The Telegraph is reporting that British SAS commandos are will likely be called upon by the American government to secure the estimated 10 tons of mustard gas stockpiled in Libya. This represents a large departure from what many in government have been calling for in terms of involvement with the Libyan conflict.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates yesterday warned Congress that establishing a no-fly zone would necessitate ground strikes, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed a general reluctance to engage ground troops. President Obama has remained relatively quiet on the situation. If the President does decide to ask for British engagement, this would potentially represent a major commitment for the U.S. as well.
Before the United States engages Libya militarily, there are several questions that must be answered.
How much strength is the U.S. willing to commit? In war, events never unfold as planned, so how far is the U.S. will to go when things suddenly become more complicated? It is safe to assume that if the U.S. is asking for U.K. ground involvement, the U.S. will give some form of military support. But will this just involve air strikes in support of securing the mustard gas, or will American ground troops also be asked to participate? If Libyan forces attack the depots secured by the British, the U.S. will likely be forced into a position where they need to commit more resources and troops to the defense of their allies. Any engagement, no matter how small, has the potential to grow and require larger missions.
If the U.S. is involved in a conflict, at what point can we leave? What does victory look like? In the Libyan case this is a question that has not been approached by the Obama administration. Would our mission be to simply secure these chemical weapons or would it be expanded to try and protect the protesters at large? Once we are engaging Gadhafi's military, it could become very difficult to extract ourselves. America tends to stick around after engaging in a fight, in part to help rebuild infrastructure and institutions. As we've learned in Iraq, this can be costly and time consuming.
Why the British? One would assume that there are strategic reasons in asking for British military involvement. Perhaps their troops are in a better position to pull off this particular mission, or perhaps they have better local intelligence or are better suited in experience. But asking the British to participate also puts the U.S. in a position of dependence. If the British refuse or pull out early, an extra burden shifts to U.S. forces to accomplish a mission they've asked for.
Are these weapons even a threat?
There is evidence to suggest Libya doesn't even have a delivery system for the mustard gas. In 2003 Libya signed an agreement with the U.S. that it would dismantle their weapons of mass destruction program in exchange for having their name taken off the list of State sponsors of terrorism. Paula DeSutter, the U.S. coordinator under President Bush for the elimination of Libyan weapons of mass destruction recently told the Washington Times that all of the bombs that could deliver the agent have been destroyed. If true, this would sharply limit its effectiveness.
And finally, what sort of precedent does this set for the future?
Making a strike against a nation now sets precedent for future strikes. In this case, there must be a strong criteria set to determine when these strikes can occur. There are many nations with weapons of mass destruction and many nations that have used violence against their citizens. What bar is set by attacking Libya that might obligate us into future conflicts?
Military engagement it never simple and should not be taken lightly. If America does engage Libya, and asks others to support their efforts, there must be a very strong case for it.