by Paolo von Schirach
April 10, 2011
WASHINGTON – Without US leadership, the NATO-led military effort on behalf of the Libyan insurgents is turning into a botched affair, with inconclusive actions, unfortunate “friendly fire” accidents in which NATO planes mistakenly bombed the rebels they are supposed to help, and so on.
After a promising beginning with the destruction of Libyan air defenses, command and control centers and more, it looked as is the rebel offensive was gaining momentum. But this hope lasted only a few days. However diminished, the Libyan government forces are still superior. And we now can see the battle field shortcomings of improvised rebels, poorly armed, lacking discipline and proper training.
Stalemate or signs of defeat?
Given this scenario, until a few days ago, it appeared that the situation on the ground was developing into a stalemate, with a lot of inconclusive skirmishes. Well, now we are beginning to see signs that it may turn into a rout for the Benghazi Libyans. NATO bombing raids notwithstanding, the insurgents are retreating. Gaddafi’s forces are about to retake Ajdabiya, a key transit point to get to nearby Benghazi.
And this may be the end, not just for brave, yet disorganized, rebels, but for the 28 member NATO Alliance. Think about it. A group of mostly rich Western nations, with vastly superior armed forces, unable to prevail against a North African gangster that goes on the offensive with SUV’s and ”technicals”, machine guns on pick-up trucks? As the British daily The Guardian (April 10, 2011) put it:
“Nato faces humiliation if Gaddafi’s army is able to force its way through Ajdabiya again to threaten Benghazi, the city the western allies launched the first air strikes to defend”
Can Libya prevail against NATO? Possibly
“Humiliation”? But how can this be, given the vast superiority of combined NATO forces? Well, this is the outcome of an improvised intervention, with so, so coordination, all sorts of legals and political limitations, (no boots on the ground, focus on protecting civilians, no strikes that may cause collateral damage, etc.), that turns out to be inadequate under the new circumstances of urban warfare.
Existing air war tactics inadequate
NATO planes may circle overhead, but there are not that many identifiable fat targets, as Gaddafi dispersed and hid his armor and sends his troops forward in civilian clothes, making them almost indistinguishable from the rebels.
True enough, at some point one would expect that having suffered hits on logistics, fuel and supply center, and more Gaddafi’s forces will lose steam. But, if this is bound to happen in the long run, this is probably why he is trying to crush the rebels now, before the NATO strikes really take a toll on the residual mobility and fighting capacity of his forces.
If no NATO boots on the ground, then arm the rebels
This being the case, unless NATO turns around completely and allows a military invasion of Libya, something that, beyond all the political ramifications, cannot be done in a day ot two, the only available course of action is to start arming and training the rebels now. NATO is terribly late on this; but this new emergency hopefully will force action. It is sad that, once gain, we need Gaddafi’s forces at Benghazi’s gates to spur some quick thinking, but it would ne nice to see some focus, for a change, on the part of NATO Governments that are running this war in the mode of a slow moving corporate board.
Can NATO lead?
The bottom line here is very simple. Either NATO admits that helping the Benghazi Libyans, after all, was not such a good idea, withdraws in humiliation and allows the whole thing to unravel, or it has to do all it can to help them prevail. And right now we are not even talking about about “winning”; but about the capacity to regroup and resist through the injection of better weapons, equipment and know how. This is not easy; but it is possible. Can NATO (with or without the US in the lead) do this –fast? I wonder.
Political damage for America as well
And the US will also suffer politically. The fact that president Obama decided to have a small role in this intervention will not diminish the fact that America has been involved from day one. The US fully supported the whole concept of the attack and provided the initial muscle to help its success. Like it or not, a US officer, Admiral James Stavridis, is NATO SACEUR, Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Like it or not, NATO is a US-led military alliance. NATO’s humiliation, should it come to that, is also America’s humiliation.