Nato battles fatigue three months into Libya war

After three months of air strikes in Libya, the Nato alliance is showing growing signs of fatigue and discord with no end in sight in a conflict that the allies are determined to win.

The conflict has lasted longer than some had anticipated when Nato took command of operations on March 31, replacing a Western coalition that had launched the first salvos two weeks earlier.

As the Nato mission marks three months on Thursday, rifts have emerged with Italy calling last week for a suspension of hostilities, while some allies with small air forces are feeling the strains of a steady pace of sorties.

The operation’s commander, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, refuses to scale it down, saying Nato has made significant progress by bringing “normalcy” to the opposition-held east while rebels scored successes in the west.

“I do not believe that any scaling down of operation is appropriate nor required at this time. In fact we stay the course,” Bouchard said on Tuesday.

The Canadian general said Nato would keep up the pressure until Muammar Gaddafi stops threatening civilians, returns his forces to barracks and allows humanitarian aid to flow freely into Libya.

“We will continue our mission without pause until we have reached those objectives,” he said.

The military organisation has extended its mandate for another 90 days, committing it to the mission until at least late September.

Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Nato has succeeded in fulfilling its UN mandate to protect civilians and will eventually bring down the Gaddafi regime.

“They have degraded Gaddafi’s military capability, pushed him back, stretched his forces extremely thinly and essentially have made regime change an inevitability,” Joshi told Agence France-Presse.

“On the mission of regime change, which is the more central mission, I think they will eventually succeed, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

“But, what I would caution, is that it can only take place potentially on a timetable that is quite politically damaging and has already revealed quite a few serious strains within the alliance.”

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini opened a rift last week when he called for a suspension of hostilities after chiding Nato over the accidental killing of civilians in a bombing, which Tripoli says killed nine people.

Outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had delivered his own bombshell earlier this month when he scolded allies for their over-reliance on the US military, saying they were even running out of munitions in Libya.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy hit back on Friday, dimissing Gates’s criticism on the “bitterness” of a future retiree.

France, Britain and the United States launched the first strikes against the Libyan regime on March 19 before handing control of the operation to Nato despite French reservations.

Only eight of 28 alliance members are taking part in the air strikes, and one of them, Norway, has announced that it would end its mission in August because its air force is too small to continue.

The United States, France and Britain have pressed other allies to step up their contributions, with Gates singling out Spain, Turkey and The Netherlands as nations that should take part in the bombings.

But the latter countries have shown no willingness to drop bombs in Libya.

“It is quite a challenge to find somebody to step in,” a Nato diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “In the long run, everybody will need some relief at some point.
You will need a rotation.”

But Nato will see the mission through as France and Britain have invested too much political capital to back out, Joshi said.

“They will not concede Italy’s point about stopping the bombing and they will plough on regardless of whether the Norwegians or the Belgians or anyone else continues alongside them,” he said.

“France and Britain have put so much into this, there is no prospect that they will now give up.” - AFP

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