Libya: Makings of Another ‘Desert Debacle?’

Hulk of Soviet-made tank destroyed by NATO aircraft near Adjabiya, Libya. (Reuters)

By Norman M. Covert

Apparently the “Buck…” touted by President Barack Obama, stops in Libya, not the Oval Office. Col. Moammar Gadhafi continues to be in Mr. Obama’s face, surviving insurgents and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Reports of his impending demise seem exaggerated.

There are fears this could be another “Debacle in the Desert.” President Jimmy Carter oversaw that failed effort to rescue captured Americans in Iran in 1980. Everything went wrong for the Delta Force.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has declared that military action will probably not suffice to force Gadhafi out; that it will take lengthy negotiation. In other words the mission is doomed. It is probable Gadhafi may emerge even stronger in his confederation of Libyan tribes.

Press and diplomatic dispatches portray a confounding outcome in this version of Mr. Obama’s belated attempt at nation building. If past action is an indicator, Mr. Obama will look for an excuse to get out of town. It appears he can neither lead, nor hide in the White House.

Col. Moammar Gadhafi

Colonel Gadhafi’s public appearances, on the other hand, trumpet his attitude of invincibility. He may indeed have the proverbial nine lives.  

There hasn’t been this much military movement in Libya since World War II, when British commandos found Tobruk and Benghazi difficult to retain. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel earned the title “Desert Fox” because Libya, and much of Egypt, was his military playground. He surrendered only after Chancellor Adolph Hitler abandoned the vaunted Afrika Corps, which waged a wadi-to-wadi defense.

In a reprise of history, rebels have captured and lost the same territory in today’s back and forth. They captured the road between Benghazi and Tobruk in the early fighting. However, for the most part, Gadhafi’s forces have taken control again.

The assurance of victory was short lived after the initial bombardment by American Tomahawk missiles. What can go wrong, did go wrong with the NATO Joint Task Force.

NATO has demonstrated questionable or no “command and control” capability. Its ability to coordinate bombing sorties has been wholly inadequate, with unknown, missing or unreliable spotters on the ground to identify targets. Modern communication makes it easy if everyone has the same capability.

The mission appears to be a comedy of errors. It was unaware the rebels had tanks and failed to brief pilots of French aircraft who targeted several last week. In addition, two Libyan military helicopters, which had been captured, were destroyed on their maiden flights. NATO is claiming better success in hitting Gadhafi’s ammunition dumps this week.

NATO membership was expanded with approval of then-President Bill Clinton, a gesture in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union. It includes former Communist Bloc countries and barely resembles the force organized in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Soviets.


Canadian Forces Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard commands NATO’s Joint Task Force. General Bouchard, who has no apparent combat experience, is struggling to integrate primary British, French and limited American aviation assets. Success is far from guaranteed for NATO.

American forces’ battlefield “doctrine” is influenced by the deliberations of combat-seasoned officers. Seminal changes, developed in the mid-1970s at Fort Monroe, Va., were tested in Operation Desert Storm, defense of Kuwait, in 1991. Victory was achieved in 100 days.

U. S. Army Gen. William E. DePuy, who died in 1992, generated the new doctrine. He turned away from small unit jungle tactics, which had dominated Southeast Asia combat and Pentagon planning. His legacy includes the Abrams Main Battle Tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters and Patriot Air Defense System.

Gen. W. E. DePuy with lst Infantry Division, Vietnam

General DePuy foresaw challenges of fighting in desert environments like Kuwait, Iraq, and now Afghanistan. A World War II, Korea and Vietnam combat commander, he proved his theories at the sandy, desolate expanse of Fort Irwin, Cal.

He believed in the synergism of combined arms, thus achieving a powerful weapon system. In contrast, unless NATO can right its disjointed approach, it cannot achieve military success.

Making matters worse in the long haul, it appears we are backing an insurrection force primarily identified as al-Qaeda veterans. Rebel ground commander Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidit is a graduate of the Guantanamo Bay Resort and Spa. His ties to al-Qaeda are without question and he admits his main battle troops are jihadists, who fought against the coalition in Iraq.

It would appear that the Libyan incursion — justified in the name of protecting innocent civilians – is another failed foreign policy adventure for Mr. Obama and his advisors.

Col. Gadhafi has the ground war advantage at the moment with rebels shown cowering in alleyways. NATO must quickly overcome the perception that it is a virtual toothless tiger.

I’m ashamed to think this may be what Mr. Obama wants.

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(Published in its original form at April 13, 2011. Printed by permission of The Octopus LLC and the author.)

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