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Posted on Aug 29, 2011 in War College

Learning from Libya: Few Surprises for Serious Students of War

By Ralph Peters

August 27, 2011. Libyan rebels fire into the air as they celebrate following the takeover of a southwestern neighborhood of Tripoli. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

What military leaders don’t know is often less important than what they refuse to admit. Few, if any, new lessons have emerged from the complex insurgency that overthrew the regime of “Colonel” Qaddafi, but a number of the old lessons repeated in Libya’s streets and along its wreckage-strewn highways have yet to gain adequate traction in our armed forces. Soldiers are human beings, and humans have a tremendous capacity for denial and wishful thinking in the face of unwelcome evidence: We don’t like today’s asymmetrical wars, so we quietly pretend each is an anomaly. But the Muslim-Mad-Max world of Libya today is a message from tomorrow.

Most of our fights will be in urban areas. If we’re not better prepared, then shame on us.

Let’s examine five of the crucial lessons we need to learn from Libya, from other recent conflicts, and from history: An urbanizing world means combat in cities; airpower still can’t decide wars by itself; without the U.S., NATO could not sustain a medium-size conflict; extended civil strife favors radical elements; and, not least, not every development overseas is about us.


Urban Warfare is 21st-century warfare. Within the lifetimes of most Armchair General readers, our world has gone from a majority-rural place to one in which more than half of humanity lives in cities. While cities always have been crucial prizes for military campaigns, combat in cities has generally been limited to sacks after sieges. Between the nightmarish urban combat between Spanish conquistadors and Aztec warriors in Tenochtitlan in 1521 and the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, history records relatively few examples of true urban combat beyond the pillaging of cities such as Rome or Magdeburg, or the suppression of uprisings such as the Paris Commune. European warfare, especially, became highly formalized since the Renaissance, and the advent of massed firearms drove competing armies into open spaces where formations could deploy to bring fires to bear. By the eighteenth century, warfare had become even more mannered, with kings unwilling to ravage cities they preferred as prizes—or even to depose one another. The great battles that leap to mind from the Reformation to the 20th century may have drawn their identities from villages or towns—Rocroi, Blenheim, Waterloo or Gettysburg—but the fighting took place overwhelmingly in open fields. Even the First World War, when industrial warfare began to edge toward total war, has only one town name that leaps to most minds—Verdun—and the carnage happened on its fortified outskirts. Villages may have been destroyed in the Great War, but few trenches ran through their streets.

The advent of total war in the Second World War began to change the equation, with the relentless bombing of urban areas and both Russians and Germans treating entire cities as ready-made fortresses. Not since the Roman Empire, if not the days of myth, had the purposeful destruction of cities been so prevalent in the West. Yet, even then, U.S. forces fought largely in deserts, island jungles, or the European countryside. The Battle of the Bulge involved frantic, frost-bitten combat in villages, and the U.S. Army experienced authentic urban warfare in Aachen’s ruins, but the great tank and infantry duels remained primarily restricted to a fight for highways, roads and high ground. The U.S. Army suffered more casualties in the Huertgen Forest alone than in all its urban engagements combined. Combat in Korea and then Vietnam further reinforced the sense of combat being naturally waged in the countryside (despite the ferocious fighting in Hue and other cities in 1968).

NATO planning for war in Europe with the Soviet Union was a farce, pretending for political reasons that neither side would choose to fight in cities … even as rampant urbanization made cities unavoidable on the wildly misnamed “North German Plain.” The myth of the great set-piece battle in rolling fields refused to die.

Now consider the most difficult places where our forces actually fought over the past two decades: Mogadishu, Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul … even in backward Afghanistan, the headline attacks occur in Kandahar or Kabul. Two factors are now in place: the aforementioned urbanization of humanity, and the asymmetrical nature of so much post-modern conflict, which drives our enemies into cities where the population is the prize and our military advantages are much reduced. If you want to fight the Americans, pick your slum.

Serious officers saw this transformation coming decades ago. Yet, I still shake my head over a Pentagon exchange in the mid-1990s, when a general called me in to gently rebuke me for writing an essay warning that we needed to prepare for urban combat. “The U.S. Army would never be foolish enough to fight in cities,” he told me, utterly missing the point that we don’t always get to pick where we fight—and that the enemy gets a say in the matter.

