If the West decides to arm Libya’s disorganized rebel forces, they will have to deploy trainers on the ground and not merely deliver crates of weapons, former US officers and officials said.
With opposition forces in a panicky retreat in the face of tank and artillery fire from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s troops, the US and its allies are weighing arming the rebels to back up an air campaign already under way.
The opposition lacks anti-tank weapons, radios and other basics, but above all the disjointed, chaotic force needs some rudimentary training, experts said on Wednesday.
Just providing equipment without instruction would mean “a lot of money that would be wasted,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“It isn’t just the weapons that make the force effective, it’s the skill with which the weapons are employed,” Wood said.
Even a modest training effort requires spies and special forces’ units working with the rebels, to ensure the guns and ammunition are put to good use and to prevent Islamist militants from hijacking the opposition.
“To move down this road, you got to put people on the ground. This would mean some combination of special operations or intelligence folks,” said Seth Jones, who worked as an adviser to special operations forces in Afghanistan.
It could take weeks and even months to turn the rag-tag rebels into a genuine fighting force capable of holding ground and coordinating firepower with troop movements, according to Wood.
“They’re certainly willing, but you’re starting from a very low baseline, almost non-existent in terms of the professional use of arms,” Wood said. “And using that very low starting point, it would take many weeks I think to put together something even minimally effective.”
Washington, however, may decide to provide less sophisticated weapons to begin with to “wait to see how this goes,” Jones said.
“Some of these rebel groups are not particularly friendly to the United States,” he said.