Friday, April 8, 2011

The losers of a stalemate

One wonders how much more of NATO planes accidentally bombing the rebels,  anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya are going to take before relations turn sour. Rebel  troops shouting “Down With NATO” doesn't exactly sound like the type of response that the US, France or Great Britain envisioned when they began this operation. If the conflict in Libya continues on the ineffectively conclusive trajectory that it appears to be going, the losers of this stalemate will likely be the very same countries that pushed for intervention.

This isn't a conflict that is going to be decided on an open battlefield, especially considering the Western airpower advantage. Despite NATO complaints of pro-Gaddafi forces using cities as safe-havens where civilians, willingly or unwillingly, become essentially "human shields," the smart money is on them staying exactly there, in readily defended areas with good cover. With the rebels incredible lack  of training it appears unlikely that they will be able to force enemy units out of these positions.  

What happens then when frustrations boil over? Already there have been complaints of a perceived slowdown in NATO bombings compared to previous missions flown by the US, Britain and France. Whatever goodwill has been accumulated by the early Western commitment towards protecting Benghazi will likely evaporate if there is no solution on the ground and Libya remains a divided and war-torn place. I would highly doubt that internal disappointment and anger by the rebels and their supporters will be directed solely amongst themselves--instead the likely target will be those countries that are militarily capable of breaking this stalemate but unwilling to devote the resources to doing so. 

With over 5% of Libya's population having already fled the country, a continued stalemate will likely involve an additional exodus as the deteriorating situation in Gaddafi controlled--and internationally embargoed--western Libya continues. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that significant investment or rebuilding will be able to go on in eastern Libya until a political solution to Libyan governance occurs, something made obviously difficult in a divided and warring nation. While part of the argument for intervention was made based on trying to protect the fledgling democratic movements in Libya's neighbors from the effects of the civil-war, particularly the stresses caused by a flood of refugees, the reality is that the stalemate, created by Western intervention, may have the opposite effect. Whether or not the West gets directly blamed for the continuing humanitarian crisis remains to be seen--especially the reactions in Tunisia or Egypt--but there will likely be a limit to the region's patience.

If Western ground forces actually intervene this will be a political failure domestically and internationally and inevitably involve a prolonged stay--the kind of situation that has lead to military failures, or at least not military successes,  in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another Western occupation would also be obviously disastrous towards mending relations following two continuing wars in Muslim countries. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

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