The rebel campaign in Libya may have been slovenly, and it may have largely hugged the littoral, just as campaigns have done from the Arab Conquest through the defeat of the Afrika Corps, but this time the scale of urban warfare was unprecedented in modern times. It was not only about the cities—nothing new there—but in the cities. Even as this article is written, a final urban confrontation looms in Sirte, if the loyalist city does not surrender. Certainly, a great deal of fighting took place—or bogged down—along highways  and some happened in the hills, but the decisive offensive in western Libya began by seizing towns (a number of which changed hands multiple times) and culminated in street-fighting in Zawiyah and, ultimately, Tripoli. Likewise, the nadir for the rebels months ago came in Misurata.

In post-modern people’s wars, the fight is where the people are. A brief look beyond Libya underscores the point: Egypt’s revolution was all about Cairo, Alexandria and the city of Suez, while the ongoing people’s protests in Syria are centered on cities. Of course, much of this is the result of the fundamental asymmetry of people or irregulars vs. organized military forces, and our own military must remain ready for what will pass as conventional war in this century. But most of our fights will be in urban areas. If we’re not better prepared, then shame on us.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Stout launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, one of approximately 110 cruise missiles fired from U.S. and British vessels that targeted about 20 radar and anti-aircraft sites along Libya's Mediterranean coast. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeramy Spivey)Airpower is great, but it still isn’t enough to win a war. Even allowing for the difficulty of employing ground-attack jets over urban terrain and the paucity of controllers on the ground, the NATO air campaign in Libya is still more evidence that, while airpower remains a marvelous combat multiplier, it still takes boots on the ground to decide the fight. In an urbanizing world, that will be truer still. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) made significant contributions both in intelligence-gathering and ground attack, and had more attack helicopters been available, they, too, could have been used to advantage. But it’s just damnably hard, when not impossible, to flush defenders from buildings, bunkers and even ramshackle slums from the air (ask the Israelis). The vested interests engaged with airpower, from generals to defense-industry flaks, will continue to make extravagant claims for the capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft in war, but the proof is on the side of those who view airpower as one valuable component of a total-force team.

NATO is more of a political than a military entity. First, it has to be noted that NATO played a critical, positive role with its support to the rebels who overthrew the regime of a terrorist-dictator in Libya. The determination of the French, British and others to get in the fight and stay in it was encouraging. The worrisome side of all this, however, was that our allies ran out of key precision munitions within weeks—in a minor campaign: their arsenals barely managed to qualify as training reserves, by our standards. Without resupply from the U.S. arsenal, air operations would have plummeted in effectiveness months ago. Add in the fact that the campaign would have been virtually impossible without U. S. intelligence, logistics and command-and-control support, and you see the result of decades of budget cuts and Europe’s unspoken assumption that the U.S. will always be there to carry the weight. Still, the willingness of key NATO allies (notably not Germany) to lead the way politically and militarily while our own government slumped in the background leaves the glass half full, rather than half empty: We have allies who are willing to fight for the right cause—but who increasingly lack the means.

As insurgencies struggle, radical elements are empowered. I need to make this clear: Al Qaeda is not going to play any meaningful role in Libya’s future and the new government will not be a fundamentalist regime, either (see next section). The point is simply that, in any revolution, those who are best organized and the most highly motivated come to the fore as the struggle drags on. The Libyan rebels were, and are, a ragtag conglomeration of amateurs led, at best, by semi-pros who once served in Libya’s fourth-rate military. They come from all walks of life and reflect all of Libyan society except for Qaddafi loyalists. Many may not have fought competently, but they fought with good hearts and in a spirit of sacrifice. Predictably, some of the toughest fighters were local Islamists, partly because they had a semblance of organization, but largely because they had less fear of death than their more-secular battle buddies: Fanatics fight hard. One of the many challenges facing the new regime—which has years of struggle ahead—will be to integrate Islamists into the political system without privileging them (better to have them inside and responsible to the general population). The relevant point for our military, though, is that the historical pattern holds true today: From the Jewish uprisings against Rome two millennia ago, through the heyday of Christian militant orders in the high Middle Ages, through the SS and down to today’s Muslim militants, those who have an elevated or even divine sense of mission fight ferociously. In long struggles, the strong-willed come to the front ranks. Instead of lumping populations or rebel movements together, our intelligence system needs to dissect them minutely. No such threat should ever surprise us—if, indeed, it ever becomes a threat. Which leads the discussion to:

