With U.S. In Support Role, NATO's Libya Mission 'Going In Circles'

  • April 16, 2011
  • In the News

A month ago in Libya, troops loyal to Moammar Kadafi were advancing on opposition-held areas, tens of thousands of civilians feared for their lives, and rebel forces appeared in disarray with little prospect of driving Kadafi from power.

After four weeks and hundreds of airstrikes by the U.S. and its NATO allies, in many ways little has changed.

Kadafi's tanks and artillery no longer threaten the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya, and Kadafi's combat aircraft and helicopter gunships are grounded. But the disorganized rebel forces are still outmatched and outnumbered by Libyan army units, which, along with their leader, show no sign of giving up.

Rather, Kadafi has intensified his counteroffensive in recent days. Human rights groups accused Kadafi's military of using cluster bombs and truck-mounted Grad rockets to bombard residential areas of Misurata, the only city in western Libya still in rebel hands.

"We rushed into this without a plan," said David Barno, a retired Army general who once commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. "Now we're out in the middle, going in circles."

The failure of the international air campaign to force Kadafi's ouster, or even to stop his military from shelling civilians and recapturing rebel-held towns, poses a growing quandary for President Obama and other NATO leaders: What now?

Privately, U.S. officials concede that some of their assumptions before they intervened in the Libyan conflict may have been faulty. Among them was the notion that air power alone would degrade Kadafi's military to the point where he would be forced to halt his attacks, and that the U.S. could leave the airstrikes primarily to warplanes from Britain, France and other European countries.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the charge within NATO to launch the air campaign in Libya, argued last week that the alliance needed to step up its attacks to fulfill the United Nations mandate to protect civilians. But winning agreement to escalate the intervention could further divide the already badly split alliance.

The U.S. military moved into a support role early this month, and Obama has given no indication that he will send U.S. warplanes into combat missions again, let alone reconsider his promise not to use ground troops in Libya.

His decision to intervene in Libya was not popular at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and top uniformed officers have shown little interest in taking a major role in the conflict while they are fighting the war in Afghanistan. Obama managed to overcome his advisors' objections by promising to keep the U.S. role limited.

If the alliance's most powerful member isn't willing to escalate, few other members will be eager to do so.

But the longer Kadafi holds up under the NATO attacks, the more pressure there will be in Washington and European capitals to deal with him by escalating the military campaign, arming the rebels or ratcheting up sanctions and other indirect measures, in hopes of forcing him from power.

Adm. James Stavridis, the U.S. commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has appealed to NATO members for additional attack planes — a request that U.S. officials made clear that other alliance members would have to meet.

Obama's decision to limit the U.S. military role left NATO without A-10 Thunderbolt II or AC-130 Spectre gunships, U.S. planes that are designed for close air support of ground troops and precise attacks against ground targets.

The U.S. is keeping A-10s and other strike aircraft on standby in case of an emergency. But bringing the planes back into the fight is not under consideration, a NATO officer said.

Still, the air campaign clearly has weakened Kadafi's army. Allied airstrikes have destroyed nearly 40% of Libya's military equipment and headquarters facilities, according to a senior U.S. military official.

With a maritime exclusion zone preventing Kadafi from obtaining supplies by sea, there also are signs that his government is struggling to provide ammunition, transportation and food to troops in the field. They include the 32nd Brigade, an elite unit led by Kadafi's youngest son, Khamis, and a prime target of airstrikes, the U.S. official said.

Kadafi's long-term prospects for staying in power are not good, U.S. officials insist. They cite the defection of several top aides, including his former intelligence chief, and the loss of billions of dollars in oil revenue that he once used to help ensure loyalty in a tribal-based society.

But those gains have not shifted the balance of military power.

The motley rebel forces that emerged in mid-February to challenge Kadafi's 41-year rule have proved inept on the battlefield. Nor have Kadafi's military commanders or key units defected to the rebel side, as some European officials had hoped.

"We do believe he is having some trouble in being able to mount a sustained campaign," said the U.S. official, speaking anonymously because he was discussing intelligence estimates. "That said, he is still much better organized than the rebels and still has the upper hand."

In some ways, Kadafi's forces have proved surprisingly adept. Instead of using armored troop carriers that attract attention from surveillance aircraft, they have camouflaged troop movements by relying on the same kind of battered pickup trucks that the rebels use, even disguising the vehicles with the opposition flag.

The concealment tactic on the ever-shifting front lines allowed Libyan army units to advance to the eastern city of Ajdabiya recently before they were beaten back for the third time by rebel troops and NATO air attacks. Yet again on Sunday, rebels in Ajdabiya came under attack from Kadafi's rocket-firing forces.

"We expected Kadafi to quickly fold his tent and go somewhere else," said Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. "But the Libyan forces quickly adapted to the airstrikes by becoming very quickly like civilians."

No one seems certain how to break the stalemate. Ratcheting down the NATO-led air campaign while large segments of Kadafi's military remain intact would leave the rebels vulnerable to being slaughtered.

The Air Force is flying two Predator drones over Libya to help conduct surveillance, but they are unarmed, officials said. The U.S. also is transferring precision-guided bombs to NATO allies flying combat missions, since supplies have begun running short, the NATO officer said.

The last time the United States undertook an air war largely for humanitarian purposes was during the 1999 NATO campaign in Kosovo, the Serbian province where police and soldiers loyal to Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic were carrying out a ruthless assault on ethnic Albanians.

Clinton administration officials expected Milosevic to surrender quickly after NATO launched airstrikes, but the bombing campaign lasted 78 days. The Clinton White House promised early on not to send U.S. ground troops into Kosovo, but critics said that appeared to embolden Milosevic to resist.

Unlike the conflict in Libya, however, U.S. warplanes conducted the vast majority of the airstrikes during the Kosovo campaign and gradually escalated the bombing. U.S. officials even threatened at one point to begin flying attack helicopters, and Milosevic ultimately buckled.

There has been little sign that NATO is considering — or even capable of — that kind of escalation in Libya as long as the U.S. stays in a supporting role.

"By the U.S. taking a back-seat role, it has a psychological effect on the mission," said Dan Fata, a former Defense Department official who was responsible for overseeing NATO issues during the George W. Bush administration. "If I'm Kadafi, I'm thinking I can probably wait the Europeans out."