The Accordion War: Libya's Ever-Moving Front

Why the War Stalled

There are three major reasons for why this has become an accordian war. The first is that Qaddafi's forces are stronger than the rebels, but the coalition is stronger than Qaddafi. There has been back-and-forth movement because of a radical imbalance between the three parties to the conflict: the opposition forces, Qaddafi's forces, and NATO air power. When the rebels are up against little resistance, as in phase one, they advance quickly. When Qaddafi's forces mobilize their full strength, as in phase two, the loyalists advance quickly. In phase three, when the coalition unleashed air strikes in advance of the rebel line, the rebels again took the momentum.

not exactly battle-hardened.JPG

Not exactly battle hardened. By Ryan Calder

The second reason is geography. As someone who has seen it, there is a whole lot of nothing in north-central Libya, where most of the back-and-froth has taken place. The oil towns in the 300-kilometer stretch between Ajdabiyah and Surte are small developments purpose-built for engineers and technicians. Walking around them feels like walking around a low-end retirement community in the U.S.: reasonably well-manicured shrubbery sits in front of identical cubical home after identical cubical home. Each community houses a few thousand oil workers, all of whom have now evacuated, leaving the towns deserted. There's not much space for intensive urban warfare. Between these oil towns are long stretches of desert highway, with nothing else but the occasional rest stop, refinery, or oil harbor. There's nowhere to fight. Thus, when one side or the other advances through this area, it advances fast, behind a barrage of rockets, mortars, and bombs.

The third reason is that when the rebels retreat, they retreat fast. Although they contain a few well-trained military units, the vast majority are civilians with no military training whatsoever. "I'd never fired a gun in my life before this revolution," one 25-year-old fighter from Al-Marj told me. "If Qaddafi found you with so much as a bullet, he'd throw you in jail."

The rebels' rapid retreat is not so much a function of cowardice as of the fact that, when Qaddafi's shells begin falling, there's not much they can do. Even the best of what little artillery the rebels have cannot fire as far as Qaddafi's better, more numerous, and better organized artillery pieces. In such situations, amateurs with machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns mounted on their pickup trucks, whether brave or not, have little to contribute.

So when the rebels retreat in the face of enemy fire, they retreat fast. When shells start to land within earshot and Qaddafi's forces appear to be advancing, a line of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks and ordinary passenger cars -- Hyundais and Kias and Chevys and ancient Datsuns that barely putter along -- pull U-turns and start streaming away from the front.

Zack Gold and Xavier Mas de Xaxas contributed to this article

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Ryan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently conducting field research on the revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.

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