U.S. Military Readies Libya Options — With Caution

Mar 2, 2011
U.S. Military Readies Libya Options — With Caution

David Wood,

Lesson No. 1, planners say: Beware the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The spreading chaos in Libya and the bloody stalemate between rebels and defiant remnants of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime have prompted demands for armed intervention on behalf of the popular uprising to topple the regime, help restore order and feed and house those who have fled the fighting.With orders from the White House to prepare “all options,” military planners across the armed services are scrambling, from the XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division headquartered here, to the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., down to the future operations cell of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked on the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault carrier headed toward Libya from the Red Sea.

Most of the Marines assigned to the 26 MEU are currently fighting in Afghanistan, so Defense Secretary Robert Gates Tuesday ordered 400 Marines from the United States to join the Kearsarge in the Mediterranean Sea later this week.In a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday, Gates said no further decisions have been made on potential missions in Libya. He noted that a U.N. Security Council resolution does not contain authorization for any military operations.

None of the U.S. planners involved will talk on the record. Privately, though, planners, strategists and analysts describe a range of potential missions from imposing “no-fly” and “no-drive” zones (to prevent the movement of Gadhafi’s security forces) to launching limited and short-duration humanitarian relief operations. And because operations planners must consider worst-case situations, some also are looking at larger-scale armed intervention. Preferably, U.S.officials said, any U.S. intervention would take place under United Nations auspices and be undertaken jointly with NATO allies and others.

But while the necessary work is underway of planning what would be complex military operations, there is a sense that the conflict in Libya will unfold on its own.

“I don’t see a military mission,” said Robert Killebrew, a retired Army strategic planner. “It would be one thing if there were Americans being held hostage. Then we have to intervene. Barring that, it’s unclear what the military would do.” Killebrew is now a senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

The risk of U.S. military involvement is reflected in a variant of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule.” As the former four-star general and then-secretary of state warned President Bush in 2002, regarding an invasion of Iraq, “You break it, you own it.”

By intervening in Libya, “the United States and its allies might find themselves in the position of midwifing a bad outcome if the situation degenerated into civil war or chaotic violence, or if radical Islamist elements gained power,” write Jason Hanover and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

And there is the precedent of Somalia, where a well-intentioned impulse to “do something” turned into a deadly rout. In August 1992, President George H.W. Bush authorized the military to begin flying food shipments into drought-stricken Somalia. But supply convoys run by relief organizations came under attack by local gangs, which hijacked the food for resale on the open market. By December, Bush — who had lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton — came under pressure to protect the convoys, and sent in Marines and troops of the 10th Mountain Division, a force that reached upwards of 10,000 assigned to work with international troops under a U.N. mandate.

Operation Restore Hope grew into a series of deadly clashes with Somali gangs and, it turned out, elements of early al-Qaeda units. Under the U.N. mandate, American troops had no authority to disarm the gangs, and the fighting escalated to the deadly October 1993 firefight portrayed in the book “Blackhawk Down.”

U.S. forces were withdrawn, with the last troops being evacuated by sea the fo

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