By BJ Bjornson
Dave has already posted on the increasingly absurd �humanitarian� intervention in Libya, but thanks to the dearth of information in the media on the subject, I figured another post here wouldn�t hurt.
A major problem now facing the NATO campaign is one that all air campaigns in recent memory have faced, a lack of viable targets. Robert Farley put up a post on this a few days back that I need to copy in its entirety since it encapsulates the idea so well.
It�s important to read this:
NATO commanders requested the sophisticated surveillance aircraft after concluding that they were running out of military targets in Libya after four months of bombing and missile strikes against Kadafi�s military forces and command facilities, U.S. and NATO officials said.
�.�It�s getting more difficult to find stuff to blow up,� said a senior NATO officer, noting that Kadafi�s forces are increasingly using civilian facilities to carry out military operations. �Predators really enable you study things and to develop a picture of what is going on.�
In context of this:
An air campaign starts with a target set, which might be informed by adequate intelligence and consists of targets, which are related to the casus belli and susceptible to accurate targeting. The promise of so-called surgical strikes against legitimate targets makes the use of force acceptable to policy-makers and opinion-formers on the left and the right of politics. However, as the air campaign progresses the intelligence becomes poorer and the targeting more challenging, even for precision weapons (which are only �precision� in terms of means of delivery but are otherwise just as indiscriminate in such circumstances as any other munition). Therefore, inevitably there is �collateral� damage. At the same time the intelligence becomes less reliable and the targets become more and more remote from the original set. Eventually the campaign ceases altogether to be intelligence-led and becomes capability-led: Rather than search out those targets which contribute to the campaign, the planners seek desperately for the targets which are susceptible to their available technology.
I made a similar point back when the NATO campaign was happily blowing Gaddafi�s military columns trying to advance over open ground. Air power these days faces a limited period when its use can be truly decisive in bringing an opponent down, and that window has long since passed in Libya.
Because it has passed, the NATO powers now face the same constraints that plague the campaigns in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and plagued those in Iraq and Lebanon. Namely, trying to find some way to continue making their air forces relevant players despite the lack of well-identified military targets susceptible to air attacks without causing massive �collateral damage�, as in slaughtering massive numbers of civilians and turning the population against you. Signs are that the Western powers involved are at least getting some inkling of the problem, but still coming to the wrong conclusions.
Western nations are grasping for ways to end the Libyan conflict before the stalemate settles into a long siege.
. . .
For many Western governments, there is �the sense they�re running out of time� for support of the mission, Mr. Joshi said, and they need to give Col. Gadhafi a carrot-and-stick offer before it settles into a long, painful campaign to strangle off his resources � notably oil � to disrupt life in Tripoli and spark an uprising that will end in an ugly way.
Seriously? Make life for the people miserable so they will start an uprising? Has that ever actually worked? Ignore for the moment the absurdity of deciding to intentionally inflict suffering on the civilian population your mission is theoretically there to protect. Is there any example where the infliction of said suffering has ever convinced the population to turn on their own leaders rather than stiffen their resistance to the assholes inflicting the suffering? How can our leaders continue to fail to learn this lesson?
Now, I have to admit that I was initially more supportive of the Libya intervention than the other bloggers here, even knowing that it may end up at this point. That initial support was partly based on a couple of assumptions that have turned out to be woefully inaccurate (the other part being made up of points which are more of the �what if� variety, including the possible consequences of the fall of Benghazi and Misrata to Qaddafi�s forces that can�t really be quantified since they are events that didn�t happen as a result of the intervention).
The first assumption was that given the large number of desertions from the, admittedly less-than-stellar, regular Libyan military, the rebels wouldn�t be as totally amateurish and hapless as they subsequently turned out to be in the tactical department. I had assumed that given their initial success in taking control of large swaths of the country before the far better armed and equipped Qaddafi loyalists were able to bring their big guns to bear, that they would be able to take advantage of the window of opportunity represented by NATO�s airstrikes nullifying that heavy-weapon advantage. I have to admit this one still kind of befuddles me when I think about it.
It�s the second assumption that speaks more to this topic though, which was that although the U.S., Britain, France, and other countries looking to intervene in the situation were saying that the mission was for purely humanitarian reasons, they were actually just using that as cover for their intended goal of taking out Qaddafi�s regime. This seems so self-evident that I�m not entirely sure I can really call it an assumption. After all, more than a few officials were actually stating that very thing, and continued to make it clear they thought Qaddafi would have to be removed for the situation to be resolved.
Despite that, once the bombing actually started, the allies seemed to go out of their way to keep their targets limited to what could be defended by the UN authorization for intervention rather than go all out in pursuance of the regime-change they seemed to want. Being reluctant to start a war is a trait worth celebrating, but being reluctant to fight the war once it has been started is disastrous. Either go all in or don�t bother. Instead, while the initial sorties did considerable damage to a force unprepared to battle in the face of an enemy with total air supremacy, their limited scope and lack of coordination with rebel forces meant that this temporary strategic advantage wasn�t properly or fully capitalized on.
Granted, such a scenario requires the rebels to have acted as a proper ground force able to exploit this temporary advantage. They would have to take over and secure territory rendered vulnerable by such an aggressive use of air strikes, and their sheer incompetence likely would rendered the plan moot in any case. It just still surprises me to no end that it wasn�t even attempted.
Instead, the (relatively-speaking) anemic bombing of the initial campaign gave Qaddafi�s forces the time they needed to stop presenting themselves as such easy targets, leading to the current situation where the only real use for air power is as close-air support for the rebels, now helpfully assisted by �advisors� from the West, or the above-mentioned quite ugly search for �strategic targets� aimed at producing misery for the embattled population under Qaddafi�s control. The latter of which will ensure the country remains an insurgency-fueled hellhole for years to come.
There may yet be some hope in avoiding that latter fate, since, somewhat ironically, those nations most set upon having Qaddafi removed and tried by the International Criminal Court now seem open to allowing him to remain in Libya. Time will tell if they can manage to extricate themselves from this situation, and hopefully sooner than later. The longer it takes, the more likely the grievances are to fester, grow, and make any settlement even more difficult and painful to reach than the last several months have already made it.