Lessons From Qaddafi's Last Defeat

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.

Col. Khalifa Haftar, the so-called commander in chief of the Benghazi rebel forces — the rebels manage to bicker constantly about who actually makes up their military leadership — should know these lessons well. Haftar was in charge of Libya's failed expeditionary army during the Chad conflict and was taken captive and held for seven months.

One would think that such an experience in failure would be embedded forever in his memory. But so far the rebels aren't doing much of anything other than ask for increasing doses of Western military intervention. Meanwhile, they've lost the most precious assets they have: the perception that they are a cohesive political and military force and that their victory is inevitable. Coalition talk about a quick Qaddafi fall has evaporated into wishful thinking.

The rebels should be mimicking the behavior of their African compatriots of an earlier generation. Instead they have managed to take territory only when following in the backwash of NATO-led airstrikes. Beyond that, their forces — one cannot truly call them an army — have been seen doing little more than drive up and down a highway, losing virtually every confrontation with Qaddafi's men when not supported by NATO. By contrast, Qaddafi's men have adapted. Like the Chadians in the 1980s, they have discarded their tanks for Toyotas and have used superior tactical and technical skills to rout their adversaries.


The rebels complain that they lack high-tech weapons. This isn't exactly true. Their warehouses are packed to the brim with North Korean rocket launchers, wire-guided anti-tank weapons and even shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. They'll soon get more arms from Qatar and other coalition members. And if by some stroke of luck they manage to win and hold on to any territory at all, they will have the ability to sell oil, which will enable them to buy even more weapons.

Many of the weapons in their poorly guarded stockpiles are more technologically advanced than the French-made weapons that Habré's forces used to beat Qaddafi's armor. But for the most part, these arms represent more of a liability than an asset. Sophisticated weapons fired in the wrong direction get your forces killed. Rebels have managed to shoot down their own aircraft and have been killed after firing on coalition warplanes.


More important, in the wrong hands, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (the rebels have no need for them) are capable of downing a civilian jetliner. The very existence of such weapons tends to attract the wrong kinds of people. And already, from Mali to Chad to Algeria, there are reports of increased al-Qaida activity and attempted sales of these deadly arms.

Photos of rebel storage areas indicate that many of the weapons are simply lying around. The British, French and Italian special forces that are arriving with greater frequency in Benghazi should be welcomed by the international community, if only to ensure that deadly assets in the rebel-held stockpiles do not fall into the wrong hands.


The longer the rebels bicker over their leadership, and the longer they suffer defeat after defeat, the more likely hardened terrorist organizations will be to enter their ranks. Surface-to-air missiles are a precious commodity for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, and it will only be a matter of time before they attempt to get these arms into their hands. "This kind of conflict is the fuel of international terrorism," Micah Zenko, a political military analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Root. "The notion that this war will go on without the eventual involvement of international terrorism is a fallacy."

The problem is that only recently have the rebels and the coalition that effectively backs them realized how desperately the rebels need to learn rudimentary lessons about warfare. "The rebels will need basic training," one veteran trainer from the Libyan conflict told The Root. "They'll need to learn tactics and how to work as a unit. It's at minimum a one-year effort." While the West would like to see a quick victory by the rebels, it is desperately unrealistic to think that this is even remotely possible.


Without direct intervention from an outside power, it's more realistic to think of rebel victory coming in the next five years. The transition from a protest movement to a genuine military takes time; the Chad conflict ended after nearly 14 years of violence. Chadian fighters received extensive training from the French, and satellite intelligence from the U.S. Even then, their soldiers fought for years before developing the requisite toughness on the battlefield.

Habré also knew the value of creating the political coalitions necessary to defeat Qaddafi. By the time the Toyota war drew to a close, Libyan troops were demoralized and isolated in their desert outposts in northern Chad. By contrast, the rebels appear to have lost political support despite the fact that the largest tribes in Libya would like to see Qaddafi gone.


Two of those tribes, the Warfallah and Tarhuna, which initially supported the protests against Qaddafi, have yet to come out to provide material support to the Benghazi-based rebels. "I don't think the Qaddafi tribe will change," said Libyan historian and rebel supporter Faraj Najem. "But we need to do more diplomacy to get the other tribes to support the rebels." Perhaps the rebels could ask some Chadian political and military advisers to get them started.

Greg Beals, a frequent contributor to The Root, is the founder of Arabica News Intelligence, a site devoted to better understanding of Middle East developments.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`