There is a time during the early part of a popular uprising when things can go relatively well. The despot or the military leaders of a quick coup could decide that with people on the street and international pressure, the smart thing to do is take the peaceful “retirement package.” That is where, in exchange for not starting a civil war, the international community turns a blind eye while the despot ends his days on some nice tropical island living off the millions they stole and hid in Swiss banks.

The die is cast at this point

Any possible window for a “good” outcome in Libya is clearly closed now, and was probably even closed before the first American bombs starting dropping.

Libya is now effectively engaged in a civil war. Muammar Gaddafi clearly doesn’t want to step down, and even if he wanted to, it is unlikely he could in a way guaranteed to end well for him, now that NATO has basically made their new mission regime change. More importantly, now that all his military leaders around him are engaged in civil war, it is unlikely any of them would feel very safe trying to stage a coup to take the “retirement package” for themselves.

Rebels don’t have the capacity, and won’t have it for a long time, to win a military victory.

Frankly now that the situation has turned into a civil war, Gaddafi and circle has little reason at this moment to look for a surrender. Gaddafi has the much bigger and better-trained army. He must have plenty of cash on hand and at least some base of support after years of patronage and spreading around oil money. (Every dictator has some base of support–or they wouldn’t have stayed in power for very long.)

All the different rebel groups have is a few thousand poorly armed and trained troops, plus NATO working as their de facto air force, but you can’t win wars solely by air. Gaddafi forces know that fighting in a urban environment makes bombing impractical unless NATO is prepared to inflict massive civilian collateral death by just flattening entire cityscapes. There is no way the rebels at this point, even with air support, could take Gaddafi’s urban strongholds.

NATO can’t complete the mission it wants with the tools it is prepared to use

A large NATO ground force could beat Gaddafi’s army, but NATO has ruled that out. NATO also could decide to effectively partition the country, Korean war-style, leaving Gaddafi in control of a rump state. Partition, unlike regime change, is something you could probably enforce with just air power.

But NATO has committed itself to overthrowing Gaddafi and that leaves them with only one option to achieve their goal: turning the rebels into a real army.

Since I doubt NATO wants to send rebel forces in piecemeal to what is assured to be the meat grinder of Tripoli, they are going to want take enough time to train a large rebel army. Even assuming they can find enough volunteers, turning tens of thousands of regular people into an effective army takes months, if not years.

Best case scenario: months more of conflict

So, the best case scenario is that military action to achieve NATO’s new goal will take several more months. The whole time NATO is supporting and training the rebels before they launch what is likely to be a brutal military campaign to destroy Gaddafi’s army. At which point, this deeply tribal country unites behind the government imposed by this rebellion.

Worst case: years of involvement and fighting

Their are many ways even this rather dark best case could still go very wrong.

  • Training the rebel army could take much longer than expect and/or Gaddafi’s forces turnout to be much harder to defeat.
  • Since the rebels aren’t strong enough, NATO eventually sends in a large number of troops, possibly under some silly title like “advisers,” to do the fighting.
  • Even after a “rebel win,” the country sees an insurgency break out that lasts for years, like we saw in Iraq.
  • Similarly, different rebel factions could end up fighting each other for control.
  • Of course, there is always the concern we end up with a new dictator that is just as bad.

Looking at the situation there is clearly no near-term end-game strategy. What we have is another military quagmire in the Muslim world. We truly never seem to learn.