Do The New York Times.
Libyan Rebels Don’t Really Add Up to an Army
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Published: April 6, 2011
BENGHAZI, Libya — 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.
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
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.
Unlike many antigovernment militias in other countries, the rebel-armed column has not had the benefit of years of guerrilla fighting, which could have winnowed and seasoned its leaders and given them a skeletal field structure to build on.
Instead, Libya’s rebels have entered the grim work of waging war almost spontaneously, and would need time, training, equipment and leadership to develop into even a reasonably competent force.
For now, their ranks have three elements: a so-called “special forces” detachment of former soldiers and police officers; a main column organized into self-led cells of fighters built around a few weapons and pickup trucks; and a sort of home guard that is undergoing quick training to man checkpoints and serve as a civil defense force.
There is also the “shabab,” milling groups of youngsters who arrive at the front each day hoping to pitch in, but with scant idea of how. Officially, the shabab are not part of the fight.
The rebels insist the size of the special forces detachment is large, but on the battlefield it feels anything but. Colonel Ahmed Bani, the military’s top spokesman, suggested that some of these soldiers are being held back for now.
“Our army, the professionals, are still waiting for armaments,” he said. “Only some of them are at the front lines supporting the young men.”
The largest visible body of rebels each day consists of groups of self-led fighters in cars and pickup trucks, who move up and down the highway to Brega, where the Qaddafi forces have plugged the road to Tripoli and taken custody of essential oil infrastructure — a key to the economic fortune of any Libyan government.
These men are a Libyan melting pot, a cross-section of professions and backgrounds. Businessmen and engineers fight beside students and laborers.
A few are Libyans from abroad who hurried home in February or March, answering an urge to topple Qaddafi and remake Libya on less autocratic lines.
They lack structure and they know it. Each contingent fights largely according to its own whim. Sometimes no one knows who is in charge.
“We are without command,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, 32, who said he had served as a sergeant in the Libyan army. “Too many without command. And this is the problem.”
His fighting cell consisted of six men, two pickup trucks, a rebel flag, a heavy machine gun, a few Kalashnikov rifles, a Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle and a surface-to-air missile. The six men — excepting two who are related — had not known each other before the uprising began.
Now they lived in the desert, roaming a single road, dodging mortar and rocket fire. Their truck beds contained blankets, a tarp, ammunition, bottled water and ammunition crates packed with fresh vegetables and canned food.
The third group is made up of more recent volunteers, who turn up each morning for training at a military base at the edge of Benghazi.
Mindful that the rebels lack weapons and trainers, and that sending them into battle against Colonel Qaddafi’s conventional military will get too many of them killed, the rebels’ military leadership is training them for the more limited duties of civil defense.
On two recent mornings, slightly more than 600 volunteers showed up at the base for a half-day of training. They looked to be from 18 to 60 years old.
They briefly marched and jogged on a parade ground. (On the first morning, one of them fainted within 10 minutes.) After this warm-up, the volunteers attended open-air classes on various weapons — the assault rifle, the heavy machine gun, the 82-millimeter mortar.
But the classes contained little more than the nomenclature of each weapon’s parts, a discussion of each weapon’s basic characteristics, and demonstrations of how to assemble and disassemble the weapons, and to clean them.
Tellingly, only the instructors had weapons.
Marey el-Bejou, an Airbus pilot serving as a spokesman for the training camp, said the indoctrination course would last a week. He had no illusions about whether it might produce a real military. He noted that the troops were unpaid and their training was marginal. The military had no barracks, no blankets, no uniforms and, in the eyes of many who showed up, little time.
“Can I be clear?” Mr. Bejou asked. “We are not organized. We do not have weapons, other than anti-aircraft machine guns. If Qaddafi wanted to be here, he could be here in four hours.”
Out on the battle lines near Brega in the afternoon, where spirits were high but fighting skills and ammunition were in short supply, the rebels were engaged in a contest for which they were clearly unprepared. One of their most fearsome weapons said much. It consisted of Grad rocket-launcher tubes, jury-rigged into pods of four. Each was then welded to heavy machine-gun mounts welded or bolted to the bed of a pickup truck. Car batteries provided the power to launch each barrage. The firing switch was a box holding four doorbells, one for each rocket.
As monuments to the rebels’ resourcefulness and determination, these homemade launchers were impressive. As instruments of war, they were not.
To use them against the Qaddafi forces, the rebels sped forward with loaded tubes, stopped along the highway, and fired the rockets toward Brega.
Each of the rockets, slightly more than nine feet long, climbed into the air with tremendous whooshes and long plumes of smoke. They accelerated out of sight.
No one knew for sure where they might land, and firing them this way exposed the rebels to charges that they are waging indiscriminate war.
“ “God is great!” the rebels cheered. Then they pulled back quickly, before the Qaddafi forces fired back, and the highway was pounded with incoming fire, another of the daily exchanges of fire in a ground war bogged down.
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