Not every overseas development is about us. We have to learn to see conflicts—and try to understand their roots and arcs of development—through the eyes of local populations. We have utterly failed to do this in our recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we insist that “all human beings want the same things” and similar nonsense. During this year’s Arab popular revolts, our 24/7 media—driven to hype every threat imaginable—generated wild hysteria about al Qaeda’s potential involvement everywhere. In fact, al Qaeda has suffered one strategic defeat after another and, while still a tactical menace, has been struggling pathetically to remain relevant. From Tunisia, through Libya and Egypt and on to Syria, al Qaeda has not been a player even on the far margins of the uprisings (not every guy with a beard belongs to al Qaeda). On the contrary, these uprisings, all of which aspire to forms of democracy, are al Qaeda’s worst nightmare: Citizens who believe they have a voice in their own destiny are much less likely to become suicide bombers. Al Qaeda’s doctrine has consistently declared democracy and all forms of popular government to be “un-Islamic,” and the terror organization’s monstrous slaughter of Muslims has alienated millions who once were sympathetic to it.

Al Qaeda’s high watermark came in Iraq in 2006, when that state’s Sunni Muslims turned against it because of its Muslim-on-Muslim brutality. Since then, it has lost every one of its key leaders except the unpopular and divisive Ayman al Zawahiri. Al Qaeda “Central” is virtually finished—and bankrupt—and has to rely on regional do-it-yourself franchises. While al Qaeda still has the ability to kill, it does not have the capacity to pull off another operation on the scale of 9/11. We’ve been remarkably successful in exacting vengeance—but our media culture and political gamesmanship elevate the remaining shreds of al Qaeda to a threat level out of all proportion to reality. As I constantly remind my fellow Americans, our own junk-food industry will kill far more Americans this year than al Qaeda ever has (maybe it’s time for some drones over KFC … ).

The point is that these Arab uprisings are about local issues, not about us. And the coming years of turmoil, hope, disappointment and stumbling progress in the Arab world, are going to draw attention inward in the Middle East. To paraphrase a pop dating phrase of a few years back, “They’re just not that into us.” The people in the streets, armed or not, are struggling to gain a measure of control over their own lives and societies. We claimed, under a previous presidential administration, that freedom and democracy were essential for the Middle East. Administrations changed, and many of the same voices suddenly insist that democracy for Arabs is too dangerous, that we “don’t know who these people are.” Well, we certainly know who Qaddafi, Assad and Mubarak are and were, and they were not our friends. Blustering media of every stripe have turned us into a nation of "fraidy cats," seeing the bogeyman everywhere. It’s a dreadful betrayal of our heritage of courage, boldness and hope for a better world. Hysteria is not a sound basis for strategy.

It goes back to the boy who cried “Wolf!” If we insist that every development abroad is a threat, we’re bound to miss the real threats. And real threats will always be with us.

Our bottom lines? Our military must take urban combat in mega-cities seriously as an essential, enduring mission. We need to keep our perspective on military technologies, from airpower to technical intelligence tools, and always remember that they are means, not ends. NATO needs to be nudged toward honest self-examination of its required capabilities, versus nice-to-have traditional forces. With the Euro-zone on the edge of financial catastrophe, European militaries will not be able to afford everything. They must make better choices and sacrifice national pride to a more-effective division of labor. When faced with popular insurgencies, we must analyze their component parts soberly and move promptly to support elements that align most closely with our strategic needs—but without appearing to interfere with local aspirations (support does not always mean military engagement or massive aid packages). Finally, we need to see this troubled world through the eyes of others, not just through our own, often-politicized lenses. We not only need to do a far better job of knowing our enemies—we have to become much more astute regarding the desires and agendas of our allies.

There is no conflict so small, crude or marginal that it doesn’t have lessons to offer to those willing to learn.

Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the Armchair General team. A retired Army officer and former enlisted man, he is the author of 27 books, including LINES OF FIRE (in stores on September 19), a collection of his most-enduring articles from the last two decades.


  1. This is an excellent analysis and description of the problem that we face today. In the face of the ever present rules of engagement, human rights considerations, civilian casualties and The Hague international court, warfare has gotten more difficult to wage. Its very difficult to avoid civilian casualties in built-up areas from which they refuse to move. When was the last great “siege” of a city…Sarajevo? Just look at how that turned out and how it ended. Is the current situation in Gaza not another form of siege that tries to minimise civilian casualties but yet contain aggression towards your own population/forces? Sending troops into a built-up area stacked with civiliands and laced with snipers can be very costly. Armour is powerless against the latest generation antitank missiles [and will always be trumped by a new missle] and in a built-up area the risks are increased dramatically as the “stand-off advantage is lost. A radical re-think in equipment, tactical deployment and intensive training of troops is needed, as is clear from this article. Enter the world of the pseudo forces deployment, the way the Selous scouts infiltrated and fought in the Rhodesian/Zimbabwe bush war should be studied. If you want to fight insurgents, partisans, rebels, whatever you call then, effectively, your forces must look and sound like them, be armed like them, act like them and become indistinguishable from the enemy, infiltrate their areas and ranks in small groups, and create chaos without them seeing the threat. Study the Selous scouts, and adopt the philosophy.

