After 150 days of bombing, NATO has razed numerous facilities while failing to achieve any convincing military results. This is largely due to its lack of strategic forethinking. In Libya, NATO assumed it could apply the same classic methods that were conceived for different settings. It is now stuck in a quandary. The greatest military alliance in history, which was initially created to confront the USSR and was then slated to become the world’s policeman, has fallen woefully short of its recycling goals.
Both military victory and defeat are measured against the pre-established aims of the war. In the case of its intervention in Libya, NATO’s aims under a U.N. mandate were to protect civilians and, equally official although outside of the mandate, to change the country’s political regime.
After nearly 150 days of war, NATO did not succeed in shaking Libya’s institutions. Considering the disparity of opposing forces, military defeat is the inescapable conclusion and the adopted strategy should be called into question.
The Alliance wrongly estimated that the tribes from the East and South of the country, which were hostile to Muammar Gaddafi, could easily take Tripoli as long as they could count on aerial support. As it turned out, these tribes perceived the bombing as a foreign aggression and rallied the “Brother Leader” to repel the “crusader” invasion of Libya.
From that moment on, the Alliance was left with only two ground components: on one hand the 3 000 battle-tested soldiers in General Abdel Fatah Younes’ retinue when he defected, and on the other hand the hundreds, maybe thousands, of Arab fighters belonging to the networks of Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, known as “Al-Qaeda.”
After the murder of General Younes by Al-Qaeda jihadists, in particularly atrocious conditions, the rebel forces crumpled. Younes’ soldiers broke ranks, joining Colonel Gaddafi to fight Al-Qaeda and avenge their leader. The rebel operational command fell in the hands of Khalifa Haftar, which is to say under the orders of CIA Special Forces. The Agency then scrambled to recruit combatants indiscriminately, including child soldiers.
This makeshift and fluctuating army, which announces a victory every other day, has in fact been collecting defeat after defeat. Every battle recreates the same scenario, with each NATO bombardment forcing the population to flee their homes. Thus, the town is quickly run over by rebel forces who announce they have gained ground. Only then does the battle begin. The Libyan army enters the town and massacres the rebels. At that point, the population safely returns to the partially destroyed village.
The Atlantic Alliance may take a broad interpretation of UN Resolution 1973 and consider that although the text explicitly prohibits the deployment of foreign troops on the ground, such a deployment is legitimate if it aims to “protect civilians.” In such circumstances, NATO would have to face a population armed to the teeth and prepared for battle. Indeed, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has handed out a Kalashnikov to every adult and set up an ammunition distribution system managed by the people. Even if the Libyan population is not trained to the same degree as NATO troops, it has a clear advantage over them, in that it is prepared to suffer heavy losses while NATO soldiers are not willing to die for Tripoli.
Ever since the conflict began, strategists in Washington have underestimated the importance of all this in view of their air power supremacy.
This doctrine, undisputed in the United States, is gradually spreading to the military academies of the Alliance’s Member States, even though it has been widely critized until now. It stems from the lessons learned by General Giulio Douhet from the Italo-Ottoman War, that is the Libyan war of 1911. At the time, the Italians experieced in Tripoli the first aerial bombardment in history. Terrified by this new weapon, the Ottoman Empire capitulated without a fight and the Italian troops took possession of Tripoli without firing a shot. Douhet thus concluded that it was possible to win a war using only aerial power. This analysis is false since it confuses the act of expropriating Libyan land from the Ottomans with the fact of controlling Libya. The real fighting took place only later, with the uprising of the Libyan people.
Some may think that there is a Libyan curse. In any case, it is on this very soil that exactly a century later the same conceptual error has been repeated. Air dominance allowed Libyan legality to be withdrawn from the Jamahiriya and entrusted to the Transitional National Council, but that’s of no consequence on the ground. To control the country, NATO would have to send ground troops and, like the Italians in the years 1912-14, kill more than half of the Tripoli population, which is not exactly the spirit of Resolution 1973.
The Atlantic Alliance had, until now, planned its bombing strategy according to the Douhet doctrine and the improvements that have been brought to it, in particular John A. Warden III’s theory of the five circles, which was experimented in Iraq. The idea is that the targets should not be chosen with the aim of destroying the enemy’s armed forces, but of paralyzing its command centers, especially by cutting means of transmission and traffic.
NATO thus woke up to the fact that Jamahiriya is not a slogan, but a reality. The country is ruled by people’s congresses and Muammar Gaddafi has reduced most of the administrations to their simplest expression. There are no grand ministries to be found here, only small offices. The ministers are not high-profile personalities, but simply team leaders. They are the advisers who are assisting the people through their powerful skills. Power is diluted and elusive. What used to be a headache for the businessmen who visited Libya, i.e. finding the right interlocutors, has now become an enigma for NATO strategists: who should one target? After five months of bombardments, they still have to figure it out.
The only head above the crowd is that of Muammar Gaddafi. The Atlantic Alliance has a fixation on Gaddafi. Is he not the “Father of the Nation”? By eliminating him, they would destroy the principle of authority in Libyan society, which would instantly slide into an Iraqi-like scenario and plunge into chaos. But, unlike the Iraqi precedent, the tribal structure and the horizontal organization of power would endure. Even if torn by internal conflicts, the Libyan people remain an organic entity in the face of the foreign invasion. Not only would this not solve any military problem, but would blur the delimitations of the theater of operations; the war would inevitably expand to North Africa as well as to southern Europe. Finally, killing Gaddafi would probably be the worst option.
In the absence of any suitable strategy, the Atlantic Alliance reverted to the old reflexes of US military culture, those of the Korean and Vietnam Wars: to make life impossible for the population so that it will turn against its “Guide” and finally topple him. Thus, since the beginning of Ramadan, NATO has strengthened the naval blockade to cut the gasoline and food supplies; bombarded power plants and water supply systems; destroyed the agricultural cooperatives, the small fishing ports and the covered markets.
In short, the actions of the Alliance run counter to what the U.N. Security Council and certain Member State parliaments demanded: instead of protecting the civilian population against a tyrant, it is bent on terrorizing civilians to get them to rise against the leader they support.
This strategy is expected to continue until the end of Ramadan. The Alliance will then have three weeks left to try and score a significant victory before the clock strikes twelve: on September 19th, the United Nations General Assembly will meet in New York and could demand explanations about the ongoing operation, note the incapacity of the Security Council to restore the peace, and impose its own recommendations.
In preparation for the resumption of ground fighting in early September, NATO is arming the Misrata rebels and clearing the road they will use to seize Zlitan. With France once again refusing to deliver weapons, Qatar has obliged by freighting them by plane, despite the UN embargo. On the night of 8 to 9 August, the Alliance cleaned up Majer hill, which could serve as an outpost to defend Zlitan. In the process, it bombed farms and tents where twenty displaced families were sheltered, killing 85 people including 33 children.