In April of this year, it was already apparent that the Libyan War of 2011 had become a curious war of military, economic and political attrition. That was cruel news then, and remains so today.
Wars of attrition are essentially mutual sieges, where neither side can quite dominate the conflict and bring it to a swift conclusion. So the combatant forces grind away at one another, gambling that superior manpower, superior material resources or sheer tenacity (superior resolve forged by determined leadership and superior morale) will eventually shatter enemy resistance.
World War I's entrenched western front provides a tragic example of attrition warfare at its worst. The stalemate produced unimaginable casualties. Landlocked Germany eventually suffered economic collapse.
Libya is no World War I, but Moammar Gadhafi's siege of the rebel-held city of Misrata, which the rebels ultimately raised, serves as a grim reminder of the human costs of day-by-day attrition.
As August 2011 approaches, however, there is better news from Libya, given the circumstances: Dictator Gadhafi is clearly losing, on Libya's battlefields and in the diplomatic struggle. Though still factionalized, inadequately armed and poorly trained, Libyan rebel forces have not only held their own but made significant military advances while strengthening their political and diplomatic clout.
United Nations observers are reporting that towns located in the dwindling chunk of western Libya Gadhafi still controls lack fuel, hospitals are running short of medicine and supplies, and food prices are climbing. These are the signs of economic attrition. Political effects will follow. Gadhafi bought loyalty by providing his supporters with goods and luxuries. Now his struggle to retain power brings them poverty.
Until NATO intervened in March, Gadhafi's aircraft and armor were dominating and all but defeating Libya's rebels. Disorganized rebel fighters lacked anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons and artillery. All the rebels had was just cause and passion -- the seeds of resolve. Rebel leaders were divided along regional, political and ethnic lines. This is why Gadhafi's threats of mass reprisals -- mass murder -- were very serious. The month of dawdling by the U.S., Great Britain and France was almost fatal.
In March, Gadhafi's forces were pouring into eastern Libya. NATO airpower saved the rebels by driving Gadhafi's air force from the skies and by pinning then pounding his loyalist tank and motorized ground units.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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