Brian Stewart: New Libya post-mortems highlight NATO's flaws

New post-mortems on the war in Libya are making it harder for Canada and our NATO partners to portray their Libyan air and sea campaign as an unblemished success, Brian Stewart reports.

For anyone thinking that a Western air campaign would make short work of Syria's Assad government, some new post-mortems on the war in Libya should make for sobering reading.

In fact, it may soon become much harder for Canada and our NATO partners to portray their Libyan air and sea campaign as an unblemished success and the very image of a well-co-ordinated international force.

Far too many jarring questions are emerging from too many sources seeking a review of NATO's role in the Libyan campaign.

The most embarrassing is from a confidential after-action NATO assessment of campaign "flaws" that was just obtained by the New York Times, which published details on the weekend.

The report, with its 300 pages of supporting documents, portrays the 18-nation air campaign, commanded by a Canadian general, as having been seriously weak in target assessment, intelligence co-operation, logistical planning, electronic interception and even legal advice.

The findings have some immediate political impact in that they undercut the argument of some U.S. politicians, including Republican warhorse and former presidential candidate John McCain, that a similar allied air campaign would quickly topple the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The obvious problem is that it took NATO seven months and 9,000 bombs and missiles to crack Libyan defences, which were remarkably weak in comparison to Syria's.

The Syrian military is more capable, and the Assad regime has thousands of highly sophisticated Russian-made air defences that would require a long and daring campaign to suppress.

A Libyan woman takes part in a demonstration in April 2012 calling for the new transitional government to help quell ethnic fighting that is still going on in the south of Libya. (Anis Mili/Reuters)

More importantly, though, this leaked NATO analysis of the Libya campaign —which the participants rated a huge success in its immediate aftermath —  clearly shows the alliance still doesn't have its act together when it comes to co-ordinated  interventions.

It is another reminder that the U.S. can only count on its NATO partners for limited help and that, even against a comparatively weak Libya, the combined European and Canadian forces had to rely overwhelmingly on U.S. aircraft for high-tech surveillance and precision-guided munitions.

Lessons not learned

What's also remarkable about this report is apparently how little NATO learned from all its past headaches in Afghanistan, where, working under a UN-sanctioned international command, NATO partners were often criticized for poor co-operation and national selfishness.

Confronting Gadhafi's Libya, the report notes, "nations did not effectively and efficiently share national intelligence and targeting information among allies and with partners.

"The inability to share information presented a major hindrance to nations deciding if a target could be engaged."

This is particularly disturbing to read now given that the Libyan campaign required exceptionally careful targeting and shared intelligence to avoid civilian losses, as most attacks struck inside or close to urban areas, where the Gadhafi forces were massing.

But now we are being told that NATO felt it had too few adequately trained "targeteers" and that many of these specialists were assigned to the campaign "for only a few weeks."

So what are we to make now of all NATO's previous claims of surgical brilliance with its bomb and missile attacks?

Reality check

Much of this post-mortem should alarm Canada. We played an unusually large role in the campaign, and indeed shared overall leadership.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has previously expressed great pride in the campaign run by Canadian Gen. Charles Bouchard — we even had a ceremony on Parliament Hill.  And that officer may well be blameless for what seems like basic NATO weaknesses.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston awards Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard the Meritorious Service Cross in November 2011 for his role in the Libyan campaign. (Dave Chan/Reuters)

Still, it would seem useful for our MPs to pin down all the implications of this after-action reality check.

A review of our own might prove invaluable for the next time we need to decide Canada's armed response to an international crisis.

But even should we come to the conclusion that the Libyan campaign was a success, there is still a very messy aftermath that needs our attention — the issue of possibly needless civilian deaths, which has now been raised by several humanitarian groups.

These deaths go right to the heart of the international community's decision to intervene in situations like this. For we in the West justified our air attacks as being necessary to save Libyan lives — the many thousands endangered in the eight-month uprising by Gadhafi's rampaging security forces.

So how many lives were lost due to our actions?

Civilian deaths

NATO has resolutely refused to suggest a number of those killed or wounded as a result of its actions and this newest study does not address civilian casualties, which surely seems a strange oversight.

After all, the UN, Russia and separate human rights groups claim between 60 and 90 civilians died directly as a result of the 9,600 separate airstrikes, which destroyed almost 6,000 targets.

A further 1,500 migrants died trying to flee Libya by sea during the bombing, despite the presence of NATO ships and constant air surveillance in the nearby waters.

One particular case that hangs like a pall over the Libyan campaign is the still mysterious death at sea of 68 African refugees, trying to escape the bombing.

They died slowly of exposure, after 10 days adrift in a dinghy in waters that were being heavily patrolled by ships and search aircraft from 11 NATO nations, including Canada. It was a ghastly set of deaths that involved two babies and which NATO units allegedly observed but did nothing to prevent.

Highly detailed investigations by the European Parliament and the University of London concluded NATO militaries ignored repeated calls for help from the dying refugees as they drifted without fuel or water.

Amnesty International, for one, insists we need to clarify whether such casualties resulted from a breach of international law and, if so, whether those responsible should be brought to justice.

According to some claims, distress calls went to NATO naval campaign headquarters, helicopters circled over the dinghy and one still unidentified warship came close enough for crew to take pictures of the stranded refugees while they held up dead bodies to signal for help.

The case of the dead 68 dinghy passengers is a scandal in Europe. An alliance of rights groups has filed legal papers in a Paris court to compel NATO to identify the units involved, and similar suits may well be filed in Canada, Britain, Italy and Spain should NATO continue to stonewall.

When asked publicly about the scandal of the dinghy passengers, NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen has said only "we have nothing to hide."

That kind of official brush-off has rarely satisfied in the past and is unlikely to now. NATO leaders seem about to learn that it's always easier to declare victory following the hot rush of action than to really walk away for good.