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‘Embedding’ with Libya’s Freedom Fighters

JADU, Jebel Nafusa, Libya — Spending time with Libya’s revolutionary brigades is fascinating, both for the light it sheds on a Libya deformed by 42 years of a bizarre dictatorship and for the reflections it inspires on the American military.

The Free Libyan brigades (kiteeba) are organized by city of origin, much like American fighters in our revolutionary war. They are all volunteers and unpaid, though they do receive three squares a day and a dirty mattress for their pains. They are led by defectors from Qaddafi’s army, who are usually quite high-ranking officers. I’ve yet to meet anyone below the rank of major. There are very few officers—maybe three or four per 300 men, judging by the two brigades I’ve observed—and no NCOs. The smallest unit of organization is the car, with perhaps half a dozen fighters traveling together and then functioning as a team when dismounted. There doesn’t seem to be anything between this unit and the saria, which is more or less a company, with 60 to 100 fighters.

Because some cities are quite small, some brigades are too small to have any saria, but some seem to have a few. The biggest cities, like Tripoli and Benghazi, field more than one brigade; I believe Tripoli has two or three (the Saraya Al Hamra and the Tripoli Brigade for certain, maybe a third).

The strong points of this method of organization are tactical: unit cohesion and morale, and local knowledge. Each brigade is fighting for its beled, or homeland/hometown. The brigades from Libya’s Amazigh, or Berber, minority cities, like Jadu, Nalut, and Zwara, speak Amazigh amongst each other, a language that has incorporated some Arabic words but is otherwise unrelated to Arabic. And when a brigade is actually fighting to retake its hometown, it has the considerable advantage of knowing the terrain street by street.

The weak points appear on the strategic level. Because the commanders are loathe to send their fighters to die for someone else’s city, operations are usually confined to a few hundred men—too few, often, for decisive victories of Qaddafi’s forces. Yet because all of the brigades from towns still under Qaddafi’s rule are camped in other areas as guests, they also have to lend fighters to their host towns for other operations.

Just as units within the American Army trade air support and other assets in theater, so do commanders here barter men and their few, precious trucks of homemade heavy weapons. So you have situations such as I have seen with the Zwara brigade, based in the free town of Jadu, 120 kilometers away, but dispersing its 300 men between operations in Gherian, Sabratha, and the Nalut area. It seems that commanders also are more apt to lend men for operations where success means access to Qaddafi arsenals. Last Tuesday, Senussi Mohamad, the clever commander of the Zwara brigade and a former three-star general in Qaddafi’s army, proudly showed off a roster of weapons acquired by the 25 to 30 fighters he lent to the freeing of Gherian. By Wednesday night, a truck with an anti-aircraft gun was added to his arsenal from Sabratha, where his men had fought alongside locals on August 14th.

Luckily for the mainly youthful volunteers, Qaddafi’s forces are nearly as fragmented. Qaddafi starved the regular Libyan army, fearing it might turn against him. The starving was almost literal; Mr. Senussi, as he is called by the troops, made only $400 a month. He says the weaponry and even the planes of the Libyan armed forces date from the Chad war of the 1980s. Instead of maintaining the Libyan Army, Qaddafi created independent brigades, commanded by his sons or regime insiders. These brigades were much better paid and equipped and answered only to him. The 219th Brigade in Sabratha, Mr. Senussi says, is a particulary good unit. The final piece in the puzzle is the “volunteers” (mutata’ween) who appeared after the revolution broke out. Unemployed layabouts or men from neighboring Chad or Mali are well paid to fight with special brutality, wearing civilian clothes and obeying no laws of war.

Because Qaddafi didn’t much care about the regular army, which Mr. Senussi said was “just for show,” he didn’t replenish the ranks decimated in the bloody war with Chad in the 1980s or various other African conflicts to which Qaddafi sent troops. So the normally extreme pyramid of military organizations is much flatter. Colonel Bashir, a former artillery officer who mentors but doesn’t command the Sabratha brigade, used to command only 122 men, not the 3000 or so an American colonel normally would in the field. This would also explain why I haven’t encountered any former lieutenants or captains. In recent years, as Mr Senussi put it, there was “nothing to do” much of the time in the Libyan Army. Officers would come into work at nine in the morning and leave at two. This was just as well, as it was almost necessary to do some other business to support a family.

