NATO admits it can't stop Qaddafi from shelling Misrata as rebels call for foreign troops

Turns out air power’s not enough in heavily populated urban areas, a development that was … totally foreseeable, actually. And since no one’s eager to send in ground troops, we appear to be stuck. “We rushed into this without a plan,” a retired Army general told the LA Times. “Now we’re out in the middle, going in circles.”

Says Eli Lake, the Washington Times’s national security reporter, “At this point if NATO was in a fight with the Broadway production of CATS, would you bet on NATO or CATS?”

NATO officials acknowledged that they are having trouble destroying Gadhafi’s mortars and rocket launchers from the air, for fear of inadvertently harming civilians in such strikes.

“There is a limit to what can be achieved by airpower to stop fighting in a city,” said NATO Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm…

He said his forces have destroyed more than 40 tanks and several armored personnel carriers there.

Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of NATO’s military committee, said that even though NATO operations have done “quite significant damage” to the Libyan regime’s heavy weaponry, what Gadhafi has left is “still considerable.”

Rebels trapped in Misrata grumbled yesterday to WaPo that they feel “let down” by NATO’s unwillingness to bomb buildings where Qaddafi’s snipers are holed up. One of them, referring to the UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians, said, “If they cannot do it, they should say they cannot do it.” Today they’re taking a different tack, calling on the coalition to do the one thing no one wants to do:

“We need a force from NATO or the United Nations on the ground now,” said Nouri Abdullah Abdulati, of the city’s 17-member judicial committee, speaking to a handful of reporters…

“We did not accept any foreign soldiers on our land. But that was before we faced the crimes of Gaddafi,” Abdulati said Tuesday. “We are asking on the basis of humanitarian and Islamic principles for someone to come and stop the killing. … The whole Arab world is calling for the intervention of the West for the first time in history.”

Abdulati said the committee would want British or French troops to fight alongside rebel fighters in Misurata, both to protect civilians and to fight off Gaddafi forces.

Believe it or not, the EU’s actually toying with the idea of sending in ground troops — but only to escort humanitarian relief convoys, which isn’t quite necessary yet since the port of Misrata remains open for shipments. (Qaddafi’s promising to fight any such force that shows up.) France and the UK are also sending very small squads of military trainers to Benghazi to help the rebels get better organized. It’s escalation by inches, in other words, but escalation all the same to preserve what little remains of European military prestige. A simple question, then, per Lake’s snarky comment up top: At this point, is there any way to really preserve European prestige? The best possible outcome for the EU would be to get cracking on that larger “humanitarian escort” force and send it in to try to intimidate Qaddafi into choosing exile. But that’s a huge gamble: If, as he’s said, he chooses to fight and manages to hold off the European advance for awhile, it’ll be even more crushing to their prestige. He might relish the idea too, given his own ideas of himself as an African king and the European legacy of colonialism on the continent. A gloss:

“By the U.S. taking a back-seat role, it has a psychological effect on the mission,” said Dan Fata, a former Defense Department official who was responsible for overseeing NATO issues during the George W. Bush administration. “If I’m Kadafi, I’m thinking I can probably wait the Europeans out.”

The U.S.’s stake in this mission is comparatively low since no one doubts American military superiority, whatever the outcome in Libya. Not so for the EU. Exit question: What’s their next move?

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John Sexton 10:00 PM on June 02, 2023