Kosovo Redux in Libya

by Alex Della Rocchetta

In the latest twist to the Libya campaign, French military officials confirmed Wednesday that they have equipped opposition forces in the western Nafusa mountains with guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and other weaponry. The move is designed to provide momentum to a rebel advance toward Tripoli, as U.S. confidence in the four-month long military offensive wanes.

The conflict has continued longer than many United States and international officials initially envisioned.

While U.S. policy makers continue to debate how long Western military engagement in Libya can last, rebel leaders of the Transitional National Council routinely complain that the international coalition pays no heed to their requests for air support. This lack of support has blunted several promising rebel offensives. It is clear that the sluggish pace of coalition military action has allowed the campaign to drag on, permitting Qaddafi government forces to continue their attacks on civilian populations in Nalut, Zintan, and Yifran, and to crack down on civilians in cities already under Qaddafi control.

From the outset of the conflict, the intervention in Libya has been beset by a level of military incrementalism reminiscent of the 1999 air war in Kosovo. The war in Kosovo was launched to stop Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal assault on Kosovo’s Albanian population. The tepid start of NATO’s campaign in Kosovo strengthened Milosevic’s belief that he could wait out an air war, and in the meantime provided him an opportunity to escalate ethnic cleansing against the Albanians.

Indeed, by increasing military pressure in moves considered modest at best, NATO has allowed Qaddafi sufficient time to adjust to, and counter, the tactics employed by rebels on the ground and coalition air assets above. NATO’s current efforts to fight a minimalistic campaign may eventually work, but it is in the alliance’s best interests to employ the means that will bring the war to its speediest possible close and prevent Qaddafi from having the opportunity to inflict further atrocities against the civilian population.

In his new piece, entitled “Trying to Win Ugly, Again: NATO Brings Incrementalism to Libya, my colleague Reza Jan at AEI’s Critical Threats Project argues that NATO has disregarded lessons of previous conflicts hampered by military incrementalism, namely the intervention in Kosovo. In doing so, NATO is “choosing to allow rather than deny Qaddafi the time necessary to inflict further brutalities upon Libyan innocents, as a result, violating the spirit of bellum iustum, Just War, and the UNSC resolution under whose pretext it chose to engage in war.” In order to avoid the political consequences of a failed mission, Jan identifies the necessary steps to be taken—providing rebels with close air support, expanding operations against regime assets, and increasing the number of military advisors on the ground, among others—in order to avoid the missteps of past interventions.

Stepping up the campaign is likely to be politically unpopular at home. The decision to use lethal force has, however, already been made and it is now incumbent upon our political leaders to give its commanders the latitude they need to do the job properly. The United States has the opportunity to “make use of history” and bring the conflict to a swift and conclusive end. Or Obama can repeat the mistakes of the past, at a cost that can only be imagined.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sergeant Benjamin Wilson)