Since we’re just about done with the Osama bin Laden Victory Lap, it’s time to turn our attention back to the quagmire in Libya, where the rebels finally seem to have made a bit of progress. According to the Associated Press, they’ve pushed about 15 mines out from the badly abused city of Misrata. They’ve got a hundred more miles of tough road before they get to Tripoli, but the rebels showed some cheek by calling on Qaddafi’s forces to surrender.
These advances were facilitated by “the heaviest bombing of the Libyan capital in weeks,” including strikes against a military intelligence agency, a “building used by the Libyan parliament,” and what appeared to be a Qaddafi family compound. Libyan authorities made a point of showing reporters the damage to a hospital, and claimed a 4-year-old boy was injured in the attack, although they wouldn’t let reporters see him. A more exact bomb damage assessment is expected at a NATO press conference later today.
Bombing the crap out of Tripoli may be a necessary military strategy at this point, but it’s a far cry from the way war in Libya was sold as a limited operation to protect Qaddafi’s intended victims. The Day One missile strikes on Tripoli were supposed to be precision attacks against command-and-control targets (one of which, let’s face it, was always Moammar Qaddafi.) With NATO assistance, the rebels were meant to rout Qaddafi’s forces, pushing the dictator into early retirement. It’s hard to imagine any other outcome that would have satisfied our goals. Was NATO ever really interested in spending the rest of time guarding a Qaddafi-free breakaway state?
The Libyan rebels couldn’t handle their end of the deal, and Qaddafi’s forces quickly mastered techniques – such as using the same type of vehicles as the rebels, to confuse NATO pilots – that mitigated the effect of the West’s awesome air power. We had undisputed control of the skies from the very beginning of this conflict, but only now, after weeks of bloody stalemate and a fresh round of intensive, expensive bombing, have we been able to shove Qaddafi’s goons away from the gates of Misrata.
This seems like an important lesson about air power – one that history has taught many times before, but our political leadership refuses to learn. Air strikes can deliver a huge initial shock to the enemy’s system, but if the enemy doesn’t break quickly, further bombardment produces diminishing returns… if you’re not willing to ignore collateral damage and start flattening cities. Air power is the best friend ground forces ever had, but the attractive illusion of antiseptic victories delivered with surgical precision from the sky needs to be dispelled.
Like most of history’s wars, the conflict in Libya will be ended by the heavy tread of soldiers’ boots. The Libyan rebellion still has a long way to march. If we were going to get involved in their struggle against Qaddafi, it’s a pity we couldn’t have delivered our million-dollar ordnance back when they were already parked outside Tripoli. That would have been a gutsy call.