    • “If you want to fight insurgents, partisans, rebels, whatever you call then, effectively, your forces must look and sound like them, be armed like them, act like them and become indistinguishable from the enemy, infiltrate their areas and ranks in small groups, and create chaos without them seeing the threat.”


      This is something I’ve been pondering for quite a while now…

      Going in ‘Big and Kinetic’ really doesn’t work in situations like these. If we must send troops in then ‘Special Forces’ style troops do seem to be the best option we have.

      The only problem I can foresee is that an overuse of ‘Black Ops’ style operatives might be seen as a little too shifty, a little too ‘Big Brother’…

      Thinking about it, there is also the Private Military Company option (The term “Mercenaries” still has a rather ugly connotation unfortunately!) Major Industrial Nations could pay them to fight these types of wars for them…

      • The French Foreign Legion has been using the “mercenary” or “private military company” concept for more than a hundred years. Well, that is what it really boils down to…
        The use of French officers in senior and junior levels and the NCO’s and troop from volunteers from outside France is for exmple, the same deployment of Green Beret “advisors” in Vietnam, as elsewhere before and since, with one aim of having control over the situation, and the body count of own troops does not come home to roost. The option is therefore not new. Sir Francis Drake was allowed by the Queen to become a pirate [private mercenary thus] in the service of the Crown to weaken Spain. It must be kept in mind that in an open democracy like the USA, Britain etc. constitutional and legislative amandments may be necessary to make the large scale use of paid “foreigners” [therefore suddenly they become mercenaries] possible. Were the “volunteers” from the British commonwealth who fought in WW2 “mercenaries” in disguise? Many South Africans from my own country fought in that war because it helped their families financially, they really had nothingh against Germans per se. Were the SS volunteers that fought with Germany in the same war “mercenaries? Or, were the reasons for joining rooted in conviction only? The moral question of when it is justifyable to wage war as you mention that mayor industrial nations should, is another dilemma: Who decides when it is necessary? What is justifyable? The recent ongoing disasters in Libya and Syria are good examples. The legal question should be left to the politicians, usually the governmment and the oversight body, whether it be parliament or senate, depending on the system in each country. The method by which the war will be waged, is another matter. I am not against the use of paid foreigners in armed forces…many individuals in any case take their decision to join a military operation or cause based on personal convictions and in the case of true contractual mercenaries, only money. To illustrate this point, consider if a western, democratically orientated individual will join the cause of North Korea against South Korea for money? I do not think many will. Consider the case of nuclear scientists that will help rogue or not so rogue nations outside their own or their country’s allies, to develop nuclear weapons….are they not mercenaries of the worst kind?….helping to kill millions without being exposed on the front line? The concept of “mercenary” is therefore a very broad one, and very old. It has been said that prostitution is the oldest “profession”, sadly, for women maybe, but the mercenary is a very close second….this time the male soldier putting his body and health at grave risk for financial gain.
        The bottom line would be that if the legal and constitutional prerequisites are in place, a government or state can employ “privateers” to fight their wars, with the proviso that these “Privateers” make oath of allegiange based on conviction and values of some sort, binding them to the state and the society they intend to fight for. That, I personally, will feel comfortable with. One caution though….in today’s wars of high tech, often classified weapons and instant communication, infiltration of fifth columnist and secret agents into your own forces from foreign populations are a grave and ever increasing risk. The recent killings in Afganistan by “own” troops is a clear indication of the measure to which the Taliban has infiltrated the security forces. Cells, sections, or platoons, even whole regiments of foreigners from the same “foreign” or ethnic group in a “foreign legion” may alleviate this problem.

  2. Many thanks for your reply!

    I agree with your take on the use of ‘mercenaries’ in our more contemporary conflicts…

    The French Foreign Legion and the British Ghurkas are probably the most well known ‘mercenaries’ of the present day. Perhaps US forces could do with a similar pool of high quality fighters?

    Perhaps, in the case of Afghanistan, If they were ‘denationalised’ volunteers from another part of the globe, the problems connected with ‘infiltrators’ could be minimalised….