I spent Sunday, my last day reporting from Libya (for now), chasing the front line. We drove through Ajdabiya, then Brega, then Ras Lanuf but couldn’t move fast enough to find Colonel’s Gaddafi’s retreating forces. Somewhere in front of us was the ragtag rebel army who raced through liberated town after liberated town, taking each one without firing a shot.
An hour was wasted in Brega as we went from petrol station to petrol station, and then house to house, to fill up with fuel. Eventually we found a chap who disappeared into his garage before coming out with a 50-litre plastic reservoir of unleaded.
This is how the 21st century war of the road is being fought, much like Rommel and Monty’s World War Two war of movement. With no natural barriers, just mile after mile of empty, arid land, each army can advance and retreat with impressive speed.
The great tank commanders made their reputations by moving fast, outflanking and encircling the opposition. Vast minefields were laid, forcing the opponent into a “fighting box” which could be more easily defended than miles of open scrub.
They would recognise what is happening along the desert road to Tripoli, which has become both battlefield and objective. There is nothing much worth defending, just empty acres dotted with the occasional goat or camel. Nothing much grows apart from dunes and thirst.
And they would recognise the problems. The rebels are now 80 miles from Sirte – but 250 hundred miles from their stronghold of Benghazi. That means getting fuel, water and food down the road to their forces. Conversely, Gaddafi was struggling to hold his isolated positions in Ajdabiya, even before air strikes destroyed his armoured column there.
All of which means that the rebels are going to have to evolve from a chaotic rabble, charging headlong at government forces before retreating as soon as they come under fire, into a more sophisticated fighting unit if they are to have any chance at all of taking Sirte – or even defend what they’ve got. They have after all been as far as Ras Lanuf before, until losing it all.
For the time being they are an army winning the war without ever having won a battle.