Is NATO prepared for a Gadhafi win in Libya?

None of the NATO countries involved in Libya's civil war seem to have a clue how to answer the most crucial question: how has Moammar Gadhafi's regime remained intact through a month of bombings and pin-point missile attacks?

Alliance can't answer key question: why has regime outlasted airstrikes?

To gauge NATO's growing alarm over Libya, consider that no one seems to have a clue how to answer the most crucial question of the moment: just how do we account for the fact Moammar Gadhafi's regime remains intact after a month of NATO bombings and pin-point attacks by cruise missiles?

Weeks ago, it was supposed to have been collapsing at any moment, right? Just a few more air raids, and it would crumble like a house of cards, opening up Gadhafi's capital, Tripoli, to the advancing rebel movement.

So, how does NATO explain that Gadhafi's military and security forces — dismissed as poorly trained and largely mercenary — have recently captured the key oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega while conducting a ferocious siege of Misrata? And all the while, facing the day and night aerial attacks with precision weapons that would rattle any army. 

This is a bad development for Canada. This is certainly not what Prime Minister Stephen Harper had in mind when he became the first NATO leader to openly embrace "regime change" in Libya back in March as he dispatched a pocket-sized air contingent to help spearhead the first bombings of the North African country. 

Harper foresaw Canada going in fast and briefly with its allies to protect Libyan demonstrators from massacre, with enough show of force to also shatter Gadhdafi's shaky regime. Neither his Conservative government nor the leaders of our other parties, it must be said, imagined we'd end up stuck on one side of what increasingly looks like a long civil war that will be hard to get free of. 

There are potentially dangerous consequences for Canada at every turn here — not that you'd suspect this given the remarkable absence of this war as an issue in the current election campaign.

Rebel fighters man a rocket pod mounted on a pickup truck on the front line along the western entrance of Ajdabiyah on April 19. ((Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters))

Of course, the instinct to protect the rebel stronghold of Benghazi from a feared massacre was noble, and arguably fell within the "responsibility to protect" precept of foreign intervention, a concept supported by Canada and the UN but not yet part of any official code. But when you take armed action to protect a population, you'd also better think the whole operation through in terms of consequences before everyone gets hurt. 

We didn't; our Parliament didn't; NATO didn't.  

Those attacking Gadhafi seem not to have seriously considered what will happen if he survives, with forces intact, and the rebels are then left hopelessly dependent upon our protection — perhaps for months or even years. We launched an intervention without signing up for the full consequences, and such actions, diplomats always warn, can lead to the trap of expanding obligations.

'Strategic setback' likely

As former U.S. secretaries of defence James Baker and Henry Kissinger wrote recently by way of wagging disapproving fingers: "If we articulate a goal of regime change in conjunction with military intervention, we will be expected to employ the means required to effect it. Failure to achieve proclaimed objectives turns into a strategic setback." 

This is where much of NATO is at this moment: contemplating strategic setback, a development that seems likely unless NATO and its allies can somehow ensure Gadhafi does not survive the attacks we so confidently launched. 

Canadian Lt.-Gen.Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO operations in Libya, arrives at a media briefing in Naples on March 28, 2011. ((Ciro De Luca/Reuters))

Canada certainly seems never to have considered what a Gadhafi survival might entail for it. Yet day in and day out, since the air offensive began, Canadian CF-18 fighter jets, flying under the command of the Canadian general directing the whole NATO offensive, have dropped real bombs on elements of a sovereign government that may yet survive with its notorious vicious streak intact, along with dreams of payback against the West.

It's not like we can just say "Oops" and walk away — not if Gadhafi survives we won't. 

So, need we worry about Gadhafi surviving given that NATO says its air campaign has destroyed about one-third of his armour and heavy artillery? Yes, we do have lots to worry about. Intelligence estimates suggest at least three-quarters of Gadhafi's deployed forces and weaponry are still intact. This is more than enough to smash any rebel offensive approaching Tripoli.

It would be years, in fact, before rebels would be in any position to fight openly with Gadhafi's forces without an allied air umbrella. Consider that at the start of the air campaign, Libya had 1,500 tanks, 750 other armoured infantry vehicles, 3,000 anti-tank guided missiles and 830 multiple rocket launchers, according to figures compiled by the CIA. This means that enormous stockpiles of weaponry survive.

It appears that much of the armour has been positioned in an extensive network of tunnels built by Gadhafi over decades. Masses of artillery and rocket launchers are also now largely secure from attack because they're stashed within built-up urban areas, off-limits to NATO airstrikes. 

NATO has few options left

A major shock for NATO has been the realization, yet again, that air power alone is quite limited in what it can achieve. This week, the chairman of France's foreign affairs committee, Alan Poