Kim Sengupta: The resistance has foundered on its own indiscipline and farcical ineptitude

Thursday 24 March 2011 01:00

The pervading feature of the conflict in Libya has been the ineptitude of the main rebel force. Time and again they have failed to take advantage of weaknesses among Muammar Gaddafi's troops and, just as frequently, they have fled in the face of fire.

The most glaring example was the opportunity offered by the air strikes carried out by the West which destroyed the regime's tanks and artillery outside Benghazi and forced its soldiers into a terrified retreat to the next city, Ajdabiya.

Rather than press home their advantage and retake Ajdabiya, the rebel fighters – known as the Shabaab – were too busy having their pictures taken with the wreckage or looting anything left intact from the supply trucks. A desultory attack late in the day was easily repulsed by the regime's forces which then dug in around the city.

The bombardment by the US, France and Britain was meant to break the regime's forces and galvanise the rebels. Extraordinarily, it appears to have had the opposite effect, with the Shabaab retreating yet again in the next 48 hours.

There is little sign of leadership on the issue from the political hierarchy at the opposition's capital, Benghazi, where the provisional administration, with the prize of international recognition seemingly within reach, has been enmeshed in a bout of internal rivalry.

Mahmoud Jibril – a former economics official – appears to have won the power struggle against former justice minister Mustapha Abdel Jalil, to head the de facto government. Mr Jibril has, however, already been heading the "crisis committee" covering military and foreign affairs, which does not, perhaps, offer great hope of immediate and radical improvement in the conduct of the war.

The Western powers are now left with four choices. They can keep on bombing the loyalist troops until they are defenceless (a path US commanders have rejected), send in ground forces, train the rebels, or supply them with modern, heavy weapons. The last option is the one the rebels are clamouring for, but experience on the ground suggests that is anything but the answer.

To date the Shabaab has wasted at least three times the ordnance than it has fired in anger by shooting into the air in celebration of often non-existent victories. It has blown up guns by using the wrong type of ammunition, crashed its few tanks into each other and shot down two of its own planes.

The streets of Benghazi and other towns in "Free Libya" still have posters saying "No to foreign intervention – Libyans can do it alone". The opposition has since been forced to ask for air strikes and will now accept training.

And what, one may ask, has happened to the members of the Libyan military forces who, it was claimed, had defected to the revolution in droves? They, especially the officers, are increasingly scarce on the front line. The Shabaab claims that former soldiers were too slow in moving forwards, while the defectors in turn accuse the volunteer fighters of lack of discipline.

The rebels' operations are further undermined by an absence of command and control. On Monday two men standing within a hundred yards of each other, "Captain" Jalal Idrisi and "Major" Adil Hassi, claimed to be in charge of the fighters who were meant to be attacking Ajdabiya. A brief advance soon turned into a chaotic retreat. Major Hassi then claimed that the misjudgement in going forward had been Captain Idris's idea. But why didn't they liaise? "We haven't got communications equipment" he responded. But the Captain is standing just over there, journalists pointed out. "I don't talk to him," said Major Hassi.

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