Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ruminations on the Libya complexities 

One thing about today’s military business in Libya – at least the UK government does not include anyone who, in office, inflicted on us such a shameful farrago of lies during the march to war in Iraq in 2003.

We can perhaps hope that the intelligence advice now being given to the government has drawn on the lessons of that time. And the various intelligence services have the confidence to give our current government accurate and sober advice, not fitting the evidence to the political requirements of the moment.

But are we repeating some more general mistakes?

Too many people seem to think that deploying air power settles matters in the streets. They point to the example of the Kosovo operation and the military actions against Serbia. But it was not the bombing of various bits of Serbia that stopped the genocide of the Kosovars and compelled Milosevic to step down. It was the fact that Hungary joined NATO and made it plain that it would allow NATO tank forces to enter Serbia from Hungary and fight on the ground.

At the moment there are plenty of real military targets in Libya that can be hit from the air. Without going near civilian areas. These attacks can be justified as degrading air defence capabilities. But in a few days there will be no targets left.

In Serbia the NATO forces continued the bombing campaign for weeks, and ended up hitting all sorts of useless ‘targets’ such as bridges, ‘command centres’, power stations, and low-grade military installations simple because there was nothing else left to hit and air power was all they had.

And like in Serbia the real capability for oppression in Libya will be largely untouched by air operations – the capability of armed men to enter peoples houses on foot and shoot whoever they want.

I hope there is some understanding of the deep limitations on what we are undertaking.

I hope that civilians will actually be protected.

I hope we know how we are going to get out of this place.

It is possible that some ‘rebel areas’ can be protected because this is a war in a desert, and history buffs will remember how air attacks on hostile logistics chains were crucial to the north Africa campaigns of 1940-1943 That however means more than a no-fly zone it means active search and destroy of moving vehicles and killing people moving in the open.

That leaves Tripoli and the west under government control, and the Saddam regime survived for years under a no-fly regime. If they dig in, do we acquesc to partition, or what?

I hope that our Government (including those of our LibDem ministers in the decision loop) are not in the same situation as the commanders of the Spanish Armada in 1588 who admitted that the sailed in the confident expectations of a miracle.

In short something else than air power will be needed. We need to think very hard on this.

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