In Libya, Allied Forces Grapple With Unanticipated Obstacles

Italy is pulling out some of its forces. France is pondering a negotiated end to the conflict. And no one knows what rebel victory would bring.
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Told that the War in Libya is being illegally waged, the Obama Administration often answers with a non-sequitir: we're merely supporting a humanitarian mission being led by our European allies in NATO. As the bombing campaign stretches into its fifth month, however, there are signs of tension within the alliance. Most significantly, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi now says he's been against the conflict from the beginning. Italy is trimming its mission by a third, and Berlusconi faces pressure to exit entirely, a troubling prospect for NATO, which is relying on air bases there. (It made due without them earlier in the campaign, before Italy had joined the alliance, and when the United States was playing a proportionally larger role in the offensive.) 

A possible disagreement with France has arisen too, as reported in a Monday Telegraph article that describes comments made by a French official, and a response by the U.S. State Department:

The French defence minister, Gerard Longuet, said it was time to "get round the table".

Although the position of NATO and the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) has always been that there can be no negotiations while Col Gaddafi remains in power, Mr Longuet said he could remain "in a different room in his palace, with a different title. We have asked them to speak to each other," Mr Longuet said of the two sides in an interview on French television. "The position of the TNC is very far from other positions."

His interview triggered a swift response from Washington. "The Libyan people will be the ones to decide how this transition takes place, but we stand firm in our belief that Gaddafi cannot remain in power," the State Department said, indicating it had not changed its position.

Other recent reports shed new light on the conflict to which President Obama has committed U.S. forces, apparently without accurately gauging the follow through of our allies. "Hundreds of Libyans will martyr in Europe," Colonel Gaddafi said Friday, threatening a wave of suicide attacks on the continent, and suggesting that the war may have created a new terrorism threat from a nation that had been contained before it.

A Los Angeles Times article reports that the war has turned many shopkeepers, shepherds and other peaceful citizens into warriors, and could change the trajectory of the country permanently:

Already there are signs of an emerging warrior caste, young men who have forged identities in war, and found self-respect in toting weapons and pushing people twice their age around. The creation of such a generation can change not only the individuals but the trajectory of the country.

In the most chaotic Third World examples, nations have been beset by roving groups of heavily armed men long after the conflict ends, while in other countries, such as Iran after its 1980s war with Iraq, the fighters have become today's leaders, now pursuing an assertive and some would say belligerent security policy. Here in the mountains of Libya, young men alternate between giddiness and horror at their new selves.

Finally, a C.J. Chivers report describes how rebel forces in one town looted an empty village and set fire to at least eight of its houses. Is this a portent for uglier acts to come if the loose coalition of which they're a part -- some of which has behaved more responsibly -- succeeds in taking Tripoli? "Whatever their motivation," Chivers writes, "the behavior of rebels in Qawalish, who have been supported by the NATO military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, was at odds with the NATO mandate to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, and at odds with rebel pledges to free and protect the Libyan population."

Put another way, President Obama has made us complicit in events that we can neither predict nor control, and subordinated a billion dollar military effort to an alliance that may not have the will to fight it.

Previous Libya coverage by Conor Friedersdorf:

Image credit: Reuters