NATO is only nominally in charge of the stalemated war in Libya.
The Alliance’s leader, the United States, was quick to move to a back seat in this operation after having sparked it. Europe’s residual military powers, France and Britain, are mainly in charge of this war, operating as a tandem but basically in their respective national capacities. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron each embarked on this intervention as a short-term political project, only to see it turn into stalemate, and the expected political rewards turn into liabilities. Yet for the French and British leaders, Libya remains a short-term, non-core issue, which almost irrespective of its outcome will ultimately be amenable to political damage control.
Unlike the French and British leaders, NATO has core business here, and any indecisive outcome would not be a short-term episode to be filed away. NATO has lent its name and its flag to this intervention and assumed a high public profile as mission leader. The Alliance has not been able to show a military success in the field since Kosovo 1999. In Libya it has no choice but to win and be seen winning convincingly.
This intervention’s political objectives remain undefined, notwithstanding the show of force: almost 7,000 air-bombing sorties thus far, a naval blockade, and underwriting operations by rebel forces on the ground. Any “responsibility to protect” populations from violence is a humanitarian, not a political objective; and cannot in any case become a NATO goal in its own right, divorced from larger political and strategic objectives.
Western belligerents hobbled their operation from the outset by ruling out the use of ground troops. They announced and reiterated this decision (itself a “caveat”) in tones of such finality that it no longer allows flexible interpretations, e.g., for Special Forces raids. “No boots on the ground” was a price for Russian acquiescence in the UN Security Council and for public acceptance at home to this intervention. But it also reflected expectations of a short war from the air, underestimating Gaddafi’s staying power and his social base of support.
These twin miscalculations contributed to prolonging NATO’s mission far beyond any initial expectation. They also led to overreliance on Libyan insurgents, in hopes that they may win the war on the ground, if the coalition could not win it from the air. The coalition armed the rebels and recognized their leadership as a legitimate governing authority. Haste and improvisation did not allow the coalition to screen the rebels properly before underwriting them. Many rebels’ backgrounds and intentions are unknown or unclear to the coalition.
On July 29 the top Libyan rebel commander, General Abdul Fattah Yunes, was assassinated by rivals within rebel forces in Benghazi. The rebel leadership is withholding information about the assassination. Factional armed militias are multiplying in eastern Libya. For political considerations, the coalition keeps silent about jihadis in rebel ranks, and the arms smuggling from eastern Libya to the Middle East.
NATO had expected to fight for a few weeks; it set a three-month deadline for the combat and post-combat phases; it had to prolong the combat operation by three more months; and is now facing the distinct possibility of a further prolongation of combat operations by September. The situation is not a complete stalemate (as is usually described), but a piecemeal movement of the front lines on the ground in the general direction of Tripoli over time.
The resulting perception is that NATO has been held in check by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s third-rate troops for all these months. Along with the costly failure in Afghanistan, another failure in Libya would make NATO look irrelevant to American and West-European publics, exposing it to even more debilitating budget cuts after those it has already incurred. At this point, the public and government in Western belligerent countries are running low on patience and resources for the Libya operation.
If NATO fails again, not in a distant expeditionary operation as in Afghanistan, but this time in its own immediate neighborhood, then proposals to dilute NATO into some “common European security architecture” with Russia would gain traction. According to an authorized exponent of that Russian concept, “if the alliance admits to being unable to do away with Gaddafi, whom everyone at NATO took for a clown, it will be possible to sell NATO for scrap. Who is going to treat NATO seriously after that?” (Russia Profile, July 29).
Coalition leaders’ overemphasis on “doing away with Gaddafi” has turned this into the main criterion for the operation’s success, certainly in public eyes. The coalition is finding it difficult to backtrack on this demand at this stage.
Vladimir Socoris a contributing editor for the Atlantic Council, and senior fellow and long-time senior analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. This piece was originally published by the Jamestown Foundation.