Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Libya: NATO’s Report Card

by Micah Zenko
May 25, 2011

Under the War Powers Resolution, authorization for U.S. military operations in Libya expired last Friday, the sixtieth day of “kinetic military action.” The Obama administration did not pay this legal hurdle any heed, but it is time to assess the NATO intervention’s progress toward its intended political and military objectives. In other words, it’s time to give NATO its report card.

Three months into NATO operations, the record in Libya is mixed. While it is clear that Washington did not get the quick and cheap ouster of Qaddafi that it wanted (and foolishly believed it could achieve on the strength of the Arab League’s endorsement and European enthusiasm), the intervention has not yet failed.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone (NFZ).  (A-) The Qaddafi regime made little use of its limited airpower in cracking down on civilian protestors and attempting to put down the armed rebellion. On March 2, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, acknowledged that “We’ve not been able to confirm that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people.” Two weeks later, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwarz, estimated that the Qaddafi regime was “flying in the neighborhood of tens of sorties a day.” Since the initial U.S.-led attacks on Libya’s integrated air defense system, Libya has violated the NFZ only a few times (with helicopters), and neither targeted nor fired upon planes enforcing the NFZ.  The cumulative effects are such that, on May 10, the French Defense Minister stated credibly that Libya’s “air force seems to have been wiped out with 80 percent of its aircraft out of action.”

Enforcing an arms embargo. (C-) To enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1970, which prohibits arms transfers to Libya, NATO has dedicated AWACS planes and twenty-one ships to patrolling the Central Mediterranean. NATO claims to have been totally effective in its efforts. On April 19, a Brigadier General stated, “No violation of the arms embargo has been reported.” More recently, on May 13, a Wing Commander admitted: “I have no information about arms being moved across any of the borders around Libya.” There are, however, countless reports of rebels smuggling weapons into Libya—including within supposed aid shipments.  Indeed, yesterday, NATO released this public relations video (see below), in which a Canadian ship allegedly enforcing the arms embargo, boarded a rebel tugboat, finding small arms, 105MM howitzer rounds, and “lots of explosives,” all of which are banned under Section 9 of Resolution 1970. Nevertheless, after contacting NATO Headquarters, the arms-laden tugboat is allowed to pass through to the port of Misratah.  There has been less evidence of regime loyalists successfully smuggling weapons into Libya, but consistent reports of the importation and use of prohibited mercenaries, including from Mali and Western Sahara, have surfaced.

Protecting civilians. (D) It is unknowable how many would have died in the absence of an outside military intervention. However, before NATO intervened, the number of civilians killed in Libya was comparable to fatalities in the uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, estimated that “500 to 700 persons had been killed in February alone when Libyan security forces had fired live ammunition at demonstrators.” In two months, deaths have escalated dramatically. Last week, a Libyan rebel spokesperson estimated that at least 15,000 people had been killed in the civil war. A running Wikipedia page that uses open-source information, finds 4,900 to 5,800 deaths, and another 900 to 3,100 people missing in Libya.

Providing Humanitarian Assistance. (C) According to the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, the number of refugees has more than doubled in the last six weeks, with over 750,000 people having now fled the country, and another 58,000 displaced within Libya. In total, UNICEF recently estimated that over one million people—out of a population of six million—require some form of humanitarian assistance. In light of this worsening situation, the UN issued an appeal on Wednesday for $407 million in emergency funding, following on an initial appeal of $310 million, less than half of which was received. NATO has gone to great lengths to keep the main ports open—some of which are under intermittent artillery fire from regime loyalists—but according to Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos, “The manner in which the sanctions are implemented and monitored is causing serious delays in the arrival of commercial goods.”

Removing Qaddafi from power. (F) All of the participants in the intervention coalition have called on Qaddafi to step down. However, nothing has worked. As Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, noted yesterday: “We have to accept that no magic bullet, magic solution for Gadhafi to go away now or somebody would have already used it and he would be gone.” Economic sanctions have frozen much of the regime’s known financial assets abroad, while political pressure has secured the defection of high-level Libyan officials. In addition, while targeting the regime’s “command and control centers,” NATO has attempted to kill Qaddafi on at least seven occasions, all of which all have reportedly failed. With economic, political, and military attempts proving unfruitful, the legal route is next, as ICC judges will soon decide whether to request arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his son, and the head of military intelligence.  Qaddafi has made momentous decisions in the past for reasons we do not fully understand, namely abandoning a nascent uranium enrichment program in 2003 and 2004 for the distant promise of closer economic and political ties with the West. Similarly, he could step down tomorrow and we might never know what altered his calculus. Still, while Qaddafi’s hold over Libya has substantially eroded, he remains defiantly in power in Tripoli.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Richard

    It is telling that the author focuses on the smuggling of some rifles into Misrata as evidence of an arms embargo shortcomings. The intent of the arms embargo was to limit Qadaffy’s ability to attack citizens. It is unfortunate that it was written so broadly, and reasonable that it is enforced selectively. Isn’t Qadaffy’s reported ability to resupply across his southern border more relevant to the purpose of the embargo?

    The logical outcome of the author’s position would be that Qadaffy would brutally crush the rebellion.

    How can we accept a “report card” on an operation from a partisian who clearly wishes it to fail?

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    One wonders why all the commotion over one leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Why the fixation on toppling him? Is it worth all the death destruction and cost? Some Americans will applaud this blood lust, but an increasing number are irked that their valuable resources are being dedicated to wanton destruction of yet another MENA player, a cause that will require even more funds for rebuilding, occupation and rehabilitation.

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