As the war in Libya entered its fourth day, UN coalition airstrikes continued along the Coastal Highway upon which Muammar Gaddafi’s army was attempting to reorganize. While the largest number of sorties were logged by coalition air forces on Tuesday, NATO unity appeared to be strained, as several member states sniped at one another over details about President Obama’s desired hand-over of control of combat operations to a NATO command structure. But cohesion and leadership are not the only problems. As more time elapses, the remarkable maladministration of Operation Odyssey Dawn, with no explicit objective, is turning into far more of an “odyssey” than it was perhaps intended to be.
Allied planes attacked pro-Gaddafi positions in the east near Benghazi as rebels tried to move forward and retake the strategic city of Ajdabiyah. But Gaddafi”s forces have dug in inside the town, and because of hazy rules of engagement covering who and what they can bomb, coalition planes can’t get at Gaddafi’s armor and artillery, which is well-hidden in the densely packed city.
In the western town of Misrata, government forces shelled the city while tanks moved through the streets and snipers took shots at any civilian who came out of his or her house looking for food and water. It is believed that up to 40 civilians have been killed and dozens of wounded are being treated in hospital corridors because of overcrowding.
The problems in Ajdabiyah and Misrata expose the weakness and confusion that is accompanying this military operation. Byron York, writing in the Washington Examiner, asks the right questions. “Are opposition fighters civilians?” he asks. “Are they military? What about civilians who are loyal to Gadhafi? Do they warrant protection, too?”
American commander Carter Ham said the situation was very “problematic.” He added, “It’s not a clear distinction, because we’re not talking about a regular military force. Many in the opposition truly are civilians, and they are trying to protect their homes, their families, their businesses, and in doing that, some of them have taken up arms. But they are basically civilians.”
So do we protect the pro-Gaddafi civilians or not? General Ham couldn’t answer that question, which is why this entire operation couldn’t be more muddled. We don’t know exactly who we are fighting, or even who we are fighting to protect, although it is likely that some of the rebel forces are made up of al-Qaeda fighters and other affiliated terrorist groups. We don’t know who we can bomb and who we should leave alone. We don’t know how to unite the rebel forces under a unified command to make them more effective. One rebel told Reuters, when asked who was in charge, “Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come here. There is no plan.”
The same might be said for the United Nations’ forces themselves. The question of the day is: who is in charge? President Obama is determined that it won’t be America for much longer. “When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone,” the president said in a news conference from El Salvador. “It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That’s precisely what the other nations are going to do,” he added.
The president can say that, but is NATO buying it? The administration is working very hard to “handoff” responsibility for the war to a NATO command structure, but the Daily Mail is reporting that NATO’s unity is coming more unraveled by the hour. The Germans have pulled assets out of the Mediterranean, expressing the fear that NATO would be drawn into the conflict even more heavily than they are engaged now. Turkey has made it clear that they believe coalition military action has exceeded their UN mandate. The Italians have accused the French of fighting for oil contracts, while making it clear they would support a NATO-led coalition or no coalition at all. Italy’s support is vital because we are using their air bases to launch attacks into Libya.
Meanwhile, America has been negotiating with the French and British to effect the hand-off, but have not succeeded in convincing either major player that NATO should have sole responsibility for conducting the war. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has actually suggested a committee of foreign ministers that would include not only European powers, but the Arab League as well to run the political end of the operation, with a modified NATO command structure to run the military operation. Both major players are wary of the consequences if everything goes south and NATO gets the blame.
The same could be said for the United States. The unseemly haste with which President Obama is seeking an “out” from responsibility for the war is directly tied to questions about what the eventual endgame in Libya might be. Uncomfortable questions are being asked about the ultimate goal of the operation. Is it only to “protect civilians” as every spokesman for the administration has reiterated time and time again? If so, how is that possible unless Gaddafi is overthrown – a goal that President Obama repeated again today at his press conference, and a goal clearly enunciated by both Sarkozy and Cameron? With Security Council Resolution 1973 forbidding an invasion by ground troops and an occupying force, and the allies agreeing that there will be no partition of Libya between the rebel east and Gaddafi west, it is difficult to see how the coalition can get out of this mess unless Gaddafi is no longer a threat to his own people.
In an interview with Diane Sawyer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted that regime change was implied in the coalition’s mandate. “Now obviously, if we want to see a stable, peaceful, hopefully someday democratic Libya, it is highly unlikely that can be accomplished if he stays in power,” she told Sawyer.
It appears that the administration is pinning its hopes on someone from Gaddafi’s inner circle solving their problem for them. Clinton reported that, “We’ve heard about other people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world – Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, beyond – saying what do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?” And Gaddafi himself may be “reaching out,” the Secretary said. “A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It’s somewhat unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know, what are my options, where could I go, what could I do. And we would encourage that.”
What happens if Gaddafi is taken out by his own people, or a well-aimed Tomahawk missile finds him and takes him down? The threat to civilians in such circumstances would almost certainly be just as grave, as rebel factions would more than likely fight it out for control of the country. What then?
There simply aren’t any answers coming from President Obama, the United Nations, the Arab League, or any other coalition member. The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine under which the United Nations has authorized this action is silent about such messy endings. The unfortunate fact is that the United States committed to this war between breakfast and dinner a week ago, with apparently little thought given to any of these issues, except how the US could escape responsibility for the military action as quickly as possible – and how any political fallout from failure would miss hitting the president, who is now gearing up for a re-election fight.
When all is said and done, this adventure may go down as one of the most careless, reckless, incompetently prosecuted military actions in US history.
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