Monday, June 20, 2011

Breaking the Phalanx

The NATO air campaign against Libya hasn't shocked and awed the Khaddafi loyalists into pants-wetting flight. As we finish three months of bombing, the vast alliance is losing cohesion:

On three fronts of the Libyan war, the rebel advance has slowed considerably, sometimes to a near-standstill.

Now entering its fourth month, NATO's air campaign over Libya has dragged on for longer than its 11-week war in 1999 to drive Serb forces under Slobodan Milosevic out of majority-Albanian Kosovo. ...

There are growing fissures in the 27-member Western military alliance, which was already uneasy when the war began. Some have voiced doubts over their ability to sustain the campaign.

But the rebels appear incapable of providing a knock-out blow.

The alliance hasn't broken yet, although some are drifting toward the exits.

At least in Kosovo, as the bombing failed to dislodge Milosevic, NATO started to get the machinery of invasion put in motion as a developing threat. For Libya, we don't even have that. The rebels aren't an army and NATO won't provide the small one needed to defeat Khaddafi's forces.

We may yet get lucky and see the loyalists fracture and retreat under isolation and bombardment before NATO fractures and retreats. I have no way of knowing who is more solid.

UPDATE: Despite being a relatively clean campaign, the NATO air attacks can't be perfect. Two recent air attacks that caused civilian deaths are the exception to the great care we take to avoid civilian deaths:

The Libyan government said on Monday 19 civilians were killed in a NATO air strike on the home of one of Muammar Gaddafi's top officials, a day after NATO admitted killing civilians in a separate aerial attack.

An alliance serious about winning would shrug off the errors as things that happen in war. But with the will to keep going until victory already faltering, this will be an excuse for some to get out, claiming the war is not what they signed up for three months ago:

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Monday civilian deaths pose a risk to the NATO-led military alliance. NATO states have been hitting targets in Libya since March 19 in what they say is an operation to protect civilians.

"NATO is endangering its credibility; we cannot risk killing civilians," Frattini told reporters before an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg to discuss ways to aid rebels.

The Arab League, which in March asked the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians, condemned the loss of life in Sunday's incident.

Nobody has bolted yet. But how many more accidental (or staged by the loyalists) civilian deaths can the alliance endure before members start to pull out?