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Arm the Libyan rebels to fight Gadhafi

By Angel M. Rabasa, Special to CNN
  • Angel Rabasa: U.S. should arm the Libyan rebels so they can resist Gadhafi's forces
  • He says a similar move in Bosnia helped end that conflict
  • U.S. should recognize Benghazi government as the legitimate ruler of Libya
  • He says involvement on the side of democracy in Libya would be good for the U.S.

Editor's note: Angel M. Rabasa, a member of the Bosnia Train and Equip Task Force in the early 1990s, is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution whose mission is to help improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

(CNN) -- The no-fly zone and air strikes on military targets of the Gadhafi regime bear close parallels to events in Bosnia in autumn, 1995, when NATO air strikes and the threat of further attacks halted the Bosnian Serb military onslaught against Bosnian Muslim targets.

If effective, the international action might prevent the Gadhafi forces from crushing the rebellion in Libya, but it will not end the conflict.

The Gadhafi regime retains overwhelming military superiority over the Benghazi-based Interim National Council. Unless the military imbalance is redressed, Gadhafi will retain the ability to threaten or renew his attacks on his opposition. As long as this situation persists, international military involvement in Libya -- to enforce the no-fly zone and prevent ground attacks by Gadhafi's forces -- will likely have to continue.

What the United States did in Bosnia might hold the key for an effective response to the crisis in Libya. In Bosnia, the United States sought to redress the military balance, which since the onset of the war in 1992 had heavily favored the Bosnian Serb army.

Opinion: Libya coalition sparks fierce debate

To restore balance and create conditions for lasting peace in Bosnia, it was necessary to establish a capable Bosnian Federation army. A "train and equip" program was implemented by a small interagency group based in the State Department.

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Despite the Europeans' skepticism and dislike for the program, it succeeded. The program raised donations of several hundred million dollars from Muslim countries, supervised the purchase of military equipment for the armed forces of the Federation and arranged for a U.S. contractor to train Federation troops. The program also helped promote other U.S. objectives in Bosnia by diminishing Iranian influence and ensuring the departure of the foreign fighters.

The situations in Bosnia then and Libya now grow more alike as the violence in Libya evolves into prolonged conflict. Despite establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, there is little reason to expect that air or naval power alone will dislodge Gadhafi from areas he controls.

The U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the no-fly zone and all necessary measures to protect civilians under attack in Libya did not call for Gadhafi's ouster. There are reports that some Arab countries are considering deploying ground troops to Libya. But if they do, their role would likely be protection of the civilian population in areas outside Gadhafi's control. That outcome would still leave Gadhafi in power in western Libya.

That leaves few effective options if the United States wants to prevent the crisis in Libya from leading to a prolonged armed conflict or de facto partition that leaves a ruthless, embittered dictator with a terrorist record in control of half the country. That situation could have long-term destabilizing consequences for Libya and the Middle East.

The way out of this conundrum would be for the United States to clarify its goals in Libya. Recognizing that lasting stability could only come about as the result of the removal of Gadhafi from power, the United States and like-minded countries could begin by recognizing the Benghazi government as the legitimate government of Libya. The Libyan National Council is, after all, a government set up by a popular uprising against tyranny and therefore inherently more legitimate than Gadhafi's government in Tripoli.

The United States also might consider launching an effort to provide the Benghazi government with arms and equipment to defend itself against Gadhafi's forces and to help it liberate western Libya. The U.S. need not become directly involved in the training and equipping of the Libyan opposition. As with the Bosnia train and equip program, a small U.S. team could help arrange for the purchase and delivery of arms, as well as supply training, possibly by third parties.

There are those who would caution that the United States does not know enough about the Libyan opposition to support it, but this is not entirely true. Some of the opposition leaders are former cabinet ministers and generals in the Libyan government, known to the United States and its allies.

As in all revolutions, a few of Libya's opposition leaders have emerged from the rank and file of protesters. Some may be Islamists, but this was also true in Bosnia during that war. If the U.S. were to simply stand aside, extremists could fill the gap, as occurred in the early days of the Bosnian war.

The U.S. decision to support victims of aggression paid off in Bosnia and advanced America's interests and values. Involvement on the side of the democracy movement in Libya would enable the United States to exercise a positive influence on Libya's evolution and prevent destabilizing outcomes.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Angel M. Rabasa.

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