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Libyan Rebels Feel the Heat of NATO’s Swan Song

WASHINGTON, May 4 2011 (IPS) - A week after U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 sanctioned air strikes against the regime of Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi in Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama made clear that it would not be U.S. planes maintaining the No-Fly Zone (NFZ). Rather, the effort to safeguard Libyan civilians would be led primarily by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

As the assault on Gaddafi’s forces enters its 47th day, European and U.S. defence experts alike have discerned two realities.

First, that the U.S. has no intention of stepping up its role in the so-called humanitarian war – the first of its kind under Obama’s tenure – despite increasingly harsh ground conditions for the ‘ragtag’ rebels in Misurata, Bengazi, Tripoli and Ajdabiya.

And second, that European military prowess has withered in the last two decades, resulting in a NATO that, without U.S. buttressing, is unlikely to see the kind of success the Libyan opposition hoped for.

Addressing the Financial Times after repeated calls from allies for increased support from Washington, Vice President Joe Biden said last week, “If the Lord Almighty extricated the U.S. from NATO… it is bizarre to suggest that the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya – it does not.”

Europe's Waning Military Might

Foreign policy expert and editor of The New Republic Lawrence Kaplan reported last week that the U.S.'s contribution to NATO's defence budget soared from 50 percent in the 1990s to almost 75 percent of the alliance's total military expenditure in 2011.

According to Kaplan, just a day after British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed support for military action against Gaddafi, the British government announced an 11,000 troop-cut from the British armed forces.

Following an extensive study on Britain's gradual exit from the arena of international defence and security, Max Boot, a senior research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, found that since the end of the Cold War, Britain had pared back its 'Tommies' by a third, and planned to prune the ranks by a further 7,000 at the end of 2010, leaving a British Guard less than a sixth the size of the U.S. army.

According to Boot, the British navy and air force also took big hits that year, losing 5,000 servicemen each and nearly a hundred F-35 fighter jets, Harrier jumper jets and its leading aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

"The navy's fleet of destroyers and frigates will shrink to 19… the lowest number of warships since the Spanish Armada," Boot wrote in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010.

The Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) also did some serious crunching of defence stats last year and found that over the last decade, the disparity between European and U.S. defence budgets grew wider every year.

At the tail-end of 2010, financial analysts James Blitz and Daniel Dombey wrote in the Financial Times that while the Pentagon's annual budget was ballooning from 403 billion to 708 billion dollars between 2001-2011, representing a two-thirds increase in real terms, Europe's defence expenditure plummeted by two percent, or 295 billion dollars, in a similar time period.

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, echoing the words of defence officials and senior defence analysts in Washington, said last month, "In truth, the Libyan expedition [has always been] an Anglo- French project [and] if this historically unreliable coalition proves unable to sustain a long-term operation, what then?"

"The use of NATO's name, in Libya, is a fiction," she added. "But the weakening of NATO's reputation in Libya might become horribly real."

Speaking to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur under condition of anonymity last week, a top European diplomat said jokingly and in sharp contrast to Biden’s words, “European defence policy died in Libya – we just have to pick a sand dune under which we can bury it.”

However, the perseverance of Gaddafi’s forces against an assault by the historically insurmountable alliance suggests that, absent a steady flow from the U.S. armory, not only European defence policy but also NATO itself could sing its swan song in the North African country.

U.S. Bows out of ‘Operation Unified Protector’

Briefing the press in Naples, Italy Tuesday, NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu expressed satisfaction with what was initially predicted to be a 90-day offensive, claiming that 17 ammunition stores, along with several armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles being used by forces loyal to Gaddafi, were successfully destroyed in the last week alone.

Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri, commander of Maritime Forces for the mission, added that the maritime embargo was contributing significantly to the protection of civilians and claimed “All NATO targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the Qadhafi regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas.”

However, the events of the last month suggest that ‘Operation Unified Protector’ is crumbling from a lack of unity.

As far back as early April, Brigadier General Mark van Uhm, NATO’s Dutch chief of allied operations, told reporters that the mission suffered from a lack of aircraft, such as the A-10 Thunderbolt slow- flying warplanes and AC-130 Spectre gunships that Obama withdrew shortly after the offensive began.

Pilots of France’s fighter-bombers have praised the precision of the air-to-ground missile strikes but lamented the lack of the U.S.’s specialised close-support planes, the only modules able to differentiate between a “rebel Toyota pick-up and a loyalist Toyota pick-up”.

Harkening back to the Powell Doctrine adopted during the Gulf War of the early 1990s, which committed the U.S. to the use of extreme force in the event of intervention, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said last week, “We either have to do a lot more… or go for a cease-fire and live with the fact that Gaddafi might be in place for some time.”

Almost a month ago, the New York Times reported that defence experts in Washington recognised Obama’s plight in the face of a “vexing choice” between watching a lengthy civil war unfold in Libya at a terrible human cost and rushing headlong into its third war in a Muslim-majority country.

Referring to Obama’s decision to severely limit the use of U.S. war technology such as Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. submarines, Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and currently a senior advisor at the RAND Corporation, said in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations in early April, “This can be a serious blow to NATO.”

“I’m afraid that the decision to remove the A-10s and the AC-30s – particularly if it means that Gaddafi prevails even in one part of the country – is going to be read by Europe as the U.S. not pulling its weight.”

“This is something I never thought as a former ambassador that I would live to see happen,” Hunter added.

Meanwhile, the rebels in Libya are feeling the heat of NATO’s deterioration.

General Abdel Fatah Younis, head of the rebel army, expressed deep frustration with the sporadic intervention, saying on Apr. 5, “Misurata is being subjected to a full extermination. NATO blesses us every now and then with a bombardment here and there [but is otherwise] letting [our] people die every day – NATO has disappointed us.”

 
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