Analysis of military tactics in Libya
Talk of the Nation:
NEAL CONAN, host: ... we begin with George Joffe at the BBC studios in Cambridge, where he's a research fellow at the Centre for International Studies. ...I've taken a big quote, but there's more. Read (or listen) here.
CONAN: And is the situation for the rebels becoming critical?
Mr. JOFFE: I don't think it's critical yet. It's becoming serious. That is to say, they've lost control of two of the towns in the Gulf of Sirt. There are still two towns on the way to Benghazi, and they're some way away from the city, and there they're still fighting to make sure that the forces loyal to Colonel Gadhafi can't break through.
And even if those forces do break through, they're running into problems, too. First of all, their lines of communication are getting very stretched. And secondly, their numbers apparently aren't very large.
So whether they can really attack Benghazi, a town of over a million people, seems to me rather doubtful.
CONAN: Yet air attacks are continuing in that direction.
Mr. JOFFE: That's certainly true. Air attacks are continuing. They're being used against small towns on the way, along the coast up towards Benghazi, but whether again they can be used effectively in Benghazi itself to destroy the resistance, I wonder.
CONAN: And when you talk about lines of communication, this is not just radio contact, but food, fuel - in particular fuel.
Mr. JOFFE: It's the whole logistics chain that any army requires to keep itself moving. And that's getting longer and longer. Distances in Libya are very long indeed, and indeed when the forces get to Agedabia, if indeed they do, then they've got a very difficult choice to make.
They could travel due east and try and reach Tobruk and the Egyptian border, thereby isolating Benghazi, or they could try and attack Benghazi itself. In either case, the lines of communication will get even longer, they'll become more vulnerable, and of course, they're approaching the rebel stronghold, Benghazi, and therefore they may well find themselves facing a resistance that they can't overcome.
CONAN: What kind of forces have the rebels been able to organize?
Mr. JOFFE: Well, the rebels certainly have irregular forces. They've been recruiting very heavily inside Benghazi itself. They have some organized, regular Libyan army forces that defected to them in the very early days of the rebellion.
And amongst those, there appear to be some elite troops. They were used recently in Mersa Brega to force the Libyan army out. And they therefore are quite well-prepared.
What they lack, of course, is air power and apparently heavy artillery, too, and that's going to put them at a disadvantage. But again, in terms of house-to-house fighting inside a major city, that disadvantage may be minimized.
CONAN: Yet house-to-house fighting in a major city, that can also be a very bloody operation.
Mr. JOFFE: Oh, undoubtedly. I think one has to assume that any operation involving Libya's supporting Colonel Gadhafi is going to be a very bloody operation indeed, and the use of air power makes it more so. So I don't think we should be under any illusions but that the continuation of this struggle is going to cost many, many lives.
CONAN: And the pro-government forces, are these conventionally organized armored brigades?
Mr. JOFFE: Yes, they are. They are conventional forces as far as one knows, together with paramilitary groups, partly from Colonel Gadhafi's tribal territories but particularly mercenaries that have been recruited over some considerable period of time, I think, in Tripolitania.
So they represent a threat, but their real effectiveness as a fighting force we don't really know. We only know that their armaments are superior.
CONAN: Tripolitania the western part of Libya, Cyrenaica the eastern part of Libya and the home of the rebellion, and obviously students of the Second World War and the campaigns in North Africa remember places like Tobruk very, very well and decisions like: Do you cut straight across east? And in the case of General Rommel - or do you cut straight across west in the case of General Montgomery.
Mr. JOFFE: That's quite correct. And, indeed, the memory of those campaigns still remains amongst the people of Cyrenaica, as do certain physical remnants, as well. There are very large minefields still along the Egyptian-Libyan border, and these regularly cost people's lives as they travel through the desert.
So in a sense, the Second World War is there as a reminder of what is to come and what has already occurred.