US re-engagement in combat operations in Libya could help break a stalemate between rebels and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi forces, but Washington appears reluctant to step back fully into an already messy conflict.
French Defence Minister Minister Gerard Longuet said this week Gaddafi’s attacks would not be stopped without US participation in strikes on his tanks and artillery, which ceased after NATO took command of Libyan operations on March 31.
A senior French official said on Wednesday US involvement would help as European air forces conducting ground strikes lack low-flying A-10 “tankbuster” planes and AC-130 gunships that analysts say would be useful against Gaddafi’s forces.
While stating publicly that those aircraft remain available if requested, Washington is reluctant to become ensnared in another conflict in the Muslim world, with a swift, decisive outcome seeming difficult to achieve.
Analysts say covert training and arming of the rebels may already be under way, but it would need to be intensified and combined with more US air strikes to avoid a prolonged deadlock that would be seen as a failure of NATO’s mission.
The Pentagon said on Wednesday US warplanes had continued to strike Gaddafi’s air defences after NATO took over Libya operations, but targeting his tanks and artillery is key.
Marko Papic of political risk consultancy Stratfor said the lack of close-attack aircraft, combined with the rebels’ poor military skills were key inhibitors of the NATO operation.
High-flying strike aircraft used by European NATO allies were running out of targets they could hit without endangering the civilians they are supposed to protect, he said.
“Now air defences have been immobilised, you should go in with low flying aircraft — helicopters or A-10 Warthogs to really pick out the targets necessary to engage,” Papic said.
But analysts doubt the United States will be willing to go back to full participation the in the combat mission.
“They will continue to offer intelligence and jamming capabilities, said Barak Seener of London’s Royal United Services Institute. “But the Obama administration does not want to get embroiled in new foreign conflicts when it’s seeking exit strategies from others it inherited.”
Karl-Heinz Kamp of the NATO Defence College said Libya had exposed once again the military limitations of US allies.
“We are now in a situation we were all concerned about — a kind of stalemate in which the rebels alone can’t do it and the regime doesn’t fall,” he said.
“A-10 tankbusters are ideally suited for this type of operation — to attack tank formations blocking streets… but America has been very reluctant. Once again this displays the old truth that NATO minus the U.S. is just not capable of doing much given their lack of military hardware,” he said.
While European allies have helicopters, these would have to operate from carriers off Libya and a NATO official said none was currently available.
As in Afghanistan, allies would in any case be reluctant to use helicopters given their vulnerability to ground fire.
Papic said US reluctance to re-engage and scepticism about an operation that has been driven politically by France and Britain was well founded given the weakness of rebel forces.
“Even if NATO could fly in helicopters, it’s not clear this would help because the rebel forces NATO has counted on to be its ground forces have been a complete failure,” he said.
“The fundamental issue is that the rebels have turned out to be nothing like the (Afghan) Northern Alliance or the Kosovo Liberation Army,” referring to indigenous guerrilla forces in other NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Kamp said ending the stalemate would require a stepping up of air operations — or ground intervention, but allies such as Turkey, which initially opposed any intervention in Libya, oppose broadening the NATO mission.
No one, including the British and French, is keen to go in on the ground, except perhaps with special forces, whose presence would be deniable.
“If enhancing the operation goes beyond the UN Security Council framework to protect civilians, that will be a problem for us,” a Turkish diplomat said. “And I believe we won’t be the only ones. A footprint in Libya territory, for example — we would be against it.”
Seener said NATO allies had helped create a stalemate by interpreting the U.N. resolution as restricting their targeting of Gaddafi’s forces to units directly threatening civilians.
“Now it’s a choice of bad options,” he said. “We have created a context in which guerrilla warfare in urban contexts takes place. If we don’t empower the rebels, any military action we do take will create civilian casualties,” he said.
While all 28 NATO states could not agree to arming and training the rebels, this might not be an obstacle to individual Western and Arab states doing so covertly.
“Arguably it’s possible to imagine a scenario where the NATO command structure bypasses the different concerns of individual members of the alliance,” he said.
NATO’s last resort would be to declare its U.N.-mandated mission to protect civilians a success if Gaddafi’s forces stop attacking and end its operation. But that would do little to enhance the alliance’s reputation after a long and inconclusive engagement in Afghanistan.
“This scenario is possible,” Kamp said. “But you need some kind of strategic patience. If you constantly ask how long we can last and how long we can stick together, you can end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“You need to have the guts and the stamina to stay the one or two or three weeks it takes,” Kamp said. “Yes, we would have hoped Gaddafi crumbled immediately. That would have been nice, but let’s wait a week or two and see.”