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    Middle East
     May 25, 2011


NATO goes Kosovo in Libya
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - In 1973, the United States Congress overrode the veto of then-president Richard Nixon and passed the so-called War Powers Resolution, requiring a US president who has launched a military campaign without authorization from congress to terminate operations within 60 days.

This deadline can be extended by an additional 30 days "if the President determines and certifies to the congress in writing that unavoidable military necessity respecting the safety of United States Armed Forces requires the continued use of such armed forces in the course of bringing about a prompt removal of such forces."

Last Friday marked the expiration of the deadline for the two

 
months-old campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but no written request was received by congress from US President Barack Obama. Presumably, such a request would not make sense, because there would no need to guard withdrawing US forces, and indeed there are (officially) no US forces on the ground in the country.

Nor is there any intention to scale back military operations. "We will not halt our current operations, which are limited and in support of this critical, NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]-led humanitarian operation," Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, told The New York Times as the deadline came up.

On the contrary, NATO is expanding operations significantly. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced that 12 attack helicopters were headed toward Libyan shores on board of the amphibious assault ship Le Tonnerre, while French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told al-Jazeera that Britain would send helicopters as well (the British declined to comment). This is a new development which, barring an unexpected success in taking out Gaddafi and his forces, could well be a prelude to a ground war.

The arrival of combat helicopters will already bring the fighting closer to NATO. So far, the alliance has dodged any tactic that would carry a significant risk of casualties. Not so with helicopters. While they can hit their targets with precision that fighter jets cannot afford, they are also a lot more vulnerable to ground fire and portable anti-aircraft missiles in stock with Gaddafi's army. "[A helicopter] can be hit by small arms fire, it could be hit by a shoulder-launch portable missile, and all of that means there is a risk now of NATO personnel being shot down," a prominent defense analyst told al-Jazeera.

In part as a preventative measure (though NATO has avoided such framing), for several weeks the alliance has been bombing fiercely Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I) structures of the Libyan government, and conveying "messages" through repeated attacks on Gaddafi's (now likely empty) headquarters at Bab Al Aziziya in Tripoli.

This strategy seems right out of the cook book of the Kosovo war in 1999. As Robert Haddick writes in Foreign Policy:
NATO's bombardment strategy is now likely more focused on applying political and psychological coercion against the regime rather than inflicting battlefield damage against military forces. Repeated attacks against the compound are designed to erode Qaddafi's prestige. NATO strikes on the compound and other possible leadership locations may also be aimed at frightening Qaddafi's inner circle.... But it may not be working fast enough for some NATO leaders. Gen. David Richards, Britain's top military commander, called for expanding the list of acceptable targets. Richards wants to add "infrastructure" targets to NATO's lists…. Richards may be hoping to reprise the strategy used effectively against Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. As I discussed in an earlier column, NATO faced a similar stalemate during its bombing campaign against Serbia. It then expanded its attacks against Milosevic's lieutenants and the economic assets inside Serbia valued by those lieutenants. This change in tactics created enough pressure inside the ruling inner circle to force Milosevic to succumb. Richards' definition of "infrastructure" may have these regime leadership assets in mind. [1]
Parallels with the Kosovo campaign do not begin and end here. Some sources have speculated that mercenaries from the former Yugoslavia are fighting on Gaddafi's side in Libya alongside African mercenaries; influential American think-tank Stratfor claims that it could not verify this information (neither has the presence of any mercenaries been confirmed), but points to the recent arrest of Libyan citizens at the Serbian-Croatian border as possible indirect evidence.

On NATO's side, the practice of arming and training rebels and (allegedly) using small teams of special operations forces as spotters for air strikes mimics closely tactics used in the former Yugoslavia. The tenuous international support behind the expanded air campaign adds to the parallels.

Although no Western leader acknowledged it at the time, the Kosovo model was on the table from the very start of the Libyan intervention, as was the option of a ground incursion. As Stratfor wrote back in March:
The question then becomes the extent to which this remains an air operation, as Kosovo was, or becomes a ground operation. Kosovo is the ideal, but Gadhafi is not Slobodan Milosevic and he may not feel he has anywhere to go if he surrenders. For him the fight may be existential, whereas for Milosevic it was not. He and his followers may resist. This is the great unknown. The choice here is to maintain air operations for an extended period of time without clear results, or invade. [2]
It must be noted that toward the end of the 1999 war, plans for a ground invasion were being laid down, strikes against Yugoslav C3I structures intensified with the unstated goal to soften any possible resistance, and all of this contributed to Milosevic's decision to withdraw.

