C J Chivers reports:
Late Monday afternoon, as Libyan rebels prepared another desperate attack on the eastern oil town of Brega, a young rebel raised his rocket-propelled grenade as if to fire. The town’s university, shimmering in the distance, was far beyond his weapon’s maximum range. An older rebel urged him to hold fire, telling him the weapon’s back-blast could do little more than reveal their position and draw a mortar attack.
The younger rebel almost spat with disgust. “I have been fighting for 37 days!” he shouted. “Nobody can tell me what to do!”
The outburst midfight — and the ensuing argument between a determined young man who seemed to have almost no understanding of modern war and an older man who wisely counseled caution — underscored a fact that is self-evident almost everywhere on Libya’s eastern front. The rebel military, as it sometimes called, is not really a military at all.
What is visible in battle here is less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising.
With throaty cries and weapons they have looted and scrounged, the rebels gather along Libya’s main coastal highway each day, ready to fight. Many of them are brave, even extraordinarily so. Some of them are selfless, swept along by a sense of common purpose and brotherhood that accompanies their revolution.
“Freedom!” they shout, as they pair a yearning to unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi with appeals for divine help. “God is great!”
But by almost all measures by which a military might be assessed, they are a hapless bunch. They have almost no communication equipment. There is no visible officer or noncommissioned officer corps. Their weapons are a mishmash of hastily acquired arms, which few of them know how to use.
With only weeks of fighting experience, they lack an understanding of the fundamentals of offensive and defensive combat, or how to organize fire support. They fire recklessly and sometimes accidentally. Most of them have yet to learn how to hold seized ground, or to protect themselves from their battlefield’s persistent rocket and mortar fire, which might be done by simply digging in.
Prone to panic, they often answer to little more than their mood, which changes in a flash. When their morale spikes upward, their attacks tend to be painfully and bloodily frontal — little more than racing columns down the highway, through a gantlet of the Qaddafi forces’ rocket and mortar fire, face forward into the loyalists’ machine guns.
And their numbers are small. Officials in the rebels’ transitional government have provided many different figures, sometimes saying 10,000 or men are under arms in their ranks.
But a small fraction actually appear at the front each day — often only a few hundred. And some of the men appear without guns, or with aged guns that have no magazines or ammunition.
For the nations that have supported the uprising, the state of the rebels’ armed wing — known as the Forces of Free Libya — raises many questions. It seems unlikely that such a force can carry the war westward, through dug-in Qaddafi units toward the stronghold of Surt, much less beyond, toward Tripoli, the Libyan capital. And a sustained war of attrition could quickly bleed their ranks dry.
The Guardian reports:
Britain is to urge Arab countries to train the disorganised Libyan rebels, and so strengthen their position on the battlefield before negotiations on a ceasefire, senior British defence sources have indicated.
The sources said they were also looking at hiring private security companies, some of which draw on former SAS members, to aid the rebels. These private soldiers could be paid by Arab countries to train the unstructured rebel army.
In what is seen in effect as the second phase of the battle to oust Muammar Gaddafi, it is now being acknowledged that the disorganised Libyan rebels are not going to make headway on their own. Nato member countries are looking at requesting Arab countries, such as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, to train the rebels, or to fund the training. Qatar and the UAE are already involved in the Nato-led no-fly zone.
Some cabinet sources said that another Arab country that might be willing to train the rebels is Jordan. They are thought to have the best-trained officers, and are possibly the best army in the region, one Cabinet source said. The training of the Libyan rebels might take as long as month to turn them into an effective force capable of holding ground, and organise flanking manoeuvres. A source said: “They’re not advancing, they’re just driving up the road, and when they see guns drawn they turn round and go back again.”
The British decision to find ways to train and equip the rebels is a further sign of the determination of the coalition administration to drive out Gaddafi. It is argued that the training, if requested by the rebels, would not be in breach of the UN resolution as it would be covered by the mandate allowing “all means necessary” to protect the civilians from attacks by Gaddafi.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports:
Libya’s former-energy minister said Wednesday that several members of Moammar Gadhafi’s inner circle want to defect, but many are too scared to abandon the dictator fearing the safety of themselves and their families.
Omar Fathi bin Shatwan, who also served as industry minister, told the Associated Press that he had fled by fishing boat to Malta on Friday from the western Libyan city of Misrata.
Shatwan, who left the government in 2007, said he still had contact with some government figures and explained that many feared for their safety. In some cases, their families are under siege, he said.
“Those whose families are outside Libya will flee if they get a chance,” Shatwan said. “But many can’t leave, and all the families of ministers are under siege.”
Shatwan said he had last had contact with Gadhafi in 2006, and had not spoken with the tyrant’s sons since leaving office. “Ministers who are friends of mine, I have spoken to them,” he said.
The 59-year-old said he had spent 40 days at his home in Misrata before escaping from Libya, and witnessed Gadhafi’s forces pounding the city with heavy artillery and relentlessly shooting civilians.