence of terrorist groups committed to our destruction, we should not be providing them with high-tech weapons that could in turn be used against us or Israel. It may be some time before we have the knowledge needed to make a reasonable assessment of whether we can trust some or all of rebels — according to reports issued Wednesday night, the first CIA teams are just starting to rush to Libya now. No doubt what they report will help determine what the allies do next in this strange and risk-laden war.
It is very possible that we have already gone too far to go back. Gaddafi’s international credibility — not that there was ever very much of that — has been destroyed. His military has been left in ruins. Many regime officials have abandoned him, and the oil export facilities that are the backbone of Libya’s economy are being captured and recaptured so often it will be a miracle if anything survives. It is hard to imagine how the rebels will not eventually have some form of influence in Libya, and if they are truly Islamist-backed, and there is rising evidence to suggest a significant percentage of them are, then there might very well be a repeat of what is unfolding today in Egypt: a dictator is toppled, and the door is opened, in a Khomeini-like scenario, to something far worse -- and devastating to American and Western interests.
Thus, one of the top priorities of the NATO-led coalition must now be to avoid ushering Islamist forces into power. Whether the Obama administration, with its foreign policy incompetence and America-Last vision, is up to the task remains the agonizing and depressing question.