Libya: The risks of arming and training the rebels.

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March 31 2011 7:05 AM

Libya's Rebels: Approach With Caution

What comes after the air war?

Read more of Slate's coverage of the  Libya conflict.

Libyan rebels. Click image to expand.
Libyan rebels

After the United States and its allies intervened in Libya on March 19, airstrikes quickly pushed Col. Muammar Qaddafi's forces to retreat from Benghazi, the nation's second city, and rebels swiftly retook important towns that the government had overrun only days before. Now things appear stalemated, with Qaddafi's men entrenched in some areas and even making counterattacks in parts of eastern Libya. Clearly, we hope that airstrikes on Tripoli and on the regime's military will lead to the demoralization and eventual defection of Qaddafi loyalists and thus bring about his fall. But it would be foolish to assume this will happen.

The Obama administration and its allies are now caught on the expectations they engendered when the operation began: They cannot abandon the Libyan people after having pledged to protect them, but toppling Qaddafi may require a greater commitment than simply enforcing a no-fly zone. And neither the Libyan people nor the Western powers want the stalemate to drag on.

Not surprisingly, Washington and European capitals are abuzz with talk of a ground option. In theory, even small numbers of competent ground forces could transform the fight. Troops on the ground can act as spotters, helping air assets overhead recognize where to strike and, equally important, where not to strike in order to avoid civilian casualties. Disciplined opposition troops could force Qaddafi's units to stand and fight or risk being overrun. And once government forces muster in large numbers to resist opposition troops, they become vulnerable to attack from the air.

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But the president has pledged to keep U.S. boots off the Libyan ground. U.S. allies, such as France and the United Kingdom, are more eager to take the lead, and their special forces could call in airstrikes, but even these allies do not seem enthusiastic to put large numbers of their own troops into battle.

Press reports indicate that President Barack Obama has issued an intelligence "finding" authorizing covert support for the rebels. It is unclear whether this will involve simply financial and political support or major arms transfers, large-scale training, and covert paramilitary forces on the ground. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told reporters after a meeting with senior administration officials, "They said they haven't made a decision to give them arms."

This possible covert support suggests that Western governments may try to transform the Libyan opposition into a more formidable fighting force. At present, the Libyan rebels are essentially civilians with guns. They are poorly armed and poorly trained. While they hate Qaddafi, their ability to stand and fight—and fight effectively—is minimal. To become more effective, they not only need better weapons, but also organization and training to use them effectively. In particular, they must learn to work with coalition air assets.

If the opposition receives help, then Libyans, not Americans or Europeans, would pay the human cost, making it easier to sustain political support for the operation. Politically, it's better if Libyans take the lead in liberating themselves: The pride they would gain from earning their freedom can help knit the country together after Qaddafi is gone.

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