The military campaign in Libya began with what seemed a narrowly defined mission: to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians from attack.
Two months later, the campaign has evolved into a ferocious pounding of the country’s capital, Tripoli, in what appears an all-out effort to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. However, that goal remains elusive, raising the prospect of a quagmire in the desert. And the political will of the countries involved is being sorely tested.
The Libyan opposition remains weak. NATO, which took over command of the campaign from the US on March 31, appears to have no clear exit strategy. Two of the allies, Britain and France, have descended into public squabbling over bringing the fight closer to -Qaddafi with attack helicopters. And the French foreign minister said on Tuesday his country’s willingness to continue the campaign was not endless.
Part of the challenge lies in the original UN resolution: It authorized the use of air power, but forbade ground troops, even as it authorized “all necessary means” to protect civilians following -Qaddafi’s brutal suppression of the popular uprising against his rule.
From Yugoslavia to Iraq, recent history has shown that ousting a regime through air power alone is, at best, exceedingly difficult.
In Libya, it is not for lack of trying. What seemed at first to be limited strikes on military targets — tanks heading for the rebel-held city of Benghazi here, some anti-aircraft batteries there — has now expanded to the point that early Tuesday saw the biggest bombardment of the capital since the conflict began.
The targets have come to include, for example, Qaddafi’s presidential compound; one of the leader’s sons was killed on April 30. NATO’s official line is that the compound was a command-and-control center and it was not trying to kill Qaddafi, but clearly no one in the alliance would have shed a tear had the Libyan leader died.
There are signs of frustration, or perhaps desperation, among the allies. To avoid anti-aircraft fire, the campaign at first relied largely on high-altitude precision bombing, generally from above 4,500m — nearly 5km high. However, France said on Monday that it now plans to deploy helicopter gunships to hit targets more precisely in urban areas while risking the lives of fewer civilians.
So far, no allied servicemen or women have been killed in the campaign, but by using helicopters and flying far lower, the French would be putting their pilots at greater risk, underscoring their intense desire to finish the Libyan operation sooner rather than later.
NATO declined comment about the proposed deployment of helicopter gunships because none had yet been placed under its command, saying only through a spokesman that it would be “grateful for all contributions.”
Theo Farrell, a professor of war studies at King’s College, London, said the introduction of attack helicopters in Libya might divert potential resources from the war in Afghanistan.
“The more this happens, the more there would be tension about the diversion of resources,” he said.