Lessons From Qaddafi’s Last Defeat

The Libyan rebels could learn a lot from the war Qaddafi lost to Chad in 1987.

Libyan rebels deploy at the western gate of the strategic restivetown of Ajdabiya. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)
Libyan rebels deploy at the western gate of the strategic restivetown of Ajdabiya. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)

The spirited assortment of mostly inexperienced fighters who make up the Libyan resistance have a lot to learn before they can defeat the regime in Tripoli. Even with all the Western training they’re getting, they’ve yet to become anywhere near a credible fighting force. What they could use are a few lessons from their African neighbors. They can start by examining the last war that Qaddafi lost.

During the 1987 Chad-Libya “Toyota War,” the Chadians essentially demolished the Libyan army and didn’t need a no-fly zone to do it. The conflict represents a useful model not only for how to win on the battlefield but also for what kind of learning curve the rebels should expect, the importance of political alliances and, most of all, patience. Throughout 1987, Chadian President Hissène Habré’s troops used speed, their understanding of the local terrain and their new French MILAN anti-tank missiles to destroy Qaddafi’s armored columns.

The war effectively ended in September of the same year, when 2,000 Chadian troops sprinted into southern Libya aboard four-wheel-drive Toyota pickups mounted with machine guns and took the Libyan air base of Maaten al-Sarra completely by surprise. Nearly 2,000 of Qaddafi’s soldiers were killed, and 26 aircraft and 70 tanks were destroyed.

Libya was so demoralized by the Maaten al-Sarra defeat that the French had to arrange a ceasefire between the two forces in order to prevent the Chadians from taking even more territory. The battle signaled a shift in which a lightly armed mobile force with one or two high-tech weapons could attack and destroy a much more heavily armed modern adversary.

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