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With U.S. in support role, NATO's Libya mission 'going in circles'

Kadafi's forces have been able to intensify their counteroffensive while NATO members don't appear willing to escalate their intervention.

April 18, 2011|By David S. Cloud and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington and Benghazi, Libya — A month ago in Libya, troops loyal to Moammar Kadafi were advancing on opposition-held areas, tens of thousands of civilians feared for their lives, and rebel forces appeared in disarray with little prospect of driving Kadafi from power.

After four weeks and hundreds of airstrikes by the U.S. and its NATO allies, in many ways little has changed.

Kadafi's tanks and artillery no longer threaten the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya, and Kadafi's combat aircraft and helicopter gunships are grounded. But the disorganized rebel forces are still outmatched and outnumbered by Libyan army units, which, along with their leader, show no sign of giving up.

Rather, Kadafi has intensified his counteroffensive in recent days. Human rights groups accused Kadafi's military of using cluster bombs and truck-mounted Grad rockets to bombard residential areas of Misurata, the only city in western Libya still in rebel hands.

"We rushed into this without a plan," said David Barno, a retired Army general who once commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. "Now we're out in the middle, going in circles."

The failure of the international air campaign to force Kadafi's ouster, or even to stop his military from shelling civilians and recapturing rebel-held towns, poses a growing quandary for President Obama and other NATO leaders: What now?

Privately, U.S. officials concede that some of their assumptions before they intervened in the Libyan conflict may have been faulty. Among them was the notion that air power alone would degrade Kadafi's military to the point where he would be forced to halt his attacks, and that the U.S. could leave the airstrikes primarily to warplanes from Britain, France and other European countries.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the charge within NATO to launch the air campaign in Libya, argued last week that the alliance needed to step up its attacks to fulfill the United Nations mandate to protect civilians. But winning agreement to escalate the intervention could further divide the already badly split alliance.

The U.S. military moved into a support role early this month, and Obama has given no indication that he will send U.S. warplanes into combat missions again, let alone reconsider his promise not to use ground troops in Libya.

His decision to intervene in Libya was not popular at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and top uniformed officers have shown little interest in taking a major role in the conflict while they are fighting the war in Afghanistan. Obama managed to overcome his advisors' objections by promising to keep the U.S. role limited.

If the alliance's most powerful member isn't willing to escalate, few other members will be eager to do so.

But the longer Kadafi holds up under the NATO attacks, the more pressure there will be in Washington and European capitals to deal with him by escalating the military campaign, arming the rebels or ratcheting up sanctions and other indirect measures, in hopes of forcing him from power.

Adm. James Stavridis, the U.S. commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has appealed to NATO members for additional attack planes — a request that U.S. officials made clear that other alliance members would have to meet.

Obama's decision to limit the U.S. military role left NATO without A-10 Thunderbolt II or AC-130 Spectre gunships, U.S. planes that are designed for close air support of ground troops and precise attacks against ground targets.

The U.S. is keeping A-10s and other strike aircraft on standby in case of an emergency. But bringing the planes back into the fight is not under consideration, a NATO officer said.

Still, the air campaign clearly has weakened Kadafi's army. Allied airstrikes have destroyed nearly 40% of Libya's military equipment and headquarters facilities, according to a senior U.S. military official.

With a maritime exclusion zone preventing Kadafi from obtaining supplies by sea, there also are signs that his government is struggling to provide ammunition, transportation and food to troops in the field. They include the 32nd Brigade, an elite unit led by Kadafi's youngest son, Khamis, and a prime target of airstrikes, the U.S. official said.

Kadafi's long-term prospects for staying in power are not good, U.S. officials insist. They cite the defection of several top aides, including his former intelligence chief, and the loss of billions of dollars in oil revenue that he once used to help ensure loyalty in a tribal-based society.

But those gains have not shifted the balance of military power.

The motley rebel forces that emerged in mid-February to challenge Kadafi's 41-year rule have proved inept on the battlefield. Nor have Kadafi's military commanders or key units defected to the rebel side, as some European officials had hoped.

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