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War In Libya: Why It’s So Difficult To Take Stock

Just how effective have NATO operations in Libya been? Depends on who you ask. With propaganda percolating on both sides, military experts say it’s hard to know exactly how the conflict is unfolding.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Frontlines are frozen in the ongoing Libyan war

Libyan rebels announced Wednesday they had taken control of Misrata’s airport, a symbol and an important asset. The news was welcomed with both enthusiasm and skepticism, as a political solution is still nowhere in sight and military operations are at a standstill, putting into question the results of NATO’s operations.

For several weeks now, frontlines have been frozen around three urban areas on the Mediterranean coast. The first line, in Eastern Libya, is centered on Benghazi, the so-called rebel capital and home of the National Transitional Council. Control of neighboring Ajdabiya and Brega has gone back and forth between pro-Gaddafi and rebel forces and the outcome is still uncertain.

The second focal point is the port city of Misrata, a strategic location between the capital Tripoli and Syrte that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces keep trying to take and around which more than two thirds of NATO’s air capacity has been deployed with no visible results.

Then there’s Tripoli, in the western part of the country, where NATO has recently stepped up its attacks on command and control centers. In the past couple of days, there have been reports of intense air strikes on the capital and its surroundings, including one thought to have hit one of Colonel Gaddafi’s compounds.

Centered on a few cities and limited by the 1973 UN resolution on the protection of civilian populations, the war has stalled. Though a sudden collapse of the regime is still possible, many experts believe the current situation could last for many months.

“Things are moving much slower than we would like. We will need a few more months to topple Gaddafi,” said a NATO official just a few days ago. Rebel fighters still lack proper organization. “From a military perspective, aside from Misrata, fighting in Libya isn’t high intensity,” says an official of the French armed forces in Paris.

“The game is over for Gaddafi,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday. The next day, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, called for an “immediate cease-fire.” But its conditions, as set by NATO –“the end of attacks on civilians, a return to barracks of forces loyal to Gaddafi and unlimited access to humanitarian aid for all Libyans” – are still far being from being met.

The scope of operations has not changed much since March: the number of sorties has dropped from 180 to 150 a day. But the number of planes available for strikes is limited to a dozen, which means that three or four flights a day must cover the huge Libyan territory.

“In the end, we have very little means to guarantee efficient opportunity targeting,” says Philippe Gros of the Foundation for Strategic Research.

Although NATO’s intelligence capacity is used all over the country, its forces don’t operate inland on the western and southern borders. According to experts, these are the regions through which pro-Gaddafi forces get supplies via Algeria, Niger or Chad, and in return smuggle arms stolen from rebel held areas. Officially, NATO is ignoring these regions in order to concentrate instead on places where civilians are most vulnerable.

But military experts keep saying a tactical air campaign has never won a war. NATO officials may feel the same way. They also insist the official goal of the coalition isn’t to oust Gaddafi. A consensus on things that could tip the scale, such as boots on the ground and heavy weaponry for the rebels, seems out of reach.

The results of the strikes are still vague. “If you go with the American estimates, you would conclude that the coalition has already destroyed three times the total number of Libyan tanks,” according to a report by TTU, a French defense review.

Military experts also admit that they lack ground information in order to “sort out” pro-Gaddafi forces from rebels and establish an accurate account of civilian and military losses.

“Propaganda on both sides is sullying our assessment of the situation,” says Alain Chouet, a former high-ranking officer at the DGSE, France’s intelligence agency. “The UN mandate was pretty clear but its implementation seems to be dangerously drifting, so much so that we wonder what the real goal is…Financing the rebels and bombing Gaddafi’s residences – those things weren’t in the UN resolution.”

The dozens of western “advisors” dispatched of late to Benghazi aren’t likely to clarify matters. “It's possibile we're looking at a repeat of the 1999 Serbian scenario, where we eventually discovered that we had only destroyed 10% of the military equipment,” says Eric Denece, director of the French Center for Research on Intelligence.

Read the original article in French

Photo Credit - Davide Monteleone (Contrasto)

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