The new Benghazi Handicap
3 April 2011
When I went down to the Brushtail Café for breakfast, the Labor Party’s corflute placard nailed to the power pole on the corner flapped forlornly in the breeze and I wondered if they’d be able to muster a single surviving footsoldier to take it down, or whether I’d have to drag the ladder out of the shed and do it myself.
I ordered a bruschetta and a long black and joined Stan, the old retired colonel, who was sitting by the window tucking into a full English breakfast. He had Google Earth printouts of the North African coast spread over the table and he was positively bristling with excitement.
“This is amazing! Did you know that Brega, just here …” He pointed to a little smudge of a town , “… has fallen to Gadaffi’s troops exactly 70 years to the day after the Allies were dislodged from the same place by Rommel?”
“Hey, didn’t they call that wild retreat the Benghazi Handicap?” I asked.
“You got it. April Fool’s Day, 1941, Rommel’s advanced troops overran Brega and our blokes retreated chaotically down the same road to Ajdabiya which fell the next day and then they kept running all the way to Benghazi. Equipment abandoned all over the place. Absolute debacle.”
“So what’s your prognosis? I asked.
“Without disciplined troops, the rebels will be defeated, no matter how much air power the coalition lays on. They’re an unbelievable shambles. A rabble of young men with no idea at all about warfare. Meanwhile, Gadaffi’s troops have held together well under the aerial bombardment and they’ve even adapted their tactics to minimise the effect of the West’s air supremacy. Now they’re using makeshift ‘gun trucks’ that look, from the air, the same as the rebels’ junk and they’ve made good use of the low cloud cover over the last couple of days to go back on the offensive. Very bold, very professional.”
“So what do you make of this stuff about sending in the CIA and trainers and all that?”
“It takes at least three months to train an infantryman to gut basic level, much longer to learn to use even just mortars, let alone artillery or tanks. To put that in perspective it’s only been a bit over six weeks since Mubarak fell. In the next six weeks the Arab world could go anywhere. Train a proper rebel army? Unless they want to spend 18 months doing it they can forget it.”
Old Possum shuffled over and joined us.
“The truth”, he said “is that the whole long-time, delicately-balanced US hegemony in the Middle East has been thrown into complete disorder. And now the Yanks and the Brits and the French are desperately trying to salvage something from a situation that’s spun out of control – trying to find some new forces over which they can assert some influence.
“You see, it would be relatively easy for the imperialists to get a grip on just one new regime and bend it to their will, but suddenly, there’s chaos across the region and none of the new contenders are looking like they’ll be particularly friendly.
“Hosni Mubarak was the West’s man because he was willing to make peace with Israel. But who will come out on top now, and will they take a hard line against Israel? Nobody in the State Department really has a clue, and Hilary Clinton – she’s looking increasingly haggard and befuddled – is having to put her hand on her heart and swear she thinks the whole Egyptian uprising is lovely.
“Who are these people trying to take power in Yemen? The old guy was the Yanks’ boy in the phoney ‘War Against Terror’ which is really just the war for control of what remains of the region’s oil. What do the new mob believe in? Will they be conciliatory towards Zionism? Not likely.
“And Libya?” I asked, enthusiastically contemplating my bruschetta.
“When the Libyan revolt broke out, waving the monarchist flag and fronting like a popular democratic uprising against tyranny, a gaggle of politicians in the West, assuming Gadaffi’s regime would collapse like Mubarak’s, rushed to embrace the rebels. The trouble is, Gadaffi has genuine popular support in the west of the country, and a firm grip on the army. The rebels, on the other hand are an unstable coalition embracing everything from liberal democrats to fanatical islamists.
“This bloke Khalifa Hifter, the rebel military leader, is a straight CIA asset. Before returning to Benghazi last week, he was living for 20 years in Northern Virginia, a five minute drive from CIA headquarters, so the Yanks can certainly rely on him. But he sits uneasily beside the other bloke leading the rebel fighters – Abdul Hakim al Hasadi of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist with ‘links to’ al Qaeda. And get this: Gadaffi’s been saying that al Hasadi was held by the Yanks in Guantanamo Bay, but Hasadi denies it … plausibly. Reckons he was captured in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2002 when he was slipping out of Afghanistan and that the Yanks held him for a few months in Islamabad, then handed him over to the Libyans who released him in 2008.”
“Geez, he got off lightly compared to David Hicks, who was a nobody”, I said. “Sounds to me like the CIA did a deal with al Hasadi and that they’re going back to their old habit of using islamists to fight their battles for them, like when they were fighting the Russians and their allies in Afghanistan. History repeating itself – first time tragedy, second time farce”.