Monday, August 22, 2011

NATO's Narrow Escape

With word of Muammar Qadhafi's imminent demise--both politically and literally--there was a collective sigh of relief at NATO Headquarters and throughout the alliance. The Libyan rebels who are about to depose the long-time dictator may not realize it, but their push into Tripoli may have saved NATO from a major military embarrassment.

As Con Coughlin of the U.K. Telegraph noted last week, NATO was on the verge of a tactical stalemate (read: strategic defeat) when insurgent forces began their push into the Libyan capital:

Their success is a welcome boost for a campaign that only a few weeks ago looked to be running into the sand, with Admiral Mike Mullen, America’s most senior military officer, warning that the conflict was “in a stalemate”. The rebels’ new-found enthusiasm for the fray will certainly come as a great relief for Nato, whose aerial assault on Gaddafi’s regime was fast approaching breaking point.

The withdrawal of the alliance’s only aircraft carrier, the French navy’s Charles de Gaulle, which has limped back to its base at Toulon with a faulty engine, means that the alliance is increasingly having to rely on the RAF’s ageing fleet of Tornado bombers. Meanwhile, the premature retirement of Britain’s Nimrod surveillance aircraft, as part of the Government’s ill-considered defence cuts, has punched a gaping hole in our intelligence-gathering capabilities.

As a number of senior British officers warned earlier in the summer, there is a limit to how long the cash-strapped RAF, which is undertaking a significant proportion of Nato’s combat missions, can sustain the current tempo of operations.

Now, with Gaddafi on the verge of final defeat, the alliance can claim a victory. Indeed, CBS News reported today that NATO conducted at least 68 airstrikes during the final push towards Tripoli, with special forces (most likely, British SAS) calling in support missions from the ground. That filled a critical shortfall for NATO, which relied on a patchwork system of phone calls and e-mails from rebel forces to request air missions earlier in the conflict. Sources also tell CBS that U.S. Predator and Reaper missions were also ramped up in recent days, with the UAVs providing real-time intelligence on movements by Gaddafi's forces; timely bomb damage assessment and precision strikes from armed drones.

It wasn't the first time that NATO snatched victory from the jaws of near-defeat. In the spring of 1999, the alliance pounded Serbian targets in the Balkans for more than two months, with stunning accuracy, but only modest strategic effects. As winter turned to spring, the Serb Army and air defense system were largely intact enemy forces had the apparent means to continue their resistance for months, and NATO was looking at the very real prospect of a bloody ground incursion into Kosovo.

Thankfully, that operation never came to pass. After 88 days, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic suddenly caved, and the conflict came to an end. Eleven years later, there is still some debate over why Milosevic decided to give up, but one key reason was crumbling support at the highest levels of his regime. A few weeks before Milosevic capitulated, one of his oldest (and closest) political allies was arrested while getting off a plane in Malta, carrying a large quantity of gold coins and a phony passport. That marked another moment when NATO uttered that proverbial sigh of relief; you didn't need to be a Serbian political analyst to understand that Milosevic's days were numbered if his key supporters were fleeing the country.

The loss of top allies may also explain why Gaddafi's regime has suddenly come crashing down. Every dictator needs supporters to maintain his grip on power; when they begin to bolt, word quickly spreads throughout the ranks and even low-level personnel began fading into the woodwork. At that point, the dictator's power inevitably collapses; that is apparently what happened in Libya over the weekend.

In hockey terms, NATO gets an assist for the (apparent) toppling of Gaddafi, but the alliance did not score the winning goal. In fact, NATO owes a tremendous debt to the rebels who marched into Tripoli and the Gaddafi supporters who abandoned the Libyan regime and set the stage for its implosion. Without them, NATO would still be waging a diminishing air war that, in Mr. Coughlin's words, was "running into the sand."
And the hardest part is yet to come. With Gaddafi out of the picture, Libya could easily slip into a civil war, pitting tribe against tribe, faction against faction. At this point, no one has offered anything approaching a plan for preventing that scenario.

1 comment:

chief torpedoman said...

How many Arabs flew the air strike missions? The arab league wanted the no fly zone, but how many arab countries put up their planes and actually did some bombing?

Heck they could have done just the no fly zone by themselves if they all got to an airbase is western egypt.