Almost three months into the campaign of air strikes, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) no longer believes bombing alone will end the conflict in Libya, say British government officials.
Instead, they are pinning their hopes on the defection of Muammar Gaddafi’s closest aides, or the Libyan leader’s agreement to flee.
“No one envisages a military victory,” said a senior official, who echoed warnings by Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the head of the British navy, that the bombing could not continue much beyond the northern summer. Official sources said Stanhope, whose comments caused fury in government circles, expressed publicly what many senior defence officials are saying in private.
The conflict is also straining relations between Washington and its European allies. Although few Nato countries are taking part in the air strikes, the Europeans are dismayed by the refusal by the United States to deploy low-flying A10 “tankbusters” and helicopters.
The United Kingdom has deployed four Apaches, the French 12 attack helicopters. There are 150 other attack helicopters in Nato that can operate from ships, but they all belong to the US Marine Corps, said Brigadier Benjamin Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Last week, exiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates referred to the “spectacle of an air operations centre designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150”.
The problems in Nato are mirrored by rebel fighters in Libya. In Misrata the militia leaders, few with military experience, have failed to coalesce into a coordinated army. A second obstacle to an advance is the lack of heavy weapons that would allow them to punch through the Gaddafi forces facing them and then hold that ground against counterattacks. While some militia leaders have told their troops to dig in, others have refused, leaving soldiers facing artillery fire in the open.
The result last Friday was slaughter. After British Apaches attacked the Misrata front Gaddafi’s forces hit back with an unprecedented barrage of thousands of Russian-made Grad rockets. The Apaches did not reappear in daylight to attack the rocket launchers and 31 rebels were killed and 120 wounded.
The absence of Apaches dismayed the rebel units, not all of which are sure of Nato’s motives in failing to offer coordinated air support. Some commanders said the alliance may want Tripoli to rise up against the dictator rather than be “liberated” by rebels from elsewhere.
Nato has dropped leaflets threatening airstrikes against government forces. They feature a picture of an Apache helicopter and a burning tank with the words: “If you go on killing the children and families, you will be destroyed.”
An assault on Zlitan, the next town on the road to Tripoli, has been held up until Zlitan’s own rebels rise up, a problematic expectation given that the town is home to the 32nd Brigade, one of Gaddafi’s few elite formations.
Gaddafi’s problems are the reverse of those facing the rebels: he has vast stocks of Grad missiles, but his troops are demoralised by what one British source described as “incremental attrition”.
Sources suggested that war crimes indictments against Gaddafi and his inner circle could be put on the back burner in the hope of encouraging the Libyan leader to seek sanctuary in a friendly African country.
There is concern that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk of civilian casualties as Nato commanders succumb to political pressure to step up the bombing campaign and the greater the risk of the rebels becoming more radical and perpetrating war crimes.
Other problems spring from the flight of nearly one million people so far from Libya to neighbouring states and Europe. “Any of these factors — could weaken the coalition’s military strength and political resolve,” said the International Institute for Strategic Studies. —