British Strategy in Libya

The war in Libya is at a stalemate. Britain should avoid becoming beholden to the rebels and shun regime change, but ensure that any settlement is a self-enforcing equilibrium

By Shashank Joshi for

The essence of war is mutual optimism. In any conflict, each side has a finite chance of winning. So in theory, even the stronger party (today, Qadhafi) would do better to make negotiated concessions - commensurate with the opposition's chance of victory - than to endure the cost, bloodshed and risk of losing everything entailed by war.

The reality is less simple. When the military balance is so fluid and diplomatic alignments so volatile, each party to the conflict - the Qadhafi regime in Tripoli and the opposition in Benghazi - is convinced that momentum is on its side. Each side overestimates its probability of victory, meaning that neither is willing to cut a deal with terms their opponents would accept. And when information about underlying strength and resolve is so scarce, cognitive biases - such as irrational optimism - kick in, further shrinking the space for a settlement.

Regime Optimism

Superficially, Qadhafi remains in a strong position. He retains control over Tripoli, continues to command the loyalty of core paramilitary and special forces units, and enjoyed diplomatic overtures from a senior African Union delegation.

Above all, he knows that the intervening coalition has been riven with fractures from the start. Arab states have made negligible contributions; NATO members Turkey and Germany remain wary of airstrikes; and Washington has refused to bear the primary military burden. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein survived no-fly zones and sanctions for twelve years. In Kosovo, it took eleven weeks of bombing - plus timely Russian intercession - to prevail against Serbia.

These are not propitious timetables. Amidst a small but prominent trickle of civilian casualties and friendly fire incidents, Qadhafi will calculate that it is worth absorbing several more weeks of bombing to negotiate from a position of greater strength against a divided coalition. 

Rebel Optimism

But dictatorial regimes are typically poor at understanding their own vulnerabilities, owing both to the inefficient upwards flow of information and the frequent purges of competent officers. [1]

Though the rebels have fought with remarkable fecklessness, their defiance stems from a canny insight: that the Western powers cannot realistically abandon them to a ceasefire which would almost certainly revert to the perilous situation that prompted UN Resolution 1973 in the first place.

The rebels know that the alternative - policing an open-ended ceasefire with fast jets that cost £90,000 per hour to fly [2] - is unacceptable, and that the core members of the coalition therefore have an interest in a more durable settlement.

Moreover, these calculations hinge on assessments of not just present but also future capabilities. At the beginning of April, the opposition exported its first shipment of oil. If the tanker was carrying its full capacity, this would have been worth $125m by itself.

But if the rebels are able to push production up to 400,000 barrels per day (a small proportion of Libya's pre-crisis total production of 1.6m barrels per day) their monthly income stream could top $1bn.

This would render moot the transatlantic debate about arming rebels - they would simply purchase arms on the open market and smuggle these in, probably with the tacit approval of the naval forces watching Libya's coast. It would also allow them to import know-how and mercenaries from western private military companies, in lieu of a major injection of coalition special forces.

Of course, oil export revenues are not guaranteed. Refineries and pipelines are subject to sabotage, and foreign oil workers are unlikely to return in force to a war-zone. But the prospect of this economic lifeline does explain why the rebels were so quick to dismiss the African Union's ceasefire plan. Like the regime, they believe that their bargaining position is basically improving.

Wanted: A Strategy

How, then, does this end?

It is remarkable that, many weeks into Britain's third war in a Muslim country within a decade, there is no articulated strategy from London. Strategic, operational, and tactical questions are being needlessly muddled, and there remains a disjunction between political aims (regime change) and military objectives (containment). 

On the one hand, it is important to dispel the notion that UN Resolution 1973 forbids airstrikes or political pressure against the regime. The resolution explicitly authorises 'all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack'. Given the grave military imbalance, and the use of heavy armour and artillery to attack those populated areas, only an intensive and sustained attack would durably mitigate that threat.

But the word 'threat' has a broader, strategic meaning. No ceasefire would meet the terms of this resolution if - like earlier 'ceasefires' initiated by the regime - it allowed a costless resumption of attacks at a later date, after NATO had wound down its presence in southern Europe and the regime had built up its stocks of ammunition and fuel.

Therefore a long-term degradation of Libyan military forces, even those not presently involved in attacks on civilians and populated areas, is imperative. Britain and France are entirely correct to push NATO partners to do much more by way of ground attack missions.

Equally, though, the repeated insistence that Qadhafi must leave - from William Hague amongst others - is a serious error. It places unnecessary and unhelpfully restrictive constraints on British strategy.

