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Lesson for Libya fight: You go to war to win

By Charles S. Faddis, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charles Faddis says he led effort to get Iraqi military to drop support for Saddam Hussein
  • He says officers were too afraid of Saddam to switch allegiance
  • U.S. should only go to war if it's willing to do what it takes to win, he says
  • Faddis: Libyan military needs to be shown that U.S. will not stop until Gadhafi is gone

Editor's note: Charles S. Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer and the former head of CIA's WMD terrorism unit. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including "Beyond Repair," an argument for the creation of a new intelligence agency modeled on the World War II-era OSS.

(CNN) -- From July 2002 to May 2003, I was in charge of a CIA base in the mountains of Kurdistan, running intelligence collection operations and covert action directed at the regime of Saddam Hussein.

We had a host of missions to perform, but one of our key tasks was to persuade Iraqi military leaders to lay down their arms and come over to our side in advance of the American invasion of the country in the spring of 2003.

We made contact with hundreds of military officers. The vast majority posed no objection to Saddam's ouster. Many effectively said they planned to sit out the coming conflict. Almost none would agree to take actions against the regime in advance of seeing American troops enter Baghdad.

The reason, as we repeatedly explained to Washington, was that the struggle for the allegiance of the Iraqi military was psychological, and we were losing.

Saddam ran a regime of terror. No matter how badly many in the military wanted Saddam to go, they were still more afraid of him than they were of us. The dynamic was only made that much more difficult for us because over the years, we had on many occasions threatened Saddam, even bombed his military, and then wandered off leaving the monster in place and his people to continue to suffer.

While many of the officers with whom we had contact ultimately decided to sit out the war when it started, they took no action to depose Saddam and they refused to ever actively assist us. And, perhaps, most significantly, they emerged after the invasion, never psychologically defeated, to lead resistance against our occupation.

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The Bush administration never fully understood what we were telling them in 2003. The Obama administration does not appear to have any better comprehension as it stumbles its way into war in Libya.

The time to intervene on behalf of the rebels in Libya, assuming that such intervention was going to take place, was at the high tide of the insurgency when Tripoli itself was threatened, military defections were at their peak and there was a sense that Gadhafi was about to be toppled. Even limited intervention at that point would have sent the key message that we would not tolerate Gadhafi remaining and that anyone standing by him would face our wrath.

A strong, decisive push at that point would likely have persuaded the key figures still supporting the existing regime to jump ship and brought a rapid end to the conflict.

Instead, we watched impotently for weeks while Gadhafi regained his footing and the rebels suffered defeat after defeat. Only when rebel-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, was threatened did we step in.

Even at this stage, we acted not in a decisive fashion designed to defeat Gadhafi and overturn his regime, but in a seemingly deliberately ambiguous fashion, which could serve only to preserve hope amongst the colonel and his supporters that they would be allowed to survive.

Air and missile strikes were described as designed only for "the protection of civilians." President Barack Obama advised that it was U.S. policy that Gadhafi needed to go, but that despite this, the goal of our military intervention -- authorized in a U.N. Security Council resolution and carried out by a coalition including the United States -- was not to oust its leader. Obama then added that the U.S. would begin to transition into a supporting role in the operation "within days."

Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. forces involved in operations in Libya, stated that he could see completing the military mission assigned to him and leaving Gadhafi in power. He added that he had no mission to attack Gadhafi and, in fact, had very little idea where he was.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that there was no clearly defined end to the military action in Libya and suggested it might drag on for an undetermined period. When asked what would happen if Gadhafi hunkered down and seemed determined to remain in power, Gates had no answer.

War is a nasty, brutish business. We ought to pursue every other possible means for the resolution of conflict first before we rush to send young men and women to their deaths and to spend billions of dollars of the taxpayer's money. For the same reason, once we make the determination that we must go to war, we should act decisively and do everything in our power to bring it to a swift conclusion.

A decision to intervene on behalf of civilians in Libya against their own leader is of necessity a decision that this leader has lost any legitimacy he may have once had and must be removed. The only sure way to protect Libyan civilians is to remove the madman who is directing his military to kill them. And the quickest way to remove Gadhafi from power is to make it immediately, unambiguously clear that we will not stop until he is gone.

Do that emphatically and convincingly enough, and it is likely that he will be removed by those around him who finally understand that they have no other choice.

You go to war to win. And in this case, we will win when those who continue to support Gadhafi are more afraid of us than they are of him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles S. Faddis.

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