By Patrick Bahzad
It's the weekend soon, and spring seems to be on its way in this part of the world, so why not have a bit of a light-hearted look at our impeccable record in the Middle-East and North-Africa … I'm kidding of course ! In recent exchanges I had with SST contributors and readers, the topic of the fall of Tripoli in August 2011 was mentioned. Almost four years have passed since operation "Mermaid Dawn" and it looks now as if the Pentagon algorithm that comes up with those unbelievable code names would have done a better job calling this "Dawn of the Evil dead" or, maybe more cynically, "Black Hawk Dawn" … Libya is a "Charlie Foxtrot" of epic proportions, that the acronym "FUBAR" fails to describe with sufficient intensity.
Those who have been in the country before, during and after the toppling of Gaddafi will probably have a better idea of what's been going on – and going wrong – but before turning to an expanded description of what happened, why it happened, and what the consequences are going to be, Let's just have a look at a tiny aspect of the military campaign that managed to oust the leader of the Libyan "Jamahiriya".
During the four months of intense NATO airstrikes that took out almost anything that could be bombed between Benghazi and Tripoli, neither the rebellion nor the Western coalition or their Gulf States' allies managed a breakthrough. What was officially a "No Fly Zone" operation carried out under the umbrella of the United Nations (pursuant to resolution 1973) was in fact a campaign of targeted airstrikes aimed at knocking out Gaddafi's armoured units and opening the way for the rebel and insurgent groups from Eastern Libya to drive into Tripoli in their Toyota pick-up trucks … A masterpiece of tactical and strategic planning again, no doubt, one that was probably whispered into our leaders' ears by people with brilliant credentials, deep pockets and – supposedly – great connections to the opposition inside the Libyan Security apparatus itself.
Much to the dismay of the Chiefs of Staff in D.C., London and Paris though, Gaddafi didn't seem very impressed and neither were the troops that remained loyal to him, contrary to what had been expected and anticipated. The West – and the token nations of the Arab Gulf – seemed to head for a dead-lock. Fortunately – from a military point of view – the French came up with a plan.
French tactical thinking
As much as one enjoys a joke about the "military prowess" of the French – courtesy of German Wehrmacht in WWII – anybody familiar enough with the way French armies have conducted operations over the centuries know that their sometimes suicidal sense of arrogance and overconfidence can only be toppled by one thing, which is the absolute cynicism and "do or die" approach, whatever the costs or consequences, of their way of war.
Asked one day what the difference had been in fighting first the French and later the US, Vietnamese general Nguyên Giáp stated that in a guerrilla war – something we call today "asymmetric warfare" – fighting the Americans was "peanuts, compared to fighting the French". Not that the US grunt was less of a fighting man, but the French – probably due to their having to do more with less – used every dirty trick in the book to get the job done. They still failed after the debacle of Dien Bien Phu, which was another of those examples of overconfidence that French military history is riddled with.
Regarding the war in Libya however, the traditional ability for "out of the box thinking" that is sort of a trademark of French COs on the ground was key to unlocking a situation that looked dangerously close to heading for compromise at the negotiating table.