Regime change as a broad strategic ambition is entirely appropriate - this, after all, is the implicit ambition for Iran or Myanmar. But if it is articulated as British government policy, then the government is forced to pick one of three unpalatable options: expand the military campaign as NATO did in Kosovo; turn the rebels into a proxy army like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan; or hope that a parallel track of political-diplomatic pressure results in a crumbling of the regime from within.

The first option would be a terrible choice. Strategic bombing rarely works,[3] and every symbolic advantage of this campaign - the Arab role, the explicitly humanitarian mission, and the light footprint - would be frittered away by attacks on urban areas and Libyan dual-use infrastructure.

The second option, relying on the rebels to effect regime change, would be dangerous and wishful. Ten years after the invasion of Afghanistan, and with massive assistance, the Afghan National Army is a dysfunctional fighting force. [4]

In every prior case of arming and organising rebels, the beneficiaries of Western support have had a nucleus of combat experience and structure. The Libyan rebels are genuine amateurs.[5] Though Britain should help with any defence of Benghazi and, perhaps later, Misurata, meaningfully arming the opposition would require a counterproductive ground presence. 

The third option, relying on political pressure, seems attractive in the aftermath of Musa Kusa's defection. But important as his flight to Britain has been, Kusa was not central to the regime's war. Over the years, he had grown more distant from Qadhafi's inner sanctum. Unless defections touch Qadhafi's family or senior military leadership, they will not constitute a decisive blow.

Britain's Strategic Imperatives

All this means that British policy need not and should not be beholden to the rebels' insistence on regime change. Rather, Britain should make three parallel pushes.

Firstly, Britain should focus on efforts that bolster the opposition's medium-term resilience - such as abetting oil sales and eliminating the regime's military hardware - without giving the rebels a blank cheque or becoming unduly implicated in their potential breaches of the laws of warfare.

Secondly, it is important to be clear about British red-lines in any settlement. At least for the next several weeks (after the Doha meeting of the international contact group on Libya), any ceasefire should only be acceptable if it involves either a verifiable and irreversible disengagement of heavy weaponry - or, less likely, the presence of African Union or Arab League peacekeeping forces around populated areas under threat.

Those who charge NATO with exceeding its brief have no answer to the question of how a crude ceasefire - freezing the situation on the ground - could be turned into a stable, self-enforcing equilibrium. [6]

But equally, goals must be commensurate with (limited) resources and resolve. A proposed transitional government should allow for the participation of loyalists, including Qadhafi family members, at the ministerial level. In other words, the objective ought to be regime modification rather than regime destruction. Unless we wish to invite a horrific siege of Tripoli, the consequences of concession for Qadhafi and his regime must not be worse than those arising from a bitter fight to the end.

This limitation of objectives will not only increase the chances of a mutually acceptable settlement, but it also lessens the likelihood of aggrieved loyalist remnants waging a destructive post-war resistance campaign. In Libya, as in every other civil conflict, the demands of peace and justice will be at odds. If the rebels do not like this, they can fight their own war.

Thirdly, humanitarian intervention must be put in the context of wider British foreign policy, operating within tight financial and diplomatic constraints.

It was right that Britain led the effort to forestall a massacre and support nascent democratic forces.[7] Britain's armed forces have accommodated the Libyan mission with aplomb.

But the medium-term strain on the services; broader fiscal retrenchment; and the rising symbolic cost of another prolonged war in the Islamic world all mean that an Iraq-length campaign would weaken Britain's defences and dissolve public trust in the propriety of British foreign policy.

The United States has already withdrawn its fighters and bombers, and the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway have all set two or three month limits on their participation. Britain need not be this cagey, but a time-limitation is prudent. Liberal internationalists can - and should - also be realists.


[1] On autocratic regimes' vulnerabilities in waging war, see Risa A. Brooks, Making Military Might: Why Do States Fail and Succeed?: A Review Essay, International Security, Fall 2003, Vol. 28, No. 2, Pages 149-191

[2] That figure refers to the Eurofighter Typhoon, an aircraft that has been used in both air superiority and ground attack roles during the war. For details of flying costs, see

[3] Though his arguments are intensely contested, see Robert Pape, Bombing to win: air power and coercion in war (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996)

[4] Antonio Giustozzi, The Afghan National Army: Unwarranted Hope?, RUSI Journal, Dec 2009, Vol. 154, No. 6

[5] C.J. Chivers, Libyan Rebels Don't Really Add Up to an Army, New York Times, 6 April 2011

[6] See, for instance, Roy Licklider, The Consequences of Negotiated Settlements in Civil Wars, 1945-1993, American Political Science Review, Vol. 89, No. 3, September 1995

[7] The cynicism surrounding the rebels' democratic credentials long ago slipped from prudence to alarmism. Their statements of democratic intent should be treated with caution, but not scorn.


Shashank Joshi

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