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Mission creep and perilous tactics in Libya

2011 May 25
by Paul Vallely

Few could have imagined when air strikes began in Libya in March that Col Gaddafi would still be in power two months later. But a stalemate has emerged. Nato air power has prevented rebel forces from being defeated but it has not secured victory for them. So the war is being escalated. Triploi has suffered the biggest air attack so far. The French have announced they will now send in attack helicopters. Britain is considering doing the same. There has been talk of Nato troops on the ground where British, French and Italian military advisers are already present.

Washington has said that “time is working against Gaddafi” but political rhetoric seems to have outstripped what the military, constrained by the UN’s March resolution, can deliver. The tacit strategy now seems to be one of “accidental assassination” with the hope that repeated air attacks on Libyan command centres will do what cannot be admitted to under international law, and kill Gaddafi.

This is a perilous tactic. One strike has apparently killed Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, one of the Libyan leader’s sons. Unlike his brothers, he was not a military commander or propagandist. The fear is that his father could use the death to harden diplomatic reluctance over the war, in Russia and China, among more wary allies, like Germany and Turkey, and incense wider Arab opinion. Even were Gaddafi himself killed, his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi could take over and continue the war. A de facto partition of Libya looks possible. So does a collapse into Somalia-like factional chaos.

The horror of the current situation should not be underestimated. There are worrying reports of organised rape, with 295 instances now documented. But the lack of clarity about this operation, confused from the outset, is ever-more apparent. Barack Obama and David Cameron have jointly vowed to continue the military strikes until UN resolution 1973 has been “completely complied with”. Yet what does that mean? With a cagey US administration eager to hold this “European war” at arms length that could eventually leave Britain and France bearing the military burden alone – with no exit strategy and no real idea what might a post-Gaddafi Libya look like. These are dangerous times.

from The Independent

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