It seems that NATO has reached the point where its flawed strategy is forcing it to rethink. I have reported previously that bad strategy is leading to a stalemate [3], and my assessment matches that of other analysts, such as BBC's Jonathan Marcus [4]. French intelligence-analysis website Intelligence Online explains:
During a visit to Paris last week, Rear Admiral James G Faggo, operational head of the US 6th fleet in charge of G3 (intelligence) said that 60% of the Libyan army's potential was still operational. This assessment from US military intelligence concerns the regime's shock troops, as well as the 32nd Brigade, the special forces brigade loyal to Muammar Gaddhafi. These elements, which were at the forefront of the military operation against the insurgents are currently being spared and kept away from the most recent clashes, in particular in Misrata.

Among France's military top brass, generals say there is a discrepancy between the alliance's political goals and the military operations. The very complex chain of command [is] ill-adapted to dealing with very mobile targets…. According to several sources, ground attack planes are regularly obliged to touch down because they have run out of fuel while waiting for a target to be designated [5].
Why NATO got entangled in this way is a subject for a wider debate that will continue in the future. A gentle way of framing it would be that politicians failed to take into account what security analysts openly foresaw; this does not detract in the least from the hypocrisy underlying the campaign, and means that NATO leaders pretended not to see the obvious.

There could be any number of reasons for such a lapse, mostly related to diplomatic and domestic considerations. A source who advises US senators once complained to me that politicians often listen carefully and then promptly proceed to ignore sound advice. The air campaign strategy, while expedient diplomatically (it is an extension of the no-fly zone that was the only bill which could pass the United Nations Security Council), was flawed from the start. What NATO seems to be doing now is patching it up on the go. It is uncertain, to say the least, that this will bring the desired results. If the helicopter strikes prove ineffective or if they incur too many NATO casualties, a new revision of tactics and strategy would be required, and save for a ground invasion, the alliance is running out of options.

International opposition to a ground invasion in Libya has also mounted, but the coalition has ignored all criticism so far and promptly proceeded to stretch UN Security Council Resolution 1973, authorizing the no-fly zone, so thin that there is currently little reflection of it in the military campaign. There seems to be no inclination to stop now, despite the uncertainties inherent in further escalations.

Indeed, the only significant rebel progress reported in the last weeks - around the port city of Misrata in the west - has served to perpetuate the war rather than to alleviate the plight of civilians. As The New York Times reports, "The strategic significance of Misurata has not been lost on the crew of [rebel supply ship] Al Iradah 6. For months, rebels trapped in the city, 130 miles [209 kilometers] from Tripoli, provided Libya's opposition movement with a powerful argument against any discussion of the war's end that called for national partition."

To go back to the Kosovo parallel, we should remember, with all due bitterness, that Serbia is a European country that is populated by white people. Despite that Eastern-Europeans are still often considered to be second-class Europeans, all this matters in the minds of European publics, and thus also in the minds of European decision-makers. In Kosovo, NATO was willing to bend its demands in order to accommodate a Milosevic withdrawal from the province, and to avoid a ground campaign. Even so, the war was enormously costly in terms of civilian life.

Libya, on the other hand, is in Africa, and is populated by people whose immigration to Europe has caused a wave of racism and anti-immigration sentiments. Though nobody would admit it, their lives are almost certainly cheaper in the minds of Western politicians than are Serbian and Albanian lives. Thus, in Libya we could expect not just a Kosovo, but also the continuation that never materialized in Kosovo; a Kosovo on steroids.

Notes


Notes
1. This Week at War: The Milosevic Option, Foreign Policy, May 20, 2011.
2. The Libyan War of 2011, Stratfor, March 21, 2011.
3. Libya aviation show cannot help NATO, Asia Times Online, May 11, 2011.
4. Libya stalemate leaves Nato without 'Plan B', BBC, May 11, 2011.
5. See NATO entangled in Libya, Intelligence Online, Issue no. 641, 19 May 2011 (the article is free but a registration is required)

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.


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