As NATO planes continue their bombardment of Tripoli, troops in rebellion against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi appear to be making some progress in three offensives in the west, including a drive on the capital from Misrata. The rebels also claim to have improved their battlefield communications and coordination with NATO, as British and French attack helicopters are giving them support for the first time. However, despite his compound being under near continuous bombardment, Gaddafi remains defiant claiming victory over “al-Qaeda” forces in the western town of Zawiyah.
The war is also beginning to put strains on the NATO alliance both in resources and on its fragile unity. With no end in sight to the conflict, and no exit strategy except killing or driving out Gaddafi, the alliance is in danger of cracking unless a solution can be found soon.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Speaker John Boehner is threatening to cut off funding for the Libya operation because he believes the president has failed to justify our continued support for the war, and has arrogantly refused to seek congressional authorization for the conflict. But despite widespread unhappiness in both parties with the US involvement in Libya, President Obama holds the upper hand and will almost certainly be able to carry on with what he terms “limited hostilities” without the approval of Congress.
But to what end? On the battlefield, the rebels are in a marginally better position than they were a few weeks ago, but their offensives are uncoordinated and appear haphazard. They have been ejected from the western town of Zawiyah, a scene of intense fighting last week, giving Gaddafi a Pyrrhic victory. Most of the city’s 250,000 inhabitants have fled and the remaining residents are terrified of the dictator’s security apparatus. The once vibrant city is now a smoking ruin. The rebels are vowing to retake the city as it lies just 45 miles from Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains.
Elsewhere, the rebels’ prospects appear brighter. They have broken out of the formerly besieged town of Misrata and advanced within 90 miles of the capital – largely with the help of NATO air power. But the rebels have halted their advance outside of the city of Zlitan citing “tribal sensitivities” and are urging residents themselves to rise up and rebel. It is but one more indication of the confusion and weakness in the rebel army and the divisions that are preventing the kind of coordination that would lead to greater success on the battlefield.
The offensive from Misrata is being coordinated with NATO and the alliance has asked the rebels to retreat from the outskirts of Zlitan so that British and French attack helicopters can strike government positions. This is according to leaflets dropped from NATO planes – few of which landed among government forces since the rebels didn’t tell NATO command that they had moved.
The third offensive thrust of the rebels is moving out from Benghazi toward the oil center of Brega. Here, too, the rebels have met with some success as they have taken several towns along the road to the sea. But Gaddafi’s forces are putting up stiff opposition and they have made very little headway in recent days.
The rebels’ claim of better coordination and communication is the result of them being equipped with satellite phones and more sophisticated radios – presumably gifts of “non-lethal aid” from the alliance. With much of Libya’s communications infrastructure destroyed, the phones and radios can potentially give the rebels an advantage over government forces.
Aside from humanitarian supplies and such non-lethal aid, NATO can do little to augment what the rebels can scrounge from captured government supplies, or make on their own. In fact, their own resources are being strained to near breaking. They are becoming more dependent on the United States for precision guided munitions and even their stockpile of conventional bombs is running low.
Then there is the strain on the national budgets of Britain and France. The war will cost Britain $1.5 billion by September at a time when the government of David Cameron is making large cuts in social service programs. And while the war flies largely below the media radar – and will probably continue to do so as long as there are few casualties – there is the real possibility that opposition to the conflict will manifest itself in both countries unless a victory can be achieved soon.
These strains have also affected the alliance as a whole. There is widespread agreement among both analysts and military experts within NATO that there is a crisis of resources largely because of a lack of participation in combat operations from several alliance nations that are perfectly capable of contributing but are refusing to do so. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave a withering critique of this lack of support in his speech in Brussels recently. There have also been warnings from the naval chiefs of Great Britain and France that they will not be able to sustain the same level of commitment to the operation unless the conflict can be ended before the end of the year.
Even the general in charge of NATO logistics, Stéphane Abrial, has said that the “resource issue will become critical” if Gaddafi can’t be defeated soon. As Gates mentioned in his speech, the alliance is running out of munitions after only 11 weeks of combat. This compares unfavorably to the Kosovo operation where after the same number of days, NATO has flown only one third the number of sorties and hit just a fraction of the targets.
Gates has singled out Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal for not doing their part in Libya. But the same could easily be said about the United States. The US now has the USS George H.W. Bush carrier battle group in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast as well as other nearby assets that could blanket Libya with the most sophisticated combat aircraft in the world.
But the president has chosen to “lead from behind” in this NATO operation and nothing appears ready to change his mind. Even the limited combat role he has chosen for US forces is drawing fire from Congress, largely because the president refuses to keep lawmakers informed of what we’re doing, and continues to insist that he can unilaterally take the country to war without congressional authorization.
In response to a letter sent on Tuesday from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) asking the president to comply with the resolution passed by the House two weeks ago requesting a legal justification for the war, the president sent a 38 page document to Boehner that was full of obfuscation and evasion.
The White House reasoning was, in part:
Since April 4, U.S. participation has consisted of: (1) non-kinetic support to the NATO-led operation, including intelligence, logistical support, and search and rescue assistance; (2) aircraft that have assisted in the suppression and destruction of air defenses in support of the no-fly zone; and (3) since April 23, precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against a limited set of clearly defined targets in support of the NATO-led coalition’s efforts.
Conor Freidersdorf of The Atlantic points out the fallacy in Obama’s argument:
Imagine that a country launched a series of bombing attacks on the US to force one of our presidents from office, and that a second country provided millions of dollars in munitions, fired missiles at our cities via unmanned drones, and refueled the planes of our primary attacker so that they could bomb us more frequently. Would anyone doubt whether that second country was at war with us?
State Department legal counsel Harold Koh claims that all of these actions by the US military constitute us engaging in “limited hostilities” and therefore, the War Powers Act does not apply.
This was too much for Boehner, who is now threatening a cut-off funding for the Libyan operation. This is not likely to succeed because any such bill would have to go through the Democratic Senate and be signed by Obama himself – not a realistic scenario. The president – as all presidents before him – has the whip hand in any battle between the legislative and executive branches when it comes to defining his role as commander in chief. Not even the lawsuit brought by a bipartisan group of House members asking the courts to enforce the War Powers Act will have much of an impact. If history is any guide, the reluctance of the judicial branch to involve itself in the internecine battles between the other two branches of government will rule the day and the suit will be dismissed.
None of this changes what is happening on the ground in Libya. Gaddafi may be losing his iron grip in some places, but there is no sign he is ready or willing to leave anytime soon. That spells trouble for NATO, the president, and the people of Libya who are helpless as NATO planes and Gaddafi’s artillery level their homes, destroy their cities, and cause a grievous amount of suffering by the same innocents that NATO was supposed to protect.