Libya must not become a protracted stalemate

by Mar 28, 2011 No Comments

After fleeing Libya, refugees stranded in an Egyptian border townThe UK and its allies are in a war with Gaddafi’s government in the worst of circumstances.  That is, committed to a war that is not a war.  The logical aim, were it a war, would be regime change.  But given the basis on which action was sought at the United Nations, limited military action to alleviate a humanitarian crisis, there can be no open war aim.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is unambiguous. Military force used for one purpose only, “the protection of civilians and civilian populated areas and the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance and the safety of humanitarian personnel.” It excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” It makes one decision, and one decision only in Paragraph 6: “Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the air space of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians.”

The definition of force is narrow: “authorises member states to … take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights imposed by paragraph 6 above.” Cameron has entered a war in which the legal basis severely constrains the use of military power, and describes an objective that does not involve destruction of the enemy, making it almost impossible to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion.

If Western intervention fails and Gaddafi wins this civil conflict he will have no mercy on those who have opposed him.  His retribution will be savage.  The rest of the world, more particularly the Mediterranean region and Western Europe, will be wide open to his revenge for backing the rebels. Regime change, the decisive defeat for Gaddafi’s government and its replacement, is now essential in terms of homeland security not only for France and Italy, but for the UK as well.

There was, of course, no chance of Cameron getting UN backing for regime change.  Russia and China would have exercised a veto, and among the non-permanent members, our NATO ally Germany, abstained on the vote. The no-fly zone was the most he could get.

Everyone in that Security Council knew, of course, that to impose a no-fly zone involves not just shooting down Gaddafi aircraft and helicopters, but obliterating his air defence system (the USA launched 110 cruise missiles against them on day one), rendering airfields unusable, and destroying fuel supply depots.  Everyone in that Security Council knows also, that once armed intervention takes place, there is inevitable “mission creep”.  Everyone knew that the greater problem for the rebels in Benghazi is not air assaults but the artillery and tanks that can pour in far greater firepower than any aircraft. The planes come, drop their bombs, and fly away.  The artillery and tanks remain, with far greater ammunition and consistent destructive power than anything that comes from the air.

Put simply, a no-fly zone is not enough to stop Gaddafi’s forces overwhelming the rebels. On Gaddafi’s side, he has 50,000 ground troops, over 2,000 tanks and 22 artillery battalions. Legally, they are not targets as their existence does not constitute air power; but if Gaddafi’s forces are to be stopped from carrying out massacres, then they have to be destroyed too.  Russia, when it withheld its veto knew that. The Arab League when it called for a no-fly zone knew that.  Both are now, as I write, covering their backs by making noises of deep regret that military action is taking place.

Now, as Gaddafi employs Arab nationalism, calling the attacks a Western “crusade” against an Islamic state for its “oil,” Arab states are getting jittery about whether their peoples will stand idly by while Western powers kill Arabs.

The truth is that now Western states have started attacking Gaddafi’s forces, the war that is not a war has to become a war with the war aim (unstated but real) being the destruction of the Gaddafi regime and its replacement with something more congenial to the French and Italians in particular.   Now that they are involved, the British, French, USA and other allies cannot afford to have the Gaddafi regime remain with any power in Libya.

It is now a fight to the finish, and whatever they may say to the contrary, the allies intend to impose regime change, through mission creep, or new circumstances that emerge or they invent, to justify that objective. There is nothing the UN Security Council can do about that reality. Britain, France and the USA can exercise a veto over any UN Resolution that tries to rein them in.

We tend to see everything in terms of the personality of Gaddafi.  That is a mistake.  As the Libyan army and other forces have shown, and the number of men mobilised to fight the rebels proves, there is a regime behind him, of a substantial size.  Even were Gaddafi to be killed, there are many in that regime who, just like him, have nowhere to go, and have a lot to answer for, if defeated, so will fight on.

If you go into a war, then there is one absolute principle. You have to win it.  To do that the military doctrine of “destroying the enemy’s will and capability to fight”  has to be applied.  The Western allies’ rules of engagement, based on the UN Resolution no-fly zone only, do not permit of final victory.  That was the lesson of the Korean war, which went on and on, because neither the North Korean/Chinese side or the US/UN side sought an outright victory – settling for what the UN called a ‘police action’ not a war.

I do hope that I am wrong, and that, by the time you read this, the Gaddafi regime’s will and capability to fight, will be broken by air superiority alone.  However, I doubt it.  We could be in for a long and costly stalemate.

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