US resists pressure to boost rebels’ support

Although the US isn’t withdrawing from the conflict in Libya, it refuses to ramp up its military involvement.

Washington has not ruled out redeploying AC-130 gunships  – which proved highly effective against Gaddafi’s forces [GALLO/GETTY]

WASHINGTON – Even as the conflict in Libya appears increasingly stalemated, the administration of President Barack Obama seems determined to resist growing allied pressure to commit more US military resources to the fight.

While Washington has not ruled out redeploying AC-130 and A-10 “Warthog” aircraft that proved highly effective at hitting tanks, artillery, and other heavy equipment used by pro-regime forces to besiege and attack rebel positions in the early stages of NATO’s intervention, the Obama administration has made clear it has no plans to go further – at least for now.

Asked on Wednesday whether Washington was considering following the lead of Britain, France, and Italy in introducing a small number of military advisers – reportedly around ten from each country – to work with rebel forces, ostensibly in fulfilment of the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973 mandate to protect the civilian population, White House spokesman Tim Carney was unequivocal in his reply.

“The president, obviously, was aware of this decision (by the three countries) and supports it, and hopes that, believes it, will help the opposition. But it does not at all change our – the president’s – policy on no boots on the ground for American troops”, he said.

Carney’s words appeared to reinforce those of Vice President Joseph Biden, who insisted in an interview with The Financial Times that Washington’s NATO allies were fully capable of accomplishing the mission in Libya without additional assistance from the US.

“If the Lord Almighty extricated the US out of NATO and dropped it on the planet of Mars so we were no longer participating”, Biden said, “it is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya – it does not”.

Still, both the course of the ongoing conflict in Libya – where rebels have proved unable to hold major territorial gains against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces along the central Mediterranean coast and appear to be losing their control of the long-besieged western city of Misurata, and the apparent inability or unwillingness on the part of the US and European forces to deliver a decisive blow against the regime – has raised increasingly serious questions both about how it will be resolved and the West’s role in its resolution.

When the administration first yielded to French and British entreaties – backed by a less-than- unanimous endorsement by members of the Arab League – to intervene with military force, its hope was that an overwhelming show of US air power would so intimidate the Libyan army and embolden the rebel forces that the Gaddafi regime would swiftly collapse, an objective that Washington and NATO have endorsed but that is not explicitly authorised by UNSCR 1973.

But, despite early high-level desertions, the regime and its forces have proved both more durable and adaptable – and the rebel forces far more disorganised and ill equipped – than Washington and its chief allies had hoped.

Since Washington turned over command of the operation to NATO two weeks ago and confined its role mainly to refuelling and surveillance, the conflict has turned into a war of attrition that may actually worsen the humanitarian situation that the original intervention was meant to ameliorate.

The result on the ground has been stalemate, as well as growing testiness within NATO between Britain and France, which are carrying most of the burden, on the one hand, and other, less enthusiastic and engaged allies, including, at this point, Washington itself, on the other.

The testiness is not confined to the NATO allies, some key members of which, most importantly German and Turkey, have refused to support the military operation.

The decision by the three European capitals to send military advisers to Libya is almost certain to be seen by other major powers, notably the so-called BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – which collectively called for a peaceful solution to the crisis at their meeting on Hainan Island last week, as an unhelpful new escalation in the conflict.

Of the five BRICS countries, only South Africa voted for UNSCR 1973 – the others abstained in what was interpreted as disapproval.

‘We can’t do it all’

Obama’s official position is that US military power can only be used in pursuit of the UN resolution’s mandate to protect civilians and that, at this point, the West must rely on non-military measures to achieve regime change.

His rejection of London’s and Paris’ appeals to resume a more aggressive role in the military campaign is also based on his conviction that Europe, due to its proximity to North Africa, should assume greater responsibility for policing its neighbourhood and cease relying so much on Washington’s military power. “We can’t do it all”, Biden told The Times.

US participation in a “no-fly zone” over Libya was also opposed by the Pentagon whose top officials made little effort to conceal their distaste for any new military intervention in yet another Muslim country before the final decision was made.

It is not that Washington is withdrawing from the fight. In addition to its supporting aerial role, it has excluded neither the eventual redeployment of its gunships nor the possible supply of arms to the rebel forces.

In addition, teams from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – reportedly protected by the CIA’s own paramilitary forces – have been in Libya since late March, albeit primarily to collect intelligence both on the rebels and the regime’s forces.

Officials also confirmed reports Wednesday that the U.S. plans to supply the opposition with 25 million dollars worth of non-lethal assistance – including uniforms, body armour, boots, tents, radios, and ready-to-eat meals that can be used by rebel fighters.

But continued stalemate on the ground is likely to increase pressure – and not just from its western European allies – on the administration to do substantially more.

Neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, who led the charge to intervene from the outset, are calling for stronger action and warning of dire consequences – ranging from the end of the “Arab Spring” to the dissolution of the NATO alliance – if the current situation persists.

And even some “realist” analysts who questioned or even opposed intervening are warning that stakes – in both humanitarian and strategic terms – are climbing too high to ignore.

“The Franco-Anglo-American gamble now seems far too likely to fail at (the) expense [of the Libyan people)”, according to widely respected defence specialist Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who compared the initial assumptions of the major western powers to the wishful thinking and lack of preparation that preceded George Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion.

“Moreover, it seems likely to drag the other nations that support the operation into their failure – along with part of the reputation of NATO and credibility of the UN”, he wrote on Wednesday in an appeal for the three powers and their allies to shift to an aggressive bombing campaign targeting Gaddafi’s military and security forces “in their bases”, as well as the Libyan leader and his extended family and key supporters themselves.

“Even if they are collocated in civilian area,  France, Britain, and the US now have a special obligation to both finish what they started in military terms, and deal with the aftermath”.

A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.

Jim Lobe is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Inter Press Service.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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