News from Libya over the past few days has been alternately frustrating and depressing. The momentum of the opposition forces seems to have broken as they reached Qaddafi’s main strongholds of Sirte (his hometown) and Tripoli (the capital). Once they lost their inertia, Gaddafi was able to begin concerted counterattacks. Despite being numerically outnumbered, Gaddafi’s remaining troops are his most loyal and by extension, the best equipped and best trained soldiers.
However, despite the pessimism on the part of many, it is important to note that a war of attrition would not favor Gaddafi. To preserve his primary advantage (better weapons and equipment) he needs a robust support system for his forces – something that only comes with money, supply chains, and loyalty. The elite soldiers may still support him, but the logistical components of his army will be much harder to retain - mechanics, cooks, truck drivers, etc. are what make a military function in the long run, and at this point they are only likely to carry the army’s burden while under duress. This goes double for the air force support crew. The more sorties a plane flies, the greater its need for careful maintenance and repair (just ask US helicopter crews in Afghanistan), and the higher the risk of serious systems failure.
Qaddafi may be able to recapture some of his lost ground, and he may even successfully retake some of his oil and gas production/refinement areas, but the only strategic advantages those will afford him are morale-related. He won’t be able to resume gas exports – the people who kept the refineries operating were the foreign workers who evacuated weeks ago, and the home-grown Libyan work force is notoriously inadequate. Large portions of his funds have been frozen, he has few trading partners for whatever oil he may have - maybe Venezuela, but they don’t really need oil, they make plenty of their own.
There is also some good news today. The Arab league has asked the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. (It is worthwhile to note that the countries most resistant to the idea were Syria, Yemen, and Algeria – all countries that are dealing with some precarious political situations, and have used violence against their own citizenry or are likely to do so in the near future.). This paves the way for a multilateral projection of force that is less likely to bite the US in the ass later. I’ve been pretty critical of a US-led no-fly zone, but the explicit approval of the Arab League significantly assuages my concerns.
The White House has already responded positively to the Arab League's statement, and Hillary Clinton will be meeting with one of the main Libyan opposition leaders shortly.
The pace has been excruciating, but I believe that the long-term outcome will be a good one.