President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last Wednesday that they will not let up their bombardment of Moammar Gadhafi’s forces—but that it’s up to the Free Libyan ground forces to bring this war to an end. There was a subtext of impatience with Libyan efforts in official U.S. rhetoric, as though the Libyans were deliberately sitting on their hands.
Try telling this to the young volunteers who are heading to the front lines without helmets, flak jackets, sleeping bags, communication gear or vehicles.
“That’s the only bulletproof thing I have,” Lou’ai Hatem el Magri joked a bit grimly when I gave him a pair of ballistic glasses I used in Afghanistan. Mr. Magri, 24, had been a senior at Tripoli University majoring in architecture when the Feb. 17 revolution broke out. His prominent, cosmopolitan family immediately left for Benghazi, the revolutionary hub, to do what they could. Now he and some of his friends were going to the front after all of two weeks’ training.
Mr. Magri and his comrades flew to Tunis Thursday morning. They wore civilian clothes: Supposedly their uniforms would be waiting there. The new soldiers were to re-enter Libya from Tunisia to fight Gadhafi’s forces in the western mountains. Because of its remoteness, this active and dangerous front line has been little covered in the press. Gadhafi’s forces here may number as low as 1,000 troops, but they are properly supplied and led, and they use Russian-made “Grad” rocket launchers to fire nine-foot long missiles at a range of up to 10 miles against the inhabitants.
Mr. Magri will be part of just one company of fighters sent by the closest thing to a regular army the Free Libyans have, the Brigade of the Martyrs of the 17th of February. There are other fighters in the mountains; nearly all the military-aged male population of this historically anti-Gadhafi Berber area, not far from Tripoli, is mobilized. Mustafa Sagezli, the brigade’s deputy commander, explained that Mr. Magri and 120 other raw recruits will be led by just two or three experienced officers, using walkie-talkies (good only over a few miles) to communicate since they don’t have field radios.
Mr. Sagezli, an American-educated software entrepreneur in a denim jacket, listed his force: 1,200 fighters between Adjabiya and Brega in the stalemated front, a company of 120 men in formerly besieged Misrata, a company in Jalu, three companies each in Benghazi itself, in Tobruk near the Egyptian border, and in Al Kufra en route to the border with Chad. These forces have just 100 four-wheel drive vehicles, necessary for off-road driving in the desert. With 200 more, Mr. Sagezli says, they could secure the oil fields in the desert.
On April 20, the U.S. committed to provide up to $25 million in surplus military supplies to the Free Libyan forces. But the only goods that have arrived are halal MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)which Mr. Sagezli explained are unnecessary in this urbanized conflict zone, where civil society organizations are feeding the fighters.
Qatar has provided most of the assault rifles for the Brigade of the Martyrs, which started out with 80 from Gadhafi’s stockpiles. As for heavy weapons, a chemical engineering student named Bu Bakr Al Shekri explained to me at the February 17th Camp that he’s working on a hybrid truck-mounted weapon. And a welder named Tariq Sherif has combined Russian parts found in the rubble of a Gadhafi arsenalswiveling Dishka machine gun bases with Vladimirov KPV14.5 caliber bores originally on tripodswith an improvised trigger. (See photo nearby.)
Mr. Sagezli is growing his army as fast as he can, but with only 24 trainers, volunteers formerly with the Libyan Special Forces, that’s about 150 fighters every few weeks. Training has expanded from two weeks to three and now four, a figure dictated by the need to slow the pipeline of fighters to match the available weapons.
“Some of our trainees were very angry and demonstrated because they finished training but we didn’t have weapons for them,” Mr. Sagezli said. “If we had the equipment and weapons,” he added, “I would have tens of thousands.”
About six U.S. C-130 military transport aircraft (capacity: 72,000 pounds each) could deliver nonlethal equipment for 2,000 soldiers, according to an Air Force source. The Libyans have the will, and the National Transitional Council governing Free Libya has offered to repay NATO out of future oil revenues for the means. (Because the U.S. hasn’t released frozen Gadhafi assets to the free Libyan government, they have been unable to purchase supplies themselves.)
A larger question is why the U.S. doesn’t provide the Libyan freedom fighters with assault rifles and heavy weapons that could do real damage to Gadhafi’s tanks. The Arab world is watching this war on Al Jazeera every night. They will remember whose support for the emerging Muslim democracies was empty rhetoric, and whose was real.