The NATO air campaign against the Qaddafi regime continues on well past the initial goal of ‘no more than three months’, and is now extended to the end of September, with no signs of Qaddafi leaving or even being slightly molested. Despite talk of establishing a ‘no fly zone’, the campaign morphed immediately into air strikes against ground targets which had nothing to do with air defense, (such as the attack by the French on a Libyan armoured column near Benghazi), and dispatching matériel aid and advisors to the rebels. This is not so much ‘mission creep’ as it is ‘mission leap’. I’ve written before on the subject here and here.
This whole campaign has been first and foremost an objective formulated primarily by the French and British. Libya supplies little oil to the US but it is an important supplier to Europe. Formulated as a NATO operation, both Sarkozy and Cameron knew that it would nevertheless take the strike power of the US to initiate the momentum it would take to get the lumbering bureaucratic inertia of NATO underway.
Once the strikes commenced and NATO was committed, the French and British have carried the weight of the operation after the US has dropped back into a ‘lead from behind’ position (an oxymoron: we abdicated our authority but not our responsibility, and we still provide significant support). The idea, of course, was that the Libyan rebels would pick up the pace established by NATO and capitalise on the removal of the Libyan Air Force and the ground strikes against the Libyan Army. It would seem that we have to periodically re-learn the lesson that one should not place too much faith in the ability of air power alone, and purge the ghost of Giulio Douhet.
The rebels, despite their enthusiasm and commitment, as well as the limited support of NATO, have faltered, at least for the moment. And Qaddafi has not played according to the NATO playbook, in that he is still alive and still in power. As far as anyone can tell at the moment, Libya has reached a stalemate, and Qaddafi is not going anywhere.
Lt Gen Charles Bouchard, RCAF, NATO Commander for Libya campaign
Oh sure, there are reports that Qaddafi is running low on fuel and money, and that morale is low among his troops, according to interrogations of captured soldiers and defectors. But then, what would you expect POWs and defectors to say, at the hands of their rebel captors?
Yet time is running low on the other side too. The French are apparently waffling on their commitment that Qaddafi must go, with a give-and-take in the French press about contacts with the Qaddafi régime, buying time with denials of any “direct” contacts, but then admitting that, yes, well, there is the possibility of indirect or third-party contacts. Sarkozy knows that the failure of NATO (primarily the French) to effect a quick solution is a costly embarrassment, and he must clear his agenda to give the story time to fade in the public mind before elections next spring.
The British have heard statements last month from top military officers to the effect that forces are coming under a heavy strain to maintain the air operations (as well as the timetable in Afghanistan), which drew a public rebuke from Prime Minister Cameron: “There are times when I wake up and read the newspapers and think, ‘I tell you what, you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking,’ ” He then dropped them from the British equivalent of the NSC. It was a little surprising then that yesterday’s reports includes comments from Liam Fox, the Minister of Defence, who said, "We can, and have, planned for operations such as those we are undertaking but no one can predict how long a complex intervention will take," and added that these operations did "increase the pressure on both personnel and equipment as planning assumptions are tested, and it tests the ability of defence companies to support front-line operations", though Britain along with its allies would sustain the Libyan campaign "for as long as it takes". Taking into account the very slightest possibility of nuance, it would nevertheless seem that the British need to sort out who can have what opinion and at what time. After that, then they might work on trying to maintain with the French some sort of a united front as to how this Libyan impasse might be overcome.