The west’s military-political strategy against the Gaddafi regime echoes its flawed approach to Afghanistan and Iraq, says Paul Rogers in this, his 500th weekly column for openDemocracy.
The first column in this series was published on 28 September 2001, as the George W Bush administration was already preparing for regime termination in Afghanistan. The second column, five days later, assessed the mood in Washington and pointed to the way in which the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was already being discussed as another regime due for termination (see "On the eve" [3 October 2001] and "From Afghanistan to Iraq" [14 October 2001]).
Almost ten years on (and 500 columns as of this week), the Afghan war is approaching its second decade. Iraq exists in at best a fractured and uncertain peace; the eight years of conflict that began in March 2003 have killed well over 100,000 civilians, injured far more, and displaced 4 million people.
That initial column in late September 2001, just over two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, argued that large-scale military action against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would be unwise, and in favour of an international legal response (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 28 September 2001). A few other analysts took this view, though in the atmosphere of the time the case was never likely to prevail.
A decade later, there is a strong sense of déjà vu. The war in Libya is in rapid transition: from an intervention advocated initially on humanitarian grounds and supported by a United Nations Security Council resolution, to an attempt to destroy a regime.
The Afghanistan war started as an assault by a United States-led coalition, and much later became primarily a Nato operation. The Iraq war had no direct Nato involvement. In Libya, however, Nato has assumed command of the Libyan attacks at a very early stage. And whatever Nato military leaders say, the political leaders directly involved - including Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron - have explicitly sought the end of the Gaddafi regime.
In the process, there are uncomfortable parallels between Afghanistan-Iraq and what is happening in Libya - including the prospect of an extended, complex and costly war.
The road back
The Gaddafi regime could collapse quite suddenly. The defection to London of the foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, has been followed by speculation about the departure of other senior figures. But though this outcome would be most welcome it cannot be assumed.
The current military situation has two important features. The first is that the Gaddafi regime has sufficient numbers of reliable soldiers to be able to face down the lightly armed rebels. In this respect, the versatility of Gaddafi's forces - including the regime's military advances towards Benghazi over 29-30 March - has surprised Nato commanders.
These advances show the ability of Gaddafi's troops quickly to adapt to Nato air-operations, in two ways: camouflaging tanks and heavy artillery and hiding them in urban areas, and systematically moving to using highly mobile fast-truck units equipped with heavy machine-guns and mortars. In appearance these units are often indistinguishable from those of the rebels, but their training here has evidently been more effective (see Kim Sengupta, "Regime adopts guerrilla tactics to defy air strikes", Independent, 1 April 2011).
The second feature, barely registered in the western media, is that the Nato forces’ (especially the Americans') extensive use of airpower has not yet decisively aided the rebels. The coalition forces staged on 20-30 March well over 700 air-attacks, dropping over 600 precision-guided munitions from aircraft and firing nearly 200 Tomahawk cruise-missiles from offshore warships (see Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Gives Its Air Power Expanded Role in Libya”, New York Times, 28 March 2011). Over the twenty-four hours to midday on 31 March, they carried out fifty-five air-strikes; the aircraft used include the A-10 Warthog (which can fire armour-piercing shells fitted with depleted-uranium tips) and the extremely powerful AC-130 gunships).
The UN resolution does not authorise the deployment of regular ground troops, and they have not been deployed. But British and French special forces are reported to be operating alongside the rebels, and the United States is deploying CIA operatives inside the country. There is now widespread talk of arming the rebels.
The situation can change very rapidly but at the time of writing (the early hours of 1 April) the prospect of the Gaddafi regime recovering the key eastern town of Ajdabiya seems feasible. This would enable it to control both the oil-and-gas terminals that export the great majority of Libya's energy resources, and key roads (including the strategically important inland routes to Tobruk, which bypasses the main rebel centre of Benghazi).
If Gaddafi's forces take and retain Ajdabiya, the key rebel-held districts of eastern Libya would be threatened - thus prompting heavy Nato action. The immediate option here would be the concentrated use of airpower, though to bombard military units implanted in a large town carries the risk of civilian casualties. In turn, the choice to rapidly arm and train the rebels would be posed - all the more likely if the coalition’s commitment is to regime termination.
Such a sequence has close parallels with Afghanistan, where the warlords’ Northern Alliance was engaged as an active partner in the effort to oust the Taliban; the alliance’s troops, armed by the coalition and supported by extensive airpower, entered Kabul in November 2001.
The way out
It must be recalled in the context of these military-political calculations that the initial French air-strikes against Gaddafi's armed units outside Benghazi on 20 March probably saved many lives in the city. But since then, two aspects of the conflict have grown in importance. First, a growing element of “mission-creep” is apparent. Second, there is palpable unease in the region and beyond about the expanding Nato operation. The Gaddafi regime is abhorred in the Arab world, but suspicion of western motives (and of the relative indifference to repression in Bahrain and Yemen) is endemic (see "Libya's war, history's shadow", 24 March 2011).
The first few days of April 2011 are pivotal. A situation where Gaddafi remains in place is likely to see Nato forces escalating the military campaign in support of the rebels. In such circumstances, the possibility of a long and costly conflict is real.
At this late stage, is there an alternative? It may be that what Mary Kaldor or Mark Taylor advocate - respectively a peacekeeping force in eastern Libya followed by an attempt at a negotiated settlement, and a political process aimed at demilitarisation - could work.
A real effort of this kind would be an improvement on the current course. But Nato is a military alliance, whose political masters still seem unable to think more creatively. The living consequences of Afghanistan and Iraq make the vacuum all the more dismaying. In this respect too, so little seems to have been learned since September 2001.