The military campaign in Libya began with what seemed a narrowly defined mission: to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians from attack.
Two months later, the campaign has evolved into a ferocious pounding of the country’s capital, Tripoli, in what appears an all-out effort to oust Muammar Gaddafi. But that goal remains elusive, raising the prospect of a quagmire in the desert. And the political will of the countries involved is being sorely tested.
The Libyan opposition remains weak. Nato, the North Atlantic military alliance which took over command of the campaign from the United States on March 31, appears to have no clear exit strategy. Two of the allies, Britain and France, have descended into public squabbling over bringing the fight closer to Gaddafi with attack helicopters. And the French foreign minister said on Tuesday his country’s willingness to continue the campaign was not endless.
Part of the challenge lies in the original United Nations resolution: It authorised the use of air power but forbade ground troops, even as it authorised “all necessary means” to protect civilians following Gaddafi’s brutal suppression of the popular uprising against his rule.
From Yugoslavia to Iraq, recent history has shown that ousting a regime through air power alone is, at best, exceedingly difficult.
In Libya, it is not for lack of trying. What seemed at first to be limited strikes on military targets — tanks heading for the rebel-held city of Benghazi here, some anti-aircraft batteries there — has now expanded to the point that early on Tuesday saw the biggest bombardment of the capital since the conflict began.
The targets have come to include, for example, Gaddafi’s presidential compound; one of the leader’s sons was killed April 30. Nato’s official line is that the compound was a command-and-control centre and it was not trying to kill Gaddafi. But clearly no one in the alliance would have shed a tear had the Libyan leader died.
There are signs of frustration, or perhaps desperation, among the allies. To avoid anti-aircraft fire, the campaign at first relied largely on high-altitude precision bombing, generally from above 4 500m — nearly 5km high. But France said on Monday that it now plans to deploy helicopter gunships to hit targets more precisely in urban areas while risking the lives of fewer civilians.
So far, no allied servicemen or women have been killed in the campaign. But by using helicopters and flying far lower, the French would be putting their pilots at greater risk, underscoring their intense desire to finish the Libyan operation sooner rather than later.
“I can assure you that our will is to ensure that the mission in Libya does not last longer than a few months,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said during a question-and-answer session at the French Parliament on Tuesday.
He said the action “may take days, weeks in my opinion [but] certainly not months”.
The danger to pilots could be significant. Although Libya’s surface-to-air missile network has been effectively destroyed, Gaddafi’s forces are said to retain hundreds of heavy machine guns, automatic cannon and shoulder-launched missiles that would pose a danger to helicopters at lower altitudes.
In past conflicts, Nato has shied away from using slow-moving and low-flying helicopters and AC-130 gunships against opponents with such weaponry.
During the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999, the alliance quickly abandoned plans to deploy Apache attack helicopters after the defenders shot down or damaged half a dozen strike jets in the opening days of the campaign.
Not content with their own announcement, French officials also said that Britain would deploy helicopters too. British officials angrily denied that any decision had been made.
‘The pressure is not going to relent’
Nato declined to comment about the proposed deployment of helicopter gunships because none had yet been placed under its command, saying only through a spokesperson that it would be “grateful for all contributions”.
The US, which launched the international air campaign March 19 and handed off command to Nato shortly afterward, also welcomed the offer of helicopters.
US officials said on Tuesday that the “robust pace” of strikes in Tripoli was intended to send Gaddafi a message that “the pressure is not going to relent”.
“It’s actually going to increase. I think we want to underscore to Gaddafi that the foot is not going to come off the gas pedal in terms of the decisions he’s going to have to make,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, travelling with United States President Barack Obama in London.
“It’s a set of messages all of which convey to Gaddafi that leaving is in his best interests and the best interest of the Libyan people,” Rhodes said.
But a Nato diplomat said frustration was growing in the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s governing body.
“There will be some tough questions asked about the endgame” if the conflict drags on until the end of June, when the military campaign needs to be reauthorised by the council, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of standing rules.
Theo Farrell, a professor of war studies at King’s College, London, said the introduction of attack helicopters in Libya might divert potential resources from the war in Afghanistan.
“Since mostly air and naval assets are involved in Libya, these resources wouldn’t in any case be useful in Afghanistan,” Farrell said. “The only area where it is a distraction is in terms of senior leadership attention and strategic planning.”
The choppers, he said, were a different matter.
“The more this happens, the more there would be tension about the diversion of resources.”
He said this comes at a critical time in Afghanistan, where “the war is being won operationally and lost at the same time strategically” because of growing war-weariness in Nato countries and problems with President Hamid Karzai’s government and the militants’ safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan. — AP