Many peculiarities to this conflict reveal more about Libya than about the general pattern of small wars. One is the lack of rancor displayed by the revolutionaries to their enemy. Time and again, they say, “We are all Libyans” and they much prefer taking surrenders to meting out death on the battlefield. Attitudes are harsher toward the Qaddafi “volunteers,” such as a group of obviously black African men in civilian clothes I saw being taken away in a pickup truck after being captured in Sabratha.

According to Mr. Senussi, these men were sent to jail in Zintan, a bigger town near Jadu. I have not heard even whispers of killings of such prisoners; although, as un-uniformed fighters, they are not protected by the Western law of war, they are protected by Islamic law, which forbids the mistreatment of the enemy once he has surrendered.

The Libyan revolutionary fighters also have an unusual approach to protecting themselves. At the outbreak of fighting in mid-February, none of the revolutionaries had body armor or helmets; they only acquired weapons when they took them from Qaddafi’s arsenals or troops. By this point in the conflict, most of the brigades have at least some body armor and helmets, but many of the fighters won’t wear it. I didn’t see one helmet worn in the battle for Sabratha, neither by the Zwara brigade I was with nor by the Sabratha brigade who drove by us. “They think that helmets make them look like old men,” explains Dr. Tarik Alatoshi , a 43-year-old scientist who has the unofficial role of mediating between the youth and the officers in the Zwara brigade. And they don’t want to wear body armor either, because they think that wearing it makes it seem that they are afraid of dying. I saw perhaps a dozen fighters with body armor, out of more than a hundred.

Having done seven embeds with US troops—mainly the elite 82nd Airborne—in Afghanistan, my own expectations of professional soldiers are very high. And while the men I’ve been with from the Sabratha and Zwara brigades are smart and brave, they readily admit that they are not professionals. This in itself is a shocker for a journalist. When I was caught on foot during an attack on Sunday in Sabratha, many men jumped into their cars and drove toward the fire, while others stayed on foot. But it took a few minutes for anyone to notice that I needed some guidance. A professional soldier makes a razor sharp distinction between soldiers and civilians (and between officers and enlisted fighters). But these fighters are civilians. Then too, they lack the division of labor that is taken for granted in our army, where each fighter knows exactly what is expected of him at nearly every moment. Everyone wants the glory of being in the thick of battle and no one wants a support role. Even the professionals ignore the basics of command and control. For hours in Sabratha, commanders made only occasional efforts to use the Thuraya phone to call in information about their location and progress to anyone outside the town. I am not sure they every informed Benghazi what we were doing. As Senussi Mohamad put it, “I talk mainly to my men.”

When the fog of war descends, these forces may make fatal errors.

One very tragic error took place last week not far from here. Ten fighters from Jadu were slain by a NATO airstrike—and two are still missing—due to the group having moved forward into a red zone. They had apparently communicated their intention to block the retreat of a large group of Qaddafi fighters at dawn on the 17th, but received no answer from the Benghazi command linked to NATO. A professional commander would have waited, but they went forward. Jadu is a tiny place, just 10,000 closely related people, and until the 17th they had only lost four men in the war. Shortly thereafter, the sky above this mesa town was illuminated by weapons fire late into the night as hundreds mourned their dead.

Another terrible error was narrowly averted the same day in Sabratha. That night, sitting with a group of Zwara fighters at their commander Senussi Mohamed’s home, one young man explained that he was almost killed by friendly fire while his team of five fighters was clearing houses in the newly liberated town. A sniper from the Zintan brigade—a fellow freedom fighter—trained his weapon on the team as they exited the house. Another reason why an “embed” with the freedom fighters is a dicey undertaking.

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