The fact that the Gaddafi regime has survived more than 10,000 NATO air strikes, some of which have targeted him personally, must also be encouraging. His forces have adapted to NATO’s air superiority and have not broken. They hide themselves effectively from air attack, using camouflage, civilian areas and protected historical sites as well as civilian vehicles for transportation of fighters and supplies. NATO’s failure to break Gaddafi’s forces has been compared to the Israeli air force’s overestimation of its ability to take out Hezbollah in their 2006 war.
But while the air campaign has not caused his defeat, Gaddafi knows NATO will not allow him to win. When his tanks were about to seize the rebel stronghold of Benghazi last March, for example, NATO began its bombing campaign, forcing his retreat. Gaddafi also had to pull his soldiers out of rebel-held Misrata just as they were about to overrun the port city. NATO said it would land ground troops if Misrata fell, and the Libyan leader, aware his army is no match for NATO ground forces, withdrew.
Since he knows he cannot win this war, Gaddafi has been fighting for a stalemate and has been successful so far. Despite unrelenting NATO air support, rebel forces still have not been able to advance past Brega in the east or far from Misrata in the west to start the Battle for Tripoli. Whenever they do, they are met by well-disciplined, foreign-trained Gaddafi troops, organized into regular units, who drive them back from prepared positions. Several thousand foreign trainers, especially from Belarus, were present in Libya when the conflict began and are reported to have remained to help Gaddafi’s army and may be assisting in combat operations.
Ironically, the current battlefield stalemate was caused by the NATO air campaign, the very weapon it was believed would drive Gaddafi from power. NATO warplanes may have prevented the Libyan leader’s forces from defeating the rebels, but they have not been able to gain victory for the weaker anti-Gaddafi forces. General Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, predicted the stalemate after the air campaign began as well as the fact the rebels most likely would not be able to capture Tripoli. The other NATO air tactic to end the war, targeted bombings to kill Gaddafi, has also failed – so far.
If Gaddafi and his army can survive the next three months while the military and political strain on the NATO alliance deepens, the world may see a political settlement with the Libyan leader emerging as the leader of a western Libyan political entity. A stalemate would probably see a two-state solution develop in the former Libya like that which occurred between the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of communism or between North and South Sudan after their civil war. Western Libya, with Benghazi as its capital, would be the other state.
In his Friday speech, Gates said it was “not too late for Europe to get its defense institutions and security relationships on track.” But some Western European countries regard their militaries simply as make-work projects and job-creation schemes and not as serious fighting forces. So even if the Libyan mission does not end in a humiliating failure, the trend in European military decline will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse, since the same lack of will and moral rot that caused this problem in the first place will still be present. And with this decline, the pressure on the United States to take over more of the NATO alliance’s burden will inevitably increase.
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