NATO Fumbles in Libya

The alliance’s ineffectiveness and confusion on full display.

On March 31, the Obama Administration gave command over military operations in Libya to NATO over French objections. The U.S. combat role officially ended but, like in Iraq, this declaration is nearly meaningless as American pilots continue to risk their lives. The U.S. is now engaged in military operations that are hamstrung by unreliable alliance members for the sake of preserving a stalemate.

The Obama Administration delayed action in Libya until it received the approval of the Arab League, the United Nations and NATO. It was eager to make sure the war was fought under an international banner, even though the U.S. would bear the brunt of the burden. The French government staunchly opposed giving command over to NATO, leading to fierce arguments between officials. France felt that it, along with the U.S. and U.K., should have political leadership over the war with NATO playing a supporting role. The French caved under American and British pressure.

It didn’t take long for fractures in NATO to appear after the handover. The French Foreign Minister and the British Foreign Secretary openly criticized other alliance members for not committing to the effort. Half of NATO’s members officially participated in the war, as did some other non-NATO countries, but only six were willing to actually carry out bombing raids with the other four being Norway, Canada, Denmark and Belgium. Many of the countries placed heavy restrictions on their military’s participation, forbidding bombing raids and attack missions and refusing to destroy certain types of targets like trucks. The end of the U.S. combat role decreased the amount of American aircraft available, such as the A-10 Warthog close-support aircraft.

The Libyan rebels quickly noticed a change and complained about the sudden decline in air strikes. “NATO has become our problem,” Abdul Fatah Younis, the rebels’ top military commander, proclaimed. He threatened to complain to the U.N. Security Council and said that he would recommend that the National Transitional Council suspend its partnership with NATO if the problems persisted.

“One official calls another and then the official to the head of NATO and from the head of NATO to the field commander. It takes eight hours,” Younis complained. He specifically pointed out the unwillingness of NATO to protect civilians in Misurata, which has been under siege from Qaddafi’s forces. “This crime will be hanging from the necks of the international community until the end of days,” he said. The local opposition government in Misurata is now asking for U.N. or NATO ground forces to save them.

The rebel forces found themselves in retreat as the see-saw battle with Qaddafi continued. One rebel fighter in Brega attributed NATO’s weakness to a desire to seek a ceasefire. “Ever since Qaddafi started looking for a way out, negotiating for an end, NATO has backed off. Our question for NATO is this: are you with us or against us?”

The government of Turkey is being loudly blamed for NATO’s ineffectiveness by the rebels. The Turkish government initially opposed NATO intervention and once it began, complained that the operations went beyond what was authorized by the U.N. The Turks have been a leading player in trying to broker a ceasefire. Prime Minister Erdogan won a Human Rights Award from Qaddafi last year, which he accepted.

The rebels claim that Turkey is using its membership in NATO to impede operations. They have gone so far as to attack the Turkish Consulate in Benghazi and forced a Turkish ship delivering humanitarian aid to return home. The Transitional Council claims it has information that Turkey is selling fuel to Qaddafi’s forces in Tripoli and Az-Zawiyah. The Turks have also refused to seize the assets of the Qaddafi regime.

These problems have led Senator John McCain to demand that command over the war in Libya be returned to the U.S., U.K. and France as “our allies neither have the assets or the will.” Lt.-General James Dubik, who led the training of Iraqi forces from 2007 to 2008, also has similar concerns.

“In war, leadership is not exercised from the rear by those who seek to risk as little as possible. Washington must stop pretending that we’ve passed the leadership for the Libyan operation on to NATO,” he wrote in an editorial. Dubik noted that command over operations in Bosnia was handed over to NATO and the Srebrenica massacre followed.

NATO has had similar problems in Afghanistan with many countries placing burdensome restrictions on their military forces. Secretary of Defense Gates said in 2008, “I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect the people’s security and others who are not.” He used strong language again in February 2010, stating, “The demilitarization of Europe…has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.”

NATO’s involvement is escalating. France has said it will increase its air strikes. The U.S. is now using armed Predator drones and is giving $25 million in non-lethal aid to the rebels. European military advisers are being deployed and the European Union is discussing sending in ground forces to protect shipment of humanitarian aid.

As the conflict grows and becomes more complex, the fissures in NATO will grow. The U.S. should not outsource command over a war it initiated to an alliance uncommitted to paying the price.