The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Bad to Worse for Libyan Rebels

Posted on | April 10, 2011 | 14 Comments

Just look at a map. As recently as Thursday, the rebels were trying to re-take Brega. Today, they’re fighting to hold onto Ajdabiya:

Ajdabiyah had been the launch point for insurgents during a week-long fight for the oil port of Brega further west and its fall would be a serious loss.

Updating this morning at the American Spectator, I wrote:

To say that Gaddafi’s capture of Ajdabiya “would be a serious loss” is an understatement: Losing the town would be a disaster for the rebels, who have already been forced to retreat more than 200 miles eastward since March 28, when their advance threatened Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. As the Associated Press says, if the rebels lose Ajdabiya, “the way is open for a siege of Benghazi.”

What I cannot understand is how Qaddafi’s troops were able to advance from Brega — across 50 miles of open highway in the desert — if NATO’s air forces were on the job. While it is reported that NATO jets knocked out several of Qaddafi’s tanks near Ajdabiya, a vigilant air patrol would have destroyed anything moving up the coast out of Brega. Yet now we have reports of Qaddafi’s artillery pounding Ajdabiya?

NATO has screwed the pooch. Here’s an al-Jazeera video report:

Like I said, look at the map: Two weeks ago, on March 27, the rebels were advancing in a major offensive, pushing west to capture the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, with Gaddafi’s troops reported abandoning artillery and fleeing in civilian vehicles. By March 28, the rebels were “jubilant” as they advanced toward Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown. By March 29, however, the rebels retreated in a “panicked scramble,” with fighting reported in Bin Jawwad and artillery fire audible in Ras Lanuf. By March 30, Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Brega “forcing rebel fighters into a chaotic retreat.”

It was last Sunday, April 3, that we saw the video of Geraldo Rivera under fire as rebels were fighting to re-take Brega. Now, a week later, the Gaddafi troops are reportedly closing in on Ajdabiya, where the rebels are trying desperately to hold onto their forward base. From Bin Jawwad to Brega is about 115 miles, and Gaddafi’s forces advanced that far in less than two days. After 10 days of fighting around Brega, Gaddafi’s forces have now apparently pushed another 50 miles to Ajdabiya.

It’s only 100 miles from Ajdabiya to the rebel capital at Benghazi, and they’ve already been pushed back more than 200 miles in two weeks. If another one of those “panicked scramble”/”chaotic retreat” scenarios develops for the rebels, Gaddafi could retake Benghazi within a week.

To quote myself, “the war in Libya is beginning to look like President Obama’s worst failure to date.”

UPDATE: Mark Steyn checks in on Libya: “You remember, it was in all the papers for a couple of days. So I guess things have gone quiet because it’s all wrapped up now?” Or not, as Professor Reynolds observes: “War seldom rewards half measures.”

There was just now a Fox New report from Benghazi that seemed strangely optimistic, but I’m checking other reports online now and it looks like a rebel collapse may be underway at Ajdabiya.

UPDATE II: Via Memeorandum, C.J. Chivers of the New York Times recounts Saturday’s fighting at Ajdabiya:

The assault was more determined and organized than the ambushes and exchanges of rocket and artillery fire of recent days. Barrage after barrage of incoming fire thudded and exploded within the city, and loyalist troops advanced behind it. . . .
Many of the rebels fled once again, streaming north up toward Benghazi, the rebel capital, their horns blaring. One rebel fighter shouted at vehicles as they passed: “Qaddafi’s forces are coming! Go! Go! Go!” . . .
As the gun battle raged, the main rebel force rallied about 10 miles north of Ajdabiya.

Still checking reports of today’s fighting. Remember that there may be a gap of several hours between the time something happens in Libya and the time reporters there can get it on the Web. It’s not like they can just pop into a Starbucks, open their laptops and live-blog the war.

