Libyan rebels a “hapless bunch” on the battlefield

Washington and its allies may still be learning who are the Libya rebels they have awkwardly elected to back as part of the global intervention to restrain Libyan leader Muammer Gadhafi from massacring his citizens. But as the allied coalition's effort wears on, another question is starting to gain paramount importance: Can the rebel forces be counted on to mount an effective advance against pro-Gadhafi troops?

So far, virtually all observers--even those without higher-level security clearances--would be hard pressed to escape the conclusion that the answer is "no."

Indeed, according to this account by the New York Times' C.J. Chivers, the Libyan rebels are rather tragi-comically inept on the battlefield:

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.

This apparent lack of battlefield experience may boost the prospect that the rebel campaign will continue to enjoy the protection afforded by the international coalition. At the same time, however, coalition leaders are already concerned by the rebels' inability to effectively hold ground against Gadhafi's much better armed and trained forces--even with the benefit of NATO air strikes.

The United States and its allies clearly hoped military intervention from the air--combined with a more cohesive rebel advance on the ground--would pressure Gadhafi to negotiate a swift exit. That's not how things have worked out so far, however. Even after major setbacks such as the defection of Gadhafi's foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, Gadhafi's forces have managed not merely to hold ground, but also to advance east, retaking the oil town of Brega Wednesday.

Bad weather hampered air strikes over the weekend, which coalition leaders view as a temporary setback. Some observers, however, say the rebels' campaign suffers from a lack of coordination with the global coalition in Libya. "But there's also some confusion among the rebels about what the objectives of the US/NATO mission is," said Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski. "I think there may have been some expectation the U.S. would provide close air support for the rebels, as they march forward."

U.S. and NATO military commanders have repeatedly said that their mission is to stave off the prospect of genocide and civilian casualties in Libya--but with the fighting acumen of the Libyan rebel forces in question, the tactical confusion could well prove a problem for international military leaders as well as for the rebels on the ground.

(Libyan rebels arm rocket launchers mounted at the back of a pickup truck after retreating east to the outskirts of Ajdabiya, Libya Thursday, April 7, 2011.: Nasser Nasser/AP)