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The illusion of victory in Libya

Conflict in Libya is unlikely to end well for the West. AAP

On March 20, the day after NATO and US air and naval forces began the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff conceded the possibility that the outcome of “Operation Unified Protector” could be a stalemate.

The decision by the UN Security Council, made under strong pressure from Great Britain, France, and the Arab League. to authorize the use of military force in Libya was highly controversial.

The justification was to prevent the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi from carrying out his threat to massacre Libyan civilians. Gadhafi had promised publicly to show no mercy to the rebels and their supporters in Benghazi and other towns they held.

He described them as rats, dogs, hypocrites and traitors. There was no knowing just what slaughter he had in mind, but given examples of his former brutality and unpredictability, it was thought necessary to protect Libyan civilians to prevent Gadhafi carrying out his threat.

On March 19 the US and its NATO allies began bombing Gadhafi’s military infrastructure and ground forces, using long-range naval based Tomahawk cruise missiles and aircraft, but within days it became clear that the rebel forces did not have the leadership or weapons to cope with pro-Gadhafi fighters.

It has also now become clear that there is uncertainty over the ultimate goals of the NATO alliance ‘humanitarian’ intervention. On Monday March 28 President Obama spoke to a confused American public, explaining the reason for his decision to launch the attacks.

Members of Congress were asking: What was the desired outcome of US policy? If US policy was not regime change, what was it?

American lawmakers were not only concerned the possibility of a long term involvement and stalemate, but also the impact of US involvement attacks on a third Muslim country would have on US standing in the Muslim world amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations in Yemen and Pakistan.

On March 31 Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, were so worried that they warned Congress of the very real prospects of a military stalemate, and on April 2 the Pentagon pulled its attack planes out of the international air campaign.

A stalemate in which there is no action or progress, would allow Gadhafi’s government to live to fight another day —for however long — thereby delivering an embarrassing defeat to the US and its allies.

The Americans certainly have no idea of what victory would look like. Mullen admitted that US leaders knew next to nothing about the rebels, declaring: “We really have very little insight into the very different pieces of this opposition.”

The rebels themselves are divided over leadership and goals. Gates described them as “disparate, disaggregated”, stating they did not know how they would act if they toppled Gadhafi.

One outcome US military intelligence fears is that the rebels would turn out to be like the insurgents the US had aided in Afghanistan and transform themselves into Islamic extremists like the Taliban and al Qaeda.

There is widespread speculation that the country will end up divided into two as it had been before being occupied by Italy prior to World War I, with the primarily Senussi rebels controlling the eastern half and Gadhafi remaining ruler of the tribes of the western half.

While this may protect Libyan civilians, it may also require a long term financial, even military, commitment by the US-NATO alliance in the affairs of Libya.

However defined, an alliance victory will be illusory, and certainly will not involve the ceremonies ending the fighting like those we saw in World War I and II. The military intervention in Libya, accompanied as it is by lofty rhetoric, is yet another example of the how difficult it is to predict the shape of victory achieved by war.

Ian Bickerton’s new book The Illusion of Victory: The True Costs Of Modern War, published by Melbourne University Press, is available now.

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