Success for NATO now requires the exit of Qaddafi and his sons from Libya. NATO and its partners have, thus far, been unable to assemble enough coercion to make this happen. The rebel army is stuck in Ajdabiya, attempting to fend off pro-Qaddafi attacks from Ras Lanuf. Further to the west, rebels in Misrata are under siege. NATO aircraft are succeeding in their attacks against Qaddafi’s tanks. But pro-Qaddafi infantry long ago abandoned their military vehicles and NATO attempts to target the civilian vehicles in which they now move have occasionally ended up killing rebels instead.
NATO leaders hope that political and economic isolation will eventually compel Qaddafi to fold. But if playing for time is the strategy, it is not clear that NATO has the advantage. Squabbles over political strategy within NATO, combined with a looming humanitarian crisis in Libya’s west, may pressure Britain and France to relent well before the Qaddafis feel any real pressure to back down.
When in a stalemate, the first instinct is to simply intensify the effort in the hope of achieving a breakthrough. Thus the call by British and French leaders at the Berlin conference for more strike aircraft over Libya. But Qaddafi’s undestroyed tanks aren’t the problem. The real issue is that NATO has reached the limit of what its strike aircraft can accomplish, given the understandably cautious rules under which they operate [bold mine-DL]. ~Robert Haddick
NATO was already being asked to do the near-impossible when it was called on to protect civilians solely through the use of air power, which they could use sparingly because of the danger of causing civilian casualties in the course of attacking Gaddafi’s forces. Now that the governments that started the war have defined success in terms of Gaddafi’s fall, NATO’s task has become even more difficult than it was. While it is a significant sign of deep political divisions among allied governments that just one-quarter of the alliance is providing aircraft authorized to strike ground targets, it isn’t clear that more planes from more governments would change very much. Haddick’s assessment seems to be right. If more NATO governments started contributing planes and authorized them to attack Gaddafi’s forces, they would still be subject to the same strict rules of engagement that make NATO aircraft far less effective.
Barring the (re-)introduction of low-flying U.S. planes, which the administration understandably and correctly appears unwilling to approve, the U.S. and our allies have limited themselves to fighting a war that by their own definition of success they are not going to be able to win anytime soon.
With air power having reached its limit and ground intervention ruled out, NATO has no choice but to wait until the ground combat power of Libya’s rebels improves to the point where they will become a threat to Qaddafi’s hold in Tripoli. But that could take years, which may be exactly what Qaddafi is counting on.
The war of “days, not weeks” is beginning to look as if it may drag on much longer than the 78-day war against Yugoslavia. As Micah Zenko wrote on March 28, we should remember how it is that the Kosovo war “succeeded”:
The first myth is that the combination of NATO airpower and a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) ground offensive drove Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999. Today, proponents of intervention in Libya, such as Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations and Peter Juul at the Center for American Progress, have advocated replicating this supposed success. They argue that Libyan rebel forces, fighting with close air support from Western fighter planes, could wage an effective ground offensive all the way to Tripoli and force Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi from power.
But a U.S. Air Force review of its precision airpower campaign in Kosovo revealed a much darker picture than NATO’s glowing initial assessment: 14 tanks were destroyed, not 120, as previously reported; similarly, 18 armored personnel carriers, not 220, and 20 mobile artillery pieces, not 450, were eliminated. During the campaign, the Serbian military quickly adapted to NATO’s operations by constructing fake “artillery” from logs and old truck axles, and “surface-to-air missiles” made of paper.
Furthermore, the KLA failed to mount a credible and sustained opposition to the disciplined, ruthless, and better-armed Serbian ground forces. Ultimately, it was NATO’s escalation of air strikes against the Serbian military and the civilian infrastructure in Serbia proper — combined with Russia’s withdrawal of its support for Serbia — that caused Milosevic to capitulate.
One of the advantages that NATO had in bypassing U.N. authorization in 1999 was that it was never limited by a U.N. resolution in what it could attack. This was one of the reasons why there were as many civilian casualties and inflammatory incidents (e.g., bombing the Chinese embassy) from the bombing campaign as there were, but it also gave NATO more options as the campaign dragged on. Having placed so much emphasis on the importance of U.N. authorization and the legality of the mission, intervening governments are going to be hard-pressed to justify dramatically escalating the war beyond what the resolution authorizes. Arguably, they have already done so, but even the intervening governments acknowledge that pushing for regime change would require a new resolution.