As goal shifts in Libya, time constrains NATO

President Barack Obama has subtly shifted Washington’s public explanation of its goals in Libya, declaring now that he wants to assure the Libyan people are “finally free of 40 years of tyranny” at the hands of Muammar Gadhafi, after first stating he wanted to protect civilians from massacres.

But if toppling Gadhafi is now the more explicit goal, Obama’s European trip this week has highlighted significant tensions over how much time the NATO allies have to finish a job that is now in its third month.

Obama has urged strategic patience, expressing confidence that over time the combination of bombing, sanctions and import cutoffs will force Gadhafi from power.
But in Europe and in Libya, patience is calculated differently. Many countries are struggling with the rapid pace of operations. Some, like Norway, have already said they will sharply reduce their forces beginning next month. According to NATO officials, Gadhafi has a calculation of his own: facing a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court, he may soon have few places to go and nothing to lose by waiting out NATO and betting that European public opinion will tire of the bombing campaign and its costs.

New strategy

In interviews in Washington, in NATO headquarters in Brussels and in the alliance’s southern command center in Naples, Italy, officials have described a new strategy to intensify the pressure — and drive out Gadhafi, a goal that officials now acknowledge extends beyond the boundaries of the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

This week they are intensifying attacks on government targets in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. They plan to step up the effort even more this week, with the arrival of a dozen French and four British attack helicopters that can hit targets more precisely in and around Tripoli, but are also more vulnerable to ground fire.

Obama, however, has taken a gradualist approach that is based on America’s bitter lessons in Iraq. From the start, he has declined to commit ground troops, and quickly handed off the lead in combat operations to other NATO allies, a move widely seen in the US and Europe as an effort to avoid ‘owning’ a war in a nation the US does not consider strategically vital.

But Obama’s description of the objectives there has shifted. In a speech to the nation in late March, he described the effort as simply one of protecting civilians, and the White House denied that ousting Gadhafi was critical to that effort.

While sporadic attacks on civilians continue, the US and its allies have largely achieved that objective, NATO and US officials contend. The rebel-held ground in eastern Libya is secure, and rebel forces backed by allied air power have pushed back Gadhafi’s loyalist forces from the contested port city of Misrata. But Obama suggested that the objective had broadened.

In Europe, however, the tension is over how long that process will take, and how long the NATO nations now leading the attacks are willing to sustain the effort. The helicopter deployments reflect the concerns of Britain and France, in particular, that an extended, grind-it-out campaign will lose NATO partners and public opinion, so the campaign needs to be escalated, even if that means putting the helicopters within range of Libyan shoulder-fired missiles.

In the 1999 Kosovo air war, NATO planes eventually hit high-profile institutional targets in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, instead of forces in the field. Although they were legitimate military targets, destroying them also undermined popular support for the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

Expanding the range of targets would face stiff political opposition in this war, allied political officials said.

That uncertainty has preyed on many countries, like Norway, whose air forces are already finding it hard to sustain the rapid tempo of operations.

Col L S Kjoeller, who commands four Danish F-16s flying eight daily strike missions from the Sigonella air base in Sicily, said Denmark could maintain that pace — the most demanding combat tour ever undertaken by the country’s small air force — for about a year, but that more than that would be difficult.

With Libyan troops largely hunkered down, finding new targets has become harder, and Danish F-16s are dropping fewer bombs than they did several weeks ago, Kjoeller said. To prevent complacency and overconfidence, he said, Danish pilots will rotate every six weeks “to keep their edge.”

 

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