Shashank Joshi: Amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics

To ensure longevity, Muammar Gaddafi has had to switch his focus to securing the war's lifelines. And supplies are no less important to the rebel forces

Thursday 12 May 2011 00:00 BST

Libya's is a quadripartite revolution: stalemate around Benghazi, urban war in Misrata, a Berber rebellion in the far west and guerrilla raids deep into the interior. The first two of these – the rebel stronghold and besieged port city – may get the most attention, but it is the latter two struggles that may prove the most consequential.

Nato has adapted to the first two theatres by sending body armour, anti-tank weapons and military advisers to the Transitional National Council while deploying armed drones over Misrata. Yet no one thinks this war will end with a victorious march into Tripoli.

Instead, the coalition, through aggressive attacks on Tripoli and a naval blockade, has adopted a campaign of coercion. There are three problems with this. First, punishing adversaries rarely works. Nato has inflated the costs of capitulation and made a settlement less likely. Second, the regime has levelled the playing field by switching to hit-and-run tactics in the south, plain-clothes soldiers in the east and rocket attacks in Misrata. Third, coercion may flounder as the regime waits out the coalition. But to ensure this longevity, Muammar Gaddafi has had to switch his focus to securing the war's lifelines.

This is why the battles in the west and the interior of Libya are crucial. It is why Colonel Gaddafi's forces have redeployed forces from Misrata to the west.

Oil pipelines run from southwestern Libya, through the Nafusa mountain range, up to the regime's single functioning refinery at Zawiya. These, along with key water and gas pipelines, traverse fiercely contested territory. Denying them to the regime would result in biting shortages spreading from the civilian population to the armed forces.

Supplies are no less important to the self-described Free Libya forces, which is why the government has struck at the rebels' own lifelines in the south-east of the country. The Sarir field is the country's largest, but it lies outside Nato's core patrolling zone and its pipelines have been subject to sporadic regime raids. The area hosts key portions of the water grid; Libya is mostly desert and desalination capacity is limited.

Even the $3bn (£1.8bn) of foreign-held assets being released to the Transitional National Council are collateralised against future oil income. Though the rebels managed to export a million barrels of oil to China in early April, long-term flows will be low as attacks keep away foreign workers.

There is a military adage that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics. It is the sinew of Colonel Gaddafi's wars and the lifeblood of the opposition's resistance which are at stake in these neglected but finely balanced battles of Libya.

The writer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute

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