UPDATE III: Now here’s Chivers reporting the Sunday battle:

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military forces appeared to falter on Sunday in a second day of assault against the rebel city of Ajdabiya, as opposition fighters aided by heavy NATO airstrikes retook positions through much of the city.
Occasional skirmishes between small units within the city on Sunday morning appeared to be dying out. And other than an apparent mortar attack against a rebel checkpoint, the loyalists’ artillery and rocket batteries were mostly silent by the afternoon . . .
It was a sharp turnabout from the fighting on Saturday, when heavy artillery barrages sent rebel forces running several times through the day and caused heavy damage here. [Qaddafi’s] forces were able to infiltrate the city, fighting gun battles in the city center against local rebels who had stayed to defend their homes. But by Sunday, that threat appeared to have passed. . . .
By 4 p.m., a long rebel column of pickup trucks passed through the city’s main street, firing their weapons in the air in celebration.
The rebels’ gains were at least in part because of heavy NATO airstrikes throughout the morning and afternoon outside Ajdabiya . . .

OK, 4 p.m. Libya time was three hours ago (it’s now 1 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. in Libya), and the fact that Chivers was still able to file stories under an Ajdabiya dateline suggests that Qaddafi’s troops have been pushed back.

UPDATE IV: In another report datelined from Ajdabiya, apparently filed about two hours earlier than Chivers, Chris McGreal of the U.K. Guardian writes:

Muammar Gaddafi’s forces continued to fight their way toward Benghazi . . .
Rebel defences around Ajdabiya appeared to be failing as Gaddafi’s soldiers broke into the heart of the strategic town, 90 miles from Benghazi, and engaged in running street battles after again outmanoeuvring the revolutionaries. . . .
Shelling around the southern entrance to Ajdabiya continued, with loud explosions heard and thick black smoke rising over parts of the town.
Much of Ajdabiya was deserted after civilians fled amid the prospect of Gaddafi’s troops taking the town for the second time in as many weeks. . . .
“Gaddafi’s military is in the town,” said Saleh Mufta, a 25-year-old who was a science student before becoming an armed rebel.
“There’s been a lot of shooting. Gaddafi has copied our techniques. He is not using so many tanks now after the air strikes. His men are in pickups. They move very fast. We don’t know where they are. They just pop up.” . . .
Asked what he thought the government army’s intent was, Mufta said: “They don’t want Ajdabiya. They want the road to Benghazi. They want Benghazi.”
Nato faces humiliation if Gaddafi’s army is able to force its way through Ajdabiya again to threaten Benghazi . . .
Other than a line of artillery about 15 miles from the city, rebel defences around Benghazi are little in evidence.

Comparing these two accounts, from Chivers and McGreal, you see how hard it is to tell what the military situation is now.

Saleh Mufta’s explanation that the Qaddafi troops are traveling in pickup trucks, and just “pop up” to attack the rebels, explains a lot of the confusion. In the span of an hour, a pickup truck carrying five or six men with AK-47s and mortars could easily move 30 or 40 miles cross-country in the desert. Mufta’s assertion that truckloads of these light forces are attempting to cut off the road from Ajdabiya to Benghazi explains why the rebels are so prone to panic: Without proper communications, the rebels currently fighting in Ajdabiya might get cut off by an attack on the Benghazi road many miles to the east. And they wouldn’t know they were cut off until it was already too late to retreat.

UPDATE V: Here is a CBS/Washington Post video report (you’ll have to watch a 30-second commercial):

UPDATE VI: Greyhawk at Mudville Gazette has some good analysis of the Libyan situation, and here is a new BBC video report from Ajdabiya (click the image to watch):

The BBC reporter is Orla Guerin, who has one of those Gaelic-inflected accents that Americans seldom hear except on NPR programs about Irish folk music.

UPDATE VII: Ed Morrissey says, “It doesn’t take a Sir Bernard Law Montgomery to read the map. Ajdabiya is the key to Benghazi and Tobruk. . . . How badly is it going? Gaddafi felt sanguine enough to make a public appearance, making sure that the media noted today’s date on the school’s whiteboard.”

Diplomats are now trying to negotiate a ceasefire in Libya, which suggests that “kinetic military action” has become a synonym for “getting our butts kicked by Qaddafi.”


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