WASHINGTON – A month ago in Libya, troops loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi were advancing on opposition-held areas, thousands of civilians feared for their lives, and rebel forces appeared in disarray with little prospect of driving Gadhafi from power.
After nearly four weeks, in some ways little has changed.
Gadhafi’s tanks and artillery no longer threaten the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya, and Gadhafi’s combat aircraft and helicopter gunships are grounded. But the disorganized rebel forces are still outmatched and outnumbered by Libyan army units, which show no sign of giving up. Nor do Gadhafi or his regime.
“We rushed into this without a plan,” said David Barno, a retired Army general who once commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “Now we’re out in the middle, going in circles.”
The failure of the air campaign to force Gadhafi’s ouster, or even to stop his military from shelling civilians and recapturing rebel-held towns, poses a growing quandary for President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders: What now?
Privately, current U.S. officials concede that some of their assumptions before they intervened in the Libyan conflict may have been faulty. Among them was the notion that air power alone would degrade Gadhafi’s military to the point where he would be forced to halt his attacks.
Gadhafi’s long-term prospects for staying in power are not good, U.S. officials insist. They cite the defection of several top aides and the loss of billions of dollars in oil revenues that he once used to help ensure loyalty in a tribal-based society.
But those gains have not shifted the balance of military or political power on the ground.
The motley rebel forces that emerged in mid-February to challenge Gadhafi’s 40-year rule have proven frustratingly inept on the battlefield. Nor have Gadhafi’s military commanders or key units defected to the rebel side, as some European officials had hoped.
No one seems certain how to break the stalemate.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the charge within NATO to launch the air campaign in Libya, argued last week that the alliance needs to step up the attacks to fulfill the U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
But winning agreement to escalate the intervention could further divide the already badly split alliance.
The U.S. military moved into a support role early this month, and Obama has given no indication that U.S. warplanes will start flying combat missions again. If Washington isn’t willing to escalate, few alliance members may be eager to do so either.
Adm. James Stavrides, the U.S. commander of NATO, has appealed to NATO members for additional ground attack planes – a request that U.S. officials made clear other alliance members would have to meet.
“By the U.S. taking a back-seat role, it has a psychological effect on the mission,” said Dan Fata, a former Defense Department official who was responsible for overseeing NATO issues during the George W. Bush administration. “If I’m Gadhafi, I’m thinking I can probably wait the Europeans out.”