Libya: Another UN Disaster in the Making

NATO finds itself in a mind-boggling catch-22.

Facing defeat and a possible massacre at the hands of a vengeful Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan rebel forces in the besieged city of Misrata have for the first time called for NATO or UN ground forces to intervene in the two-month old conflict. Up until now, the anti-Gaddafi insurgents have said it was important they alone depose the Libyan leader without the help of foreign troops. But the pounding the rebels are taking in Misrata from the Gaddafi forces’ heavy shelling, rockets and possibly cluster bombs, which NATO admits it is unable to stop, is causing the city’s battlefield and humanitarian situation to deteriorate daily.

“We are calling for foreign forces to protect our citizens immediately,” said a member of Misrata’s leadership committee on Tuesday. “We want the UN or NATO on the ground. This is not a Western occupation or colonialism. This is needed to protect our people.”

The Misrata leadership committee’s urgent plea, however, flies in the face of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which only allows NATO to set up a no-fly zone over Libya for saving civilian lives. It forbids intervention by foreign ground forces. President Barack Obama has stated on more than one occasion American soldiers will not land in Libya.

But the fact is, ground troops are now necessary if the civilian lives the UN said it wants to save are to be rescued. And if a reluctant NATO does acquiesce to the rebels’ urgent plea for help and send in “boots on the ground,” the Libyan ordeal shows the folly of attempting to wage war through UN mandates. Their rigid positions simply do not match a battlefield’s requirements and can lead to disaster, as may yet occur in Misrata.

Even before the Libyan rebels’ request, the United States and her NATO allies appeared to be preparing to circumvent Resolution 1973 and readying themselves for a ground force deployment. NATO labelled Misrata its “number one priority,” while Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, in a joint release last week, called Gaddafi’s assault on Misrata a “medieval siege…to strangle its population into submission.” The three leaders said it would be “an unconscionable betrayal” to leave Gaddafi in power to wreak “a fearful vengeance” on Misrata’s “brave citizens.” Such “an unconscionable betrayal,” as these three leaders well know, can now only be avoided by NATO arms.

Britain is taking the first steps towards sending in ground forces. While NATO and other countries already have Special Forces operatives in Libya, the British government was the first to announce it was sending a contingent of “experienced” officers to Benghazi as a military liaison team. The British were reported to have put a brigade of Royal Marines on standby a month ago for possible intervention in Libya, and these officers probably constitute an advance team. Naturally, the British government contends the officers' presence in Libya is in accordance with UN Resolution 1973.

France is also wrestling with getting around the UN’s prohibition against sending in troops without calling it an intervention. A foreign ministry official in France’s lower legislative house proposed sending in 200-300 non-combat troops to help spot targets for NATO warplanes. But France’s foreign minister said he opposed the idea.

“Mission creep” also appeared in another announcement earlier this month. Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, offered to have NATO soldiers protect aid workers and humanitarian shipments in Libya. A Gaddafi official immediately said such a deployment would be regarded as a military action that would cause fighting. So far, the UN’s humanitarian organization responsible for the aid programs has not requested the EU’s military assistance.

The reason for NATO slowly reversing its position regarding a ground troop deployment is that the rebel forces are weak, untrained and disunited. They can barely hold on to their own territory in Eastern Libya and are definitely not strong enough to conquer Western Libya or take Tripoli, Gaddafi’s stronghold. Both the rebel forces and NATO want Gaddafi gone and are now facing up to the fact NATO “boots on the ground” are the only way to bring this about. It is also the only path to a short war that does not drain their treasuries and will get the oil and gas flowing again as soon as possible.

In the end, the restrictive and weak UN no-fly zone measure will cost many Libyan non-combatants their lives, contradicting its purpose. While well intentioned, it has created the worst possible scenario. U.S. Army General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said NATO air strikes may have prevented a Gaddafi victory, but they created a stalemate, in which the fighting will go on for many months. Such a prolonged conflict will see thousands of casualties and the country’s ruination. Already, the dead in the Libyan war are estimated to be between 2,000 and 8,000 with the toll climbing daily.

If NATO intended to intervene militarily, it should have done so in full force in the first weeks of the rebellion when the Gaddafi regime was shocked and off balance, and rebel forces held towns and cities in Western Libya only 30 miles from Tripoli. Instead, led by Obama, NATO countries waited three weeks to get a UN resolution before acting, allowing Gaddafi to recover. By that time, the rebel forces had been driven back to Benghazi and Gaddafi’s forces almost captured the city. Since then, with their hands tied by Resolution 1973, Western governments have been twisting themselves into knots, trying to figure out how to end the stalemate without violating the UN’s mandate.

War is a serious business that requires strong measures. The great British military analyst Sir Henry Basil Liddell-Hart said war is also only profitable when victory is gained quickly. The UN can produce neither. As a result, the killing in Libya will go on for a long time yet.