Libya and NATO-led Allies locked in stalemate

Libyans rally outside of Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi's residence in Tripoli. (File photo)

Libyans rally outside of Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi's residence in Tripoli. (File photo)
If Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi is between a rock and a hard place, so are the NATO-led allied forces against him.

Weeks into a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone, the question is who has the longer breath?

Some argue Libya could prove to be, in the words of Steven Metz writing in The New Republic, NATO’s swan song. Failure in Libya coupled with the problem of Afghanistan and the unwieldy experience in former Yugoslavia—the first conflict in which the military pact tried to redefine itself in a post-Cold War world—threatens to be another nail in NATO’s coffin.

As with earlier missions, NATO appears to lack a sense of unity of mission or the military wherewithal to successfully complete it, certainly with the United States shrinking back from taking the lead.

NATO “in its current form, has proven it cannot lead and execute complex, sustained operations in today’s world. Three strikes in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and now Libya may not be enough to put NATO out of business, but it certainly should be enough to place the question of its value on the table,” Mr. Metz says.

The facts on the ground appear to confirm his pessimism. Allied hopes that rebel forces would overrun Mr. Qaddafi’s forces or that someone in the Libyan leader’s closest circle would take him out or that he would run out of funds and/or supplies have so far proven wishful thinking. If anything, the rebels have lost territory since the allies attempted to level the playing field by depriving Mr. Qadaffi’s forces of their air superiority and by strafing his ground troops.

Under the circumstances, the status quo works in Colonel Qadaffi’s favor. The longer he hangs on, the more difficult it is for the allies as well as for the rebels who are increasingly dependent on Allied arms supplies and advice. In doing so, Mr. Qadaffi is laying the groundwork for long-term instability whichever way the battle for Libya goes.

The more the rebels become dependent on foreign military assistance, the bigger the risk that their image is tarnished by the specter of coming to power on the back of US and West European military hardware.

Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the risk. The Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan has been fuelled by perceptions that President Hamid Karzai is little more than the Afghan face of a foreign occupation force. Successive elected Iraqi governments have yet to shed the image of association with the coalition forces despite repeated elections that have been judged free and fair.

Similarly, pro-longed conflict in Libya and the possible de facto partitioning of the country between east and west will breed regional instability. So will an insurgency that over time becomes increasingly effective but also puts the Allies on a slippery slope that starts with a no-fly zone and could end with an ever expanding military engagement involving more extensive air strikes and the deployment of ground troops
That, however, may be what Mr. Qadaffi is hoping for. It lends credence to his assertion that he is fighting a foreign conspiracy to split Libya and gain control of its oil riches. It also allows him to strengthen loyalty among his supporters and position himself as the defender of their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Moreover, it enables him to associate his fight with Libya’s struggle against Italian colonialism that still figures vividly in the nation’s memory.

Escalating military engagement paints the United States, NATO and Europe as opportunists whose newly found willingness to topple Mr. Qadaffi contrasts starkly with their past support and cooperation with the Libyan leader in pursuit of oil and other economic opportunities in the North African state as well as their reluctance to extend their commitment to defend protesters elsewhere in the Arab world.

A prolonged conflict is likely to further force Western nations, who have proven to be not very adept at nation building, to engage in rebuilding a society with little institutional infrastructure.

Finally, increased foreign involvement strikes at the very nature of the wave of protests sweeping the region: indigenous revolts that in Egypt and Tunisia have proven their ability to topple on their own steam leaders who are perceived as closely tied to foreign interests to the detriment of the interests of their own people.

Increased foreign intervention not only calls the veracity of that notion into question but could undermine one of its most immediate impacts on western security: the sidelining and undermining of public support for jihadists such as Al Qaeda as a result of people’s ability to throw off the yoke of dictatorship without resorting to terrorism. It plays straight into Osama bin Laden’s hand, and offers him the straw he must be grasping for.

The anti-Qadaffi alliance, despite the pitfalls, ironically shares the Libyan leader’s immediate interest in continued hostilities. The allies need a militarily weakened Colonel Qadaffi to create the leverage needed to persuade him to not only relinquish power but to leave Libya together with his family. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen conceded for the first time since the imposition of the no-fly-zone at the end of a meeting of the Libya Contact Group that the battle for the future of Libya will not be won with military means alone.

Muammar Qadaffi is likely to recognize this and to count on the fact that NATO will find it increasingly difficult to find legitimate targets in a conflict in which it is limited to the use of air power. He plays to that by stationing his heavy weaponry close to schools, mosques and medical facilities and by ensuring that his military’s vehicles are hard to distinguish from those used by the rebels.

Mr. Qadaffi is also counting on members of the alliance becoming increasingly wary as the conflict drags on. For Mr. Qadaffi, unlike for NATO, this is an existential struggle of life and death that he will fight till he has ensured his family’s survival.


Popular posts from this blog

Israeli & Palestinian war crimes? Yes. Genocide? Maybe. A talk with Omer Bartov

Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground

Saudi religious diplomacy targets Jerusalem