Just a few weeks ago, western observers were absolutely positive that the NATO air and sea campaign in Libya was going nowhere, writes Noah Shactman.
“Can NATO actually win any of its wars?” the Guardian wondered.
“Why can’t NATO whup Libya?” Time’s Mark Thompson asked.
Center for a New American Security analyst Andrew Exum answered that the NATO wasn’t really trying all that hard to oust the dictator Moammar Gadhafi — and anyway, “it’s likely that a stalemate is going to continue.”
Now, rebel forces have broken through Tripoli’s outer defenses. Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of Moammar and one-time heir to the throne, has been captured. The dictator’s personal guard has surrendered. The regime has crumbled. Not bad for a campaign in which the sole NATO casualty was a robotic helicopter.
Could things go south from here? Hell yeah, they could. When a dictator drops, things often go from bad to worse for a while. (See: Yugoslavia, Iraq.) And speaking of Iraq: it’s not hard to imagine a counterrevolutionary insurgency following this revolutionary war — especially when the rebels seem loosely allied, at best.
But the fall of Gadhafi does prove that when you put Predator drones in the sky and shoot Tomahawk cruise missiles out of the sea, it can help make a poorly-armed, amateur fighting force into something potent. At least when the enemy is a has-been strongman.
“It’s absolutely wrong to think that an air campaign can win this,” Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation told CNN on June 30th. “This revolt never really had the strength to succeed.”
19,751 NATO sorties later, that seems like a flawed assumption.
The operation was massive. Predators and other intelligence aircraft told the rebels where pro-government forces were, and what the Gadhafi-ites were saying. Plus, the drones did some damage of their own, striking 92 times since late April. Apache gunships, launched from the carrier HMS Ocean, took out Gadhafi checkpoints, to “encourage rebel fighters in the east to move forward,” according to the Independent. The frigate HMS Sutherland was one of several ships blocking suspicious vessels from possibly resupplying the regime. B-1 bombers flew all the way from South Dakota to get in on the action, destroying 100 targets in one 24 hour stretch. Then there were the more than 2,000 Tomahawks.
This effort didn’t exactly get off to a good start, however. This was a campaign organized on the fly, with (to put it mildly) murky demarcations of roles and responsibilities. One top U.S. general even pinky-swore at the beginning of the operation that the Americans would never directly support the rebels. That lasted a few days. Then the announced mission — to stop the slaughter of civilians — fell away, and was quickly replaced by the real (if imperfectly articulated) objective of removing the Colonel and his Glamazon bodyguards. All the while, the Obama administration had the stones to call Libya “a limited humanitarian intervention, not [a] war.” It’s hard to argue that this is what the United Nations authorized. Certainly the U.S. Congress never really agreed to any of this.
The rebels did the vast majority of the fighting. So it’d be a mistake to give alliance air and sea power all the credit for Gadhafi’s fall. (Although you do have to wonder how many contractors and western intelligence operatives are on the ground, to add some veteran heft to the rookie rebels.)
It’s also worth noting that NATO didn’t carpet-bomb Gadhafi into submission. Some air strikes went awry, of course. Rebels were killed by friendly fire, so were civilians. But this was, by and large, a careful campaign — even if Twitter really did play its reported role in the targeting.
In mid-April, less than three weeks after the NATO campaign began, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Les Gelb noted that care, and concluded that Iran and North Korea were taking comfort in the alliance’s inability to exercise its military might. “To Tehran and Pyongyang, the lesson of Libya is that the West can’t do decisive harm to them,” he wrote.
Do those regimes (and the one in Damascus) now draw the opposite conclusion, with Gadhafi on the run?