Car wars: Roadmaps to Libya’s ground conflict

Despite having his airforce destroyed, Gaddafi learned to maintain ground power from past conflicts in the desert.

Ground power, rather than Western air power, will determine the outcome of Libya’s military conflict [GALLO/GETTY]

Almost exactly one hundred years ago on November 1, 1911, air war was invented in the Italian invasion of Libya when army pilot Lt Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades on Ottoman positions in the oasis of ‘Ain Zara just outside Tripoli.

In the century since, the air campaign has become the spectacular centrepiece of western warfare, but the failure of NATO’s intervention to tip the balance against Gaddafi is a reminder that it’s hard to win a war from 10,000 feet.

The horrifying siege of Misurata, whose only relief comes from the sea, not the air, and the back and forth movement on the road that links Benghazi to Sirte by way of Ajdabia, Brega and Ras Lanuf suggest that this war will be played out on the ground.

In the last weeks the alliance between NATO and the Libyan rebels has begun to fray. NATO airstrikes decimated a convoy of rebel tanks and a bus full of fighters between Brega and Ajdabiya on April 7, and NATO refused to apologise. The rebels have found that close air support without sufficient ground resources is not the magic bullet that many supporters of intervention imagined.

With only few paramilitary intelligence officers on the ground in Libya, tactical attacks on Gaddafi’s mobile forces are severely limited and isolated in their scope.

Coalition politics

A targeting team which is providing detailed intelligence and target identification for a particular location cannot, by definition, be simultaneously or even quickly deployed to another locale. In the war of movement that Libya has settled into, this negates the effectiveness of the tactical air campaign and necessitates either a drastic escalation of special forces on the ground or the provision of more sophisticated weapons and targeting systems to the rebels themselves. Continued inefficiencies and delays only work in Gaddafi’s interest.

Since none of these options are palatable in the current political climate outside Libya, the abdication of responsibility by outside forces seems likely.

NATO may continue to provide cover and turn a blind eye to the covert arming of rebels by its own member states. An opaque process without accountability, this back-door support is likely to exacerbate rivalries both between coalition partners as well as between emergent rebel factions.

With the the tactical air campaign against government forces seemingly stalled by political considerations, the rebels have only their spirit and ad hoc organisation to defend themselves against Gaddafi’s Stalingrad-like pounding of Misurata with tanks, snipers, MAT-120 cluster bombs and mines.

Unless these abuses of the civilian population (or the real and present danger to NATO’s credibility and coherence) prompt a major shift in the coalition’s approach to the quagmire, the prospect of a lengthy war of attrition looms. The longer this drags on, the greater the unity of command erodes on the NATO and rebel side, and the greater the advantage to Gaddafi, stemming from his unified leadership of much weaker forces.

Ironically, the destruction of Gaddafi’s air force in the early phase of the war, a multi-billion dollar French- and Soviet-made white elephant, has empowered him.

The risk aversion that comes with an expensive air force is gone; Gaddafi has less to lose, and has tossed the Western-derived air war playbook out the window. He is now well prepared to compose and conduct a custom Libyan ground strategy that NATO, in its present shackled form, will be clumsy in countering.

Gaddafi’s inability to bomb his own population from the air (the brutal opening move that mobilised international opinion for an intervention) may deceptively make him appear less of a human rights threat to the outside observer.

With the firepower advantage of the air war cancelled out, the real theatre is the road war back and forth around Ajdabiya and Brega in the east and the siege of Misurata in the west.

Evolving battlefields

This shift from an air war to a ground war was highlighted by footage of April 16 on Libyan State TV of Gaddafi riding triumphantly in an open topped jeep convoy through the streets of Tripoli, hailing and being hesitantly hailed in return by shocked Tripolitanians.

From his study of military history and his own experience in the so-called “Toyota Wars” of Chad, Gaddafi probably has a head start in the ground war. In the Chad-Libyan wars of the 1970s and 80s, he learned first-hand exactly how a superior invading force his own lost a stalled war of movement to a weaker but coherent and well-supplied ground force.

To understand the war on the ground, it is useful to look back at how earlier Middle Eastern road warriors won and lost their battles.

The first car wars in the Middle East were the raids near the end of the Arab Revolt in World War I. Air power was in its infancy, and the biplanes that were introduced into the Hijaz were used largely for reconnaissance against Ottoman positions.

The brilliantly successful campaign was not predicated on air power but on mechanised cavalry raids. TE Lawrence was the original special forces attaché, deeply embedded with the Arab army and an intimate and joint author of Faisal’s strategy.

After the capture of Aqaba in 1917, the Arab armies were richly funded with weapons, gold, petrol and a handful of Rolls-Royce and Ford autos to which they gave affectionate nicknames like “the Green Hornet”. Their ability to criss-cross the desert far faster than the quickest camel made the Ottoman Hijaz railway and Ottoman commander Fakhri Bey’s supply lines completely vulnerable to their raids.

Compared to a rail line which represented a huge exposed investment, the few automobiles of the Hijaz campaign opened up the desert to unpredictable ghazi raids of the modern age.

At this earliest stage, the drivers were exultantly free of conventions and political restraints, even laying down their own road north from Aqaba while buying off any emergent Bedouin opposition.

Moving forward

Fast forwarding to the the Desert Campaign of World War II, a war of movement in which the Italians and the Germans pushed east toward Egypt between 1941 and 1943, until the British “Desert Rats” were ultimately successful in pushing German panzer units back to Tunisia, in spite of Rommel’s bold leadership and tactical brilliance.

Bernard “Monty” Montgomery was successful in the second battle of al-Alamein in November 1942 because he consolidated his forces and supply advantage and held back, tempting a Rommel hampered by Hitler’s unhelpful micromanagement and a crippled Mediterranean supply chain to overplay his hand and overstretch his supply lines.

Allied forces were able to squeeze the German lines, starving Rommel of reinforcements and supplies within a day of Alexandria and ultimately pushing him back into Tunisia.

The British “Special Air Services” quickly found that parachuting into the theatre was a disastrous tactic, and had their greatest success using jeeps mounted with old RAF machine guns to raid and destroy hundreds of Axis planes on the ground. Again it was ground forces that led and harried planes, not the other way round.

Finally, there was a road war that Gaddafi himself had a role in. In the last phase of the Libya-Chad wars, known as the “Toyota Wars”, Gaddafi played the part of the invading power with superior air and artillery force defeated over time by a rag tag band of pick up trucks with speed, morale and flexibility on their side.

When Gaddafi sent 10,000 Libyan troops into Chad in November of 1986 and seized most of the northern part of the country, the Chadian army under the new leadership of “Africa’s Pinochet” Hissene Habre, supported by the US and France, responded with columns of Toyota trucks and Land Rovers with mounted guns.

These columns encountered the Libyan artillery in January 1987 and won a decisive swarming victory that killed nearly 800 Libyans, and destroyed over a hundred tanks and armoured vehicles, capturing dozens more for good measure.

Chadian casualties were reported as 18 dead and three Toyotas disabled. A series of Libyan advances supported by the Libyan air force failed, and a subsequent ground offencive was decisively routed by the Chadian automotive forces.

In a final indignity, Libyan bombers were shot down subsequently as they attempted to destroy remaining depots on the ground, and the war was all over by the end of March.

Gaddafi’s neglect of his conventional forces after this fiasco suggests that he was learning not to count on a second rate standard military machine in a real pinch.

Carpool lane to liberty

What are the lessons learned from this brief excursion into the history of cars in Middle Eastern wars? Their mobility has historically trumped rail and other supply lines that are fixed, static, thin and vulnerable.

Unless their encounter with fighter jets is a clear-cut turkey shoot like the April 1991 “Highway of Death”, in which Iraqi traffic retreating from Kuwait was indiscriminately bombed from above, air power is a blunt and unwieldy instrument whose frightful power is shackled by political and technical constraints in an active and confusing battlefield like Libya.

Indeed, with the logic of guerrilla or “fourth generation warfare”, the de-centred decision-making structure of loosely coordinated car fleets has time, speed, visual and auditory access, morale, and supply advantages over  most other forms of more complex, concentrated and fragile power of vastly greater scale.

Fighters socialised with Middle Eastern driving bravado in cars that they love, trust and own, exercising de facto sovereign decision-making power and enjoying an advantage of numbers and surprise tend to win, all other factors being equal.

Unfortunately in Libya today, all other factors are not equal. By this oversimple formula that scrappy auto-mobility rules the rebels, whose pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and RPGs which feature so prominently in the footage of the Cyrenaican coastal highway, should be winning decisively.

But in the levelled car wars of 21st century Libya, the rebel civilian pick up fleets must overcome Gaddafi’s similarly grounded forces which have the greater artillery firepower of the Libyan military; the rich funding of Gaddafi’s ill-gotten liquid assets (including appreciating gold hoards); the military, political socialisation and dead enders’ desperation of Gaddafi’s partisans; the access to experienced mercenary manpower readily available along Libya’s southern border and elsewhere around the globe; and the autocratic command and control of a cunning tactician who knows the country he has dominated for decades and his military history, too.

In the aftermath of the flailing NATO intervention, the rebels will need all the help they can get, and not just from the air.

Leila Hudson is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies, Anthropology and History and director of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC) at the University of Arizona.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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