June 08, 2011

Opinion: Libya Stalemate Looms for NATO as Gaddafi Holds His Ground

Contributor: Defence Dateline Group
Posted: 06/07/2011 12:00:00 AM EDT

Military operations under the authority of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 have now passed the two month mark. In this time the allied forces aligned with NATO’s Operation Unified Protector have continued to escalate the conflict, hoping to break the stalemate between the rebels and forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi. This has included the arrival of non-uniformed military trainers in the rebel camp, the prompt destruction of the tiny Libyan navy in order to help relieve the siege of Misrata; and the recent arrival of French and British sea-based attack helicopters.

British Apache helicopters deploy from HMS Ocean to assist with NATO strikes in Libya
[image: UK MoD]

Yet, none of these measures have fundamentally altered the situation on the frontline between free and Gaddafi-controlled Libya. The war has become a stalemate, and a messy one. Whatever France and Britain’s earlier optimism, the timeframe of intervention is now stretching irreversibly towards a matter of months, not weeks. Meanwhile NATO finds itself locked into yet another conflict from which it cannot withdraw, yet also cannot resolve.

I was a firm advocate of the Libyan intervention, and argued on numerous occasions through Defence Dateline about the mission’s humanitarian necessity, and the likelihood of rapid success. As security analysts, it is our responsibility to assess why our predictions have proven inaccurate.

Unexpected or under-rated problems

The unexpected or under-rated problems that have lead to this stalemate break down into four categories.

Loyalist military adaptation

Possibly the single biggest factor in the emergent stalemate has been the unexpectedly successful adaptation of the pro-Gaddafi military to the depredations of allied aerial bombardment. Whilst at first displaying an almost obtuse tendency to gather their armour in large columns on the outskirts of rebel-held towns, Gaddafi’s forces have since learnt the lessons of many an inferior force in the face of air power - disperse and prosper. A move into civilian vehicles and the distribution of personnel in urban environments has rendered Gadaffi’s forces extremely difficult to dislodge.

Whilst some 65% of Gadaffi’s military hardware has been destroyed by alliance air strikes, the inability to dislodge loyalist infantry from city centres has ground progress to an alarming halt. Some adaptation was, of course, to be expected. However, part and parcel to the air-power gamble that was NATO's approach to the Libyan conflict was the tenuous assumption that such adaptation would be too slow to prevent the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Now that this change has taken place, a sudden collapse is a remote possibility.

Rebel military weakness

In the early days of the intervention, the ramshackle make-up of the rebel’s pick-up truck columns seemed irrelevant in the face of the apparently imminent collapse of loyalist forces. Sadly, as frontlines coalesced around urban centres, the fundamental weakness of the rebels has been laid bare for all to see. With due regard to the moxy and dedication of those skirmishing on a daily basis, a certain level of rudimentary military training, as well as renewed efforts at organising and increasing material resources all count in the rebels' long-term favour. Yet sadly, they have proven too inept a military force to capitalise on the shock-and-awe of the initial aerial attack and the early rebel gains.

Regime resilience

It was widely agreed that Gaddafi could not be compelled to leave through force alone. However many, myself included, did believe a combination of military force, comprehensive economic sanctions, legal censure from the ICC and the political pressure of international opinion could (and would) leverage key individuals out of the regime, weakening it from the inside. Of these factors, I previously put particular weight behind reports on Gaddafi’s available financial resources, and estimates as to when they would dry up. (Three months by some estimates, and some recent articles have maintained this limit is still approaching.)

As the weeks have progressed, it has become clear that none of these factors is having a decisive impact. The desertion of key personnel has been at best a trickle, and despite dire financial reports, frontline loyalist fighters are either still receiving their pay, or are in fact motivated to fight in the absence of such pay. Either way, Gaddafi’s regime has proven to be more resilient then previously thought or hoped.

Wavering allied support

Here, many analysts have focused on the internal workings of the coalition forces - citing American reticence to take full operational control, a lack of sophisticated munitions and European caveats on the use of their air assets as being responsible for holding back a resolution in Libya. I do not put stock in these arguments. The intensity of attacks by French, US and British forces has been as high as is permitted by the ROE. Meanwhile, claims the allies were running out of ammunition were, quite frankly, a media exaggeration. The factors on the ground, detailed above, are more important then these arguments in explaining the Libyan stalemate.

However, the international political support underlining the operation has grown significantly less beneficial to NATO’s cause since the operation began. The much vaunted support of the Arab League evaporated within weeks of the mission’s start, as unrest within the Arabian Peninsula, itself, continued to escalate. Now, only token Arab aircraft have contributed to the mission, whilst Russian and Chinese condemnation of the operation grows more vocal by the day.

This quiet but toxic de-legitimisation of the Libyan mission gives hope to Gaddafi, and weakens the resolve of allied members. Indeed, some NATO allies are already proposing tentative cut-off points for their involvement, a classic sign of crumbling will. If a coercive campaign is ever to work, your target must be given no hope that they could outlast your efforts. Sadly, Gaddafi has received mixed signals in this regard.

Misplaced hopes

The above eventualities were not in any way unforeseeable, but a reasoned assessment at the time seemed to weigh these risks in NATO’s favour. My own assessment looked with great optimism at the limitation of Gaddafi’s available funds. I also believed that obvious rebel weaknesses would not be a crippling problem as long as the disarray of loyalist forces in the early days of the intervention could be seized upon as quickly as possible. Sadly, the tenacity not only of the loyalist forces, but of Gaddafi’s regime, has outlasted any such temporary hopes.

None of this detracts from the value of the Libyan intervention. I stand by the humanitarian principles of the mission, and the regional democratic uprising to which it is proxy. However, I must admit, as an analyst, that I was wrong about both the ease of our objective in Libya and the speed with which we could acquire it. The emergent situation is not by any measure the “worst case” scenario. However, it is demonstrating the fundamental gamble of air-based coercive interventions: if success is not quick, it will not come cheap.

Yet, having waded in based upon false expectations, it is nonetheless our responsibility to see this mission through to its only acceptable conclusion - the removal of Col Gaddafi from power. To do anything less would be a more damnable crime then misplacing our hopes in the efficacy of military power. It would be to abandon those people in Libya who have placed their hopes in us.

Jonathan Dowdall writes for Defence Dateline Group

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