The international conflict over Libya raises inevitable and uncomfortable echoes of the two major wars waged by the United States and some of its allies in the wider region since 9/11.
The termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in April 2003 took place after three weeks of invasion and bombardment. The subsequent war lasted seven years, and even now Iraq is far from at peace. The extinction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after 9/11 took eight weeks, and the ensuing war there is soon to enter its second decade.
In the third week of foreign intervention in the Libyan war, it seems probable that regime termination is the unspoken aim (even if this is not mandated by the United Nations Security Council resolution). It has not yet been achieved. How long will Libya’s war last, and will it begin to resemble Iraq and Afghanistan?
It remains possible that the Muammar Gaddafi regime will suddenly collapse, and there is also a chance that some kind of negotiated compromise will prove feasible. Either outcome may be fervently hoped for. But to understand the likely consequences of this major Nato operation, it might be wiser to take a hard look at what is unfolding (see “Libya and a decade’s war”, 31 March 2011).
The new war
The role of the Barack Obama administration is a good starting-point. At a very late stage of diplomatic discussions, the administration was expressing caution about getting involved - though it had undertaken extensive war planning. Its attitude then switched to endorsement of the UN resolution (prepared by France and Britain), and the Pentagon and its allies began military action to implement the “no-fly zone”.
The United States military had a dominant role in the first week of attacks, overshadowing the British and French contributions (though France’s assaults were significant in destroying Gaddafi's forces heading for Benghazi).
The US air force and marine corps, backed by numerous surveillance and electronic-warfare planes, used multiple aircraft types operating from southern European bases and the assault-ship USS Kearsarge. They also employed strategic bombers, including two types that operated directly from bases in the continental United States and were supported by multiple air-to-air refuelling. These were the B1-B (operating out of the Ellsworth air-force base in South Dakota) and the B-2 stealth-bomber (flying out of Whiteman air-force base in Missouri). The substantial use of close air-support planes such as the A-10C Warthog and the AC-130U gunship aided the operations.
By the end of the second week, the Pentagon (according to credible reports) was starting to downgrade its commitment and gradually transfer the main responsibility for the war to Nato. The most likely reason for this shift is that the Obama administration had concluded that the Gaddafi regime was not near to collapse, and that its military forces - however affected by the air-strikes - were adapting rapidly to the changed circumstances. There was thus the prospect of a long war, in which Washington was determined to avoid becoming entangled.
In particular, Gaddafi's troops were learning quickly that tanks and large artillery pieces were vulnerable to air-attack. They thus turned to using highly mobile forces that were almost indistinguishable from those of the rebels (see Ella Ide, “NATO 'Careful' as Gadhafi Troops Change Tactics”, Defense News/AFP, 6 April 2011).
The regime’s forces were also placing their units within urban areas wherever possible. This led to forceful complaints from rebel leaders that Nato was proving incapable of aiding the rebels fighting to maintain control of Libya's third city, Misrata - an island of rebel activity in a region of Libya largely under Gaddafi's control.
In the first week of April, the rebel forces centred in Benghazi have been unable to regain control of the key oil port of Ras Lanuf and the oil-and-gas terminals at Brega. Some reports highlighted the fact that a tanker loaded a cargo of oil at Tobruk - on the Egyptian border, in safe rebel-controlled territory; but the reality is that this port is relatively insignificant. Most of Libya's oil is pumped out of wells in the eastern region, but most goes by pipeline not to Tobruk but to Ras Lanuf and Brega, west of Benghazi. If Gaddafi's forces continue to prevent the rebels utilising those ports, the rebel financial base will be severely weakened.
In Britain, officers of the Royal Air Force suggest that air operations against Gaddafi's forces may continue into June. This must be treated with some caution; the RAF is facing serious financial cuts, and it may be politically useful to draw attention to its role in the Libyan conflict.
More significant is the view privately expressed by Canadian officers in Nato that the operation could last six months. This has added credibility since a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, is overall commander of the Nato operation, and the country provides a frigate, some CF-18 strike-aircraft and military personnel to the operation (see Derek Abma & Sheldon Alberts, “Canadian Military Takes Over Nato Mission in Libya”, Postmedia News, 25 March 2011).
If indeed Gaddafi and his sons are confident in their ability to remain undefeated in a war that extends into summer-autumn 2011, then much of their apparent interest in compromise may be tactical. They may be calculating that the Nato operation can soon be represented across the region as yet another western assault on the Arab world. This prospect may seem remote from the perspective of London, Paris or Washington; but it could be advanced by developments, virtually unnoticed in the west, that offer Gaddafi a gift he may be able to use.
The old bond
An example is the presumed Israeli missile-strike on 5 April 2011 on a vehicle near Port Sudan that killed two people, part of a pattern of attacks against elements Israel accuses of supplying weapons to Hamas in Gaza. The response in much of the Arab world is that Israel is acting with impunity, beyond the international law and sanction that was invoked to hold Libya to account. The dominant western view is very different, but such events fuel a potent narrative of double-standards that may grow as the Libyan war drags on (see "Libya: the view from where you are", 21 March 2011).
More broadly, the long-close military collaboration between the US and Israel is deepening further at a time of great political movement in the middle east. This echoes a trend during the Iraq war, when the Pentagon deployed Israeli tactics and equipment in its counterinsurgency efforts (see "After Saddam, no respite" [19 December 2003]; "Between Fallujah and Palestine" [22 April 2004]; and "A tale of two towns" [21 June 2007]).
This collaboration is again intensifying, with a major joint war-game planned for 2012. This will extend the regular joint US/Israeli air-defence exercises (Juniper Cobra), designed to ensure collaboration in the area of missile-defence, into a much larger cooperative effort (Austere Challenge); the first iteration, AC12, will be held in May 2012.
A report in Defense News cites sources who say that: “the event will far surpass previous drills in the variety of weapons deployed, number of forces involved, and classification levels and procedures governing information sharing.” The exercise will go far beyond air-defence collaboration in “enabling the two countries to function in wartime as a joint task force” [emphasis added]. It will involve around 5,000 troops, more than three times as many as previous exercises (see Ron Kampeas, "Dennis Ross on U.S.-Israel - was he referring to 'wartime joint task force?", JTA, 4 April 2011).
An Israeli officer is quoted: “We're talking about a huge step up in substance, size and procedures. It's an historic upgrading of strategic cooperation that extends beyond interoperability into how to jointly plan and execute contingency operations.”
This expanded cooperation may be routine for the Pentagon and the Israeli Defence Forces, indeed it may be so routine that White House staff may not be fully aware of it. That, though, is beside the point. Across the middle east it will be seen as a potent reminder of Washington's relationship with its most important ally in the region; and in turn raise questions over Washington's motives in Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere. This may well be less than fair to a Barack Obama administration as it seeks to extricate itself from the war in Libya. But it is the reality and the legacy.
The news of deepening US-Israel links coincides with Britain’s efforts to persuade Arab states to train the rebels in Libya. In this light, the combination of three events and trends becomes even more revealing:
* the US and Israel aim to cooperate sufficiently to “function in wartime as a joint task force”
* Israel launches an air-raid in Sudan
* Britain asks Arab states to help terminate an Arab regime.
The lack of understanding of regional realities is astounding. On this basis, there is a very real risk that Libya will turn into another long and costly war.