From the beginning of the Libyan adventure, the one point on which everyone agreed was that a stalemate would be the worst possible outcome. If the mission was to protect civilian populations, a stalemate traps them in a war without any visible end in sight. Most of those living in cities would have to evacuate or find themselves living in the middle of battlefields. The resulting instability would create a failed state, and an opening for radical groups to recruit and train for operations around the world. No one wanted a stalemate, but according to the man who commanded the opening act of Operation Odyssey Dawn, that’s exactly where we’re heading:
The U.S. general who led the initial phases of the Libyan mission says the operation is largely a stalemate and is more likely to remain that way now that Washington has transferred control to NATO.
One reason is that Moammar Gaddafi’s military has made a rather obvious adaptation to the air-only war waged by NATO:
Army Gen. Carter Ham said in a new tactic, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces are making airstrikes more difficult by placing military forces and vehicles near civilian areas such as schools and mosques.
The Washington Post reported this earlier today with a more colorful description of the tactics as “human shields”:
Libyan military commanders loyal to Moammar Gaddafi are blunting the impact of NATO’s air campaign by hiding tanks and artillery in densely populated areas where the alliance’s fighter planes cannot easily reach them, U.S. and European diplomats said Wednesday.
The shift in tactics has meant fewer targets for NATO warplanes, fueling complaints by rebels who say the quality of air support has plummeted since the United States turned over command of Libyan operations to NATO. Opposition leaders say Gaddafi’s forces are inflicting particularly heavy casualties on civilians in the rebel-held city of Misurata, where dug-in loyalists have been operating with little interference from NATO missiles and bombs.
NATO officials in Brussels acknowledged carrying out fewer strikes around Misurata because of fears of inadvertently killing civilians in areas where the Libyan military was cheek by jowl with civilians.
Put aside the still-unanswered questions of who and what the rebels represent in Libya, which is an argument about intervention in general. The timing of the NATO operation practically dictated this outcome. An air war might have worked had it started before Gaddafi’s forces broke out of the Tripoli area. They would have been struck while in the clear. By waiting the three or four weeks that it took for the UN to act, the opportunity for a quick resolution to the war had already passed. The only way to protect civilians now would be to put boots on the ground between Gaddafi’s forces and the cities, and the only way to push them out of the cities now would be to conduct urban warfare to dislodge them.
It’s still not out of the question that Gaddafi and his son will flee or get killed, which would put an end to this civil war. That now has a lot more to do with luck than skill for NATO, thanks to the predictably inhumane tactics his forces have adopted. NATO now faces more likely outcomes of either seeming too impotent to do much about Gaddafi, or to escalate this into an Iraq War-like confrontation with a massive invasion to end Gaddafi’s reign. Don’t expect the Western nations to adopt the latter strategy.