Tuesday, May 31, 2011

As Goal Shifts in Libya, Time Constrains NATO

WASHINGTON — President Obama has subtly shifted Washington’s public explanation of its goals in Libya, declaring now that he wants to assure the Libyan people are “finally free of 40 years of tyranny” at the hands of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, after first stating he wanted to protect civilians from massacres.

But if toppling Colonel Qaddafi is now the more explicit goal, Mr. Obama’s European trip this week has highlighted significant tensions over how much time the NATO allies have to finish a job that is now in its third month.

Mr. Obama has urged strategic patience, expressing confidence that over time the combination of bombing, sanctions and import cutoffs will force Colonel Qaddafi from power. “Time is working against Qaddafi,” Mr. Obama said on Wednesday at a news conference in London with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain.

But in Europe and in Libya, patience is calculated differently. Many countries are struggling with the rapid pace of operations. Some, like Norway, have already said they will sharply reduce their forces beginning next month. According to NATO officials, Colonel Qaddafi has a calculation of his own: facing a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court, he may soon have few places to go and little to lose by waiting out NATO and betting that European public opinion will tire of the bombing campaign and its costs.

In interviews in Washington, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in the alliance’s southern command center in Naples, Italy, officials have described a new strategy to intensify the pressure — and drive out Colonel Qaddafi, a goal that officials now privately acknowledge extends beyond the boundaries of the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

This week they are intensifying attacks on government targets in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. They plan to step up the effort even more this week, with the arrival of a dozen French and four British attack helicopters that can hit targets more precisely in and around Tripoli, but are also more vulnerable to ground fire.

“The real challenge is public opinion in Europe and the nations’ patience,” said one senior NATO officer in Naples who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They’d like the war to be over, and to have it done properly with no allied casualties or collateral damage to civilians.”

Mr. Obama, however, has taken a gradualist approach that is based on America’s bitter lessons in Iraq. From the start, he has declined to commit ground troops, and quickly handed off the lead in combat operations to other NATO allies, a move widely seen in the United States and Europe as an effort to avoid “owning” a war in a nation the United States does not consider strategically vital. White House officials have also said that Mr. Obama was acutely sensitive to not leading a conflict in a third Muslim nation, while Americans are still withdrawing from Iraq and deeply engaged in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Obama’s description of the objectives has shifted. In a speech to the nation in late March, he described the effort as simply one of protecting civilians, and the White House denied that ousting Colonel Qaddafi was critical to that effort. “Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” he said. While sporadic attacks on civilians continue, the United States and its allies have largely achieved that objective, NATO and American officials contend. The rebel-held ground in eastern Libya is secure, and rebel forces aided by allied air power have pushed back loyalist Qaddafi forces from the contested port city of Misurata.

But Mr. Obama suggested on Wednesday that the objective had broadened. “The goal is to make sure that the Libyan people can make a determination about how they want to proceed, and that they’ll be finally free of 40 years of tyranny and they can start creating the institutions required for self-determination.” That is parallel to the objective the United States set in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003.

In Europe, however, the tension is over how long that process will take, and how long the NATO nations now leading the attacks are willing to sustain the effort.

The helicopter deployments reflect the concerns of Britain and France, in particular, that an extended, grind-it-out campaign could lose NATO partners and public opinion, so the campaign needs to be escalated, even if that means putting the helicopters within range of Libyan shoulder-fired missiles.

NATO officials express greater confidence than ever that Colonel Qaddafi is unable to direct his forces, relying on couriers in some cases to relay strategic and operational guidance. The intensifying air campaign is driving him further underground; he has made only one radio address and one soundless television appearance in the past week or so.

Allied officials say that even though the combat effectiveness of Colonel Qaddafi’s troops is eroding steadily, his forces are still trying to carry out sporadic attacks on civilians and allied forces in an effort to tie down NATO warplanes and buy time, even using guerrilla tactics, like the explosives-laden inflatable boats that allied forces thwarted near Misurata harbor last week.

As a result, allied officials concede that they have no idea how long Colonel Qaddafi can hang on. NATO political leaders have rejected broadening the campaign’s bombing targets to include the country’s infrastructure, and idea voiced by some military commanders, including Britain’s top military commander, Gen. Sir David Richards.

In the 1999 Kosovo air war, NATO planes eventually hit high-profile institutional targets in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, instead of forces in the field. Although they were legitimate military targets, destroying them also undermined popular support for the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

Expanding the range of targets would face stiff political opposition in this war, allied political officials said. “We’re doing about all we can under the current mandate,” one senior NATO ambassador said Thursday, on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “But we can’t predict when the strategic impact will come.”

That uncertainty has preyed on many countries, like Norway, whose air forces are already finding it hard to sustain the rapid tempo. Other countries say they are coping for now.

Col. L. S. Kjoeller, who commands four Danish F-16s flying eight daily strike missions from the Sigonella air base in Sicily, said Denmark could maintain that pace — the most demanding combat tour ever undertaken by the country’s small air force — for about a year, but that more than that would be difficult.

With Libyan troops largely hunkered down, finding new targets has become harder, and Danish F-16s are dropping fewer bombs than they did several weeks ago, Colonel Kjoeller said. To prevent complacency and overconfidence, he said, Danish pilots will rotate every six weeks “to keep their edge.”



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