The Libyan War: NATO's Twilight?

The military weakness of the international alliance is on full display.

If the war in Libya has proven anything, it is how militarily weak the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries are without American help. And more importantly for those members involved in the Libyan conflict, it is this revealed weakness that, in the end, may allow Gaddafi to survive.

Less than a week after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticised NATO members at a meeting in Brussels for “serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libyan operation,” Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Britain’s naval chief, warned that the Royal Navy would be able to sustain operations in Libya for only another three months.

“Beyond that, we might have to request the Government to make some challenging decisions about priorities,” said Stanhope. Although the British navy has only four ships operating off Libya, it has been called “a key contributor to the Libya mission.”

After his candid statement, retired British admirals said Stanhope did not go far enough in his comments, saying the British navy was in  “shambles” and could not sustain “a ‘tinpot’ operation” like Libya let alone take back the Falkland Islands if they were seized by Argentina again. The current crisis in British military capability is mostly due to government cutbacks that saw the navy’s last aircraft carrier and its harrier jets taken out of service. British naval fliers will now use a French aircraft carrier and will learn French to do so.

“If we had the tools for the job, I think Gaddafi would be out of power by now,” stated Rear Admiral Chris Parry.

At the Brussels meeting last Friday, Gates, in his last policy speech before his retirement, expressed his displeasure with America’s allies about their military shortcomings. Gates noted that after only 11 weeks against “a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,” coalition states of the “mightiest alliance in history” have already run short of munitions, which America had to make good. Gates also took alliance members to task for their lack of will and cutbacks to their military budgets, which have shrunk $45 billion the past two years, a shortfall that puts pressure on American taxpayers to spend more for defense.

“Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there,” Gates said.

Ironically, on the same day Gates was making his final policy speech as Secretary of Defense, the first cracks began to appear in NATO’s anti-Gaddafi coalition. Norway said on Friday it is going to withdraw its six F-16 fighters on August 1, while the Dutch said their warplanes would fly no more bombing missions.

In the United States, political problems are arising about America’s involvement in Libya. On Wednesday, Republican House leader John Boehner gave President Obama an ultimatum regarding US forces in the Libyan conflict. Boehner wants Obama to justify this troop commitment by Friday and get authorization from Congress for it or be declared in violation of the War Powers Resolution. A constitutional showdown about the commitment's legality now appears in the making.

These notes of discord from the NATO camp must be sweet music to Gaddafi’s ears. Despite recent talk of the Libyan leader stepping down and going into exile, Gaddafi vowed in a speech on state television a week ago to stay on and fight to the death. The fact he and his sons are under indictment by the International Criminal Court has probably strongly influenced his decision to remain as Libyan leader. He is most likely afraid any asylum offer may be voided once he is outside Libya, after which he would then be turned over to the court.

The fact that the Gaddafi regime has survived more than 10,000 NATO air strikes, some of which have targeted him personally, must also be encouraging. His forces have adapted to NATO’s air superiority and have not broken. They hide themselves effectively from air attack, using camouflage, civilian areas and protected historical sites as well as civilian vehicles for transportation of fighters and supplies. NATO’s failure to break Gaddafi’s forces has been compared to the Israeli air force’s overestimation of its ability to take out Hezbollah in their 2006 war.

But while the air campaign has not caused his defeat, Gaddafi knows NATO will not allow him to win. When his tanks were about to seize the rebel stronghold of Benghazi last March, for example, NATO began its bombing campaign, forcing his retreat. Gaddafi also had to pull his soldiers out of rebel-held Misrata just as they were about to overrun the port city. NATO said it would land ground troops if Misrata fell, and the Libyan leader, aware his army is no match for NATO ground forces, withdrew.

Since he knows he cannot win this war, Gaddafi has been fighting for a stalemate and has been successful so far. Despite unrelenting NATO air support, rebel forces still have not been able to advance past Brega in the east or far from Misrata in the west to start the Battle for Tripoli. Whenever they do, they are met by well-disciplined, foreign-trained Gaddafi troops, organized into regular units, who drive them back from prepared positions. Several thousand foreign trainers, especially from Belarus, were present in Libya when the conflict began and are reported to have remained to help Gaddafi’s army and may be assisting in combat operations.

Ironically, the current battlefield stalemate was caused by the NATO air campaign, the very weapon it was believed would drive Gaddafi from power. NATO warplanes may have prevented the Libyan leader’s forces from defeating the rebels, but they have not been able to gain victory for the weaker anti-Gaddafi forces. General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, predicted the stalemate after the air campaign began as well as the fact the rebels most likely would not be able to capture Tripoli. The other NATO air tactic to end the war, targeted bombings to kill Gaddafi, has also failed – so far.

If Gaddafi and his army can survive the next three months while the military and political strain on the NATO alliance deepens, the world may see a political settlement with the Libyan leader emerging as the leader of a western Libyan political entity. A stalemate would probably see a two-state solution develop in the former Libya like that which occurred between the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of communism or between North and South Sudan after their civil war. Western Libya, with Benghazi as its capital, would be the other state.

In his Friday speech, Gates said it was “not too late for Europe to get its defense institutions and security relationships on track.” But some Western European countries regard their militaries simply as make-work projects and job-creation schemes and not as serious fighting forces. So even if the Libyan mission does not end in a humiliating failure, the trend in European military decline will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse, since the same lack of will and moral rot that caused this problem in the first place will still be present. And with this decline, the pressure on the United States to take over more of the NATO alliance’s burden will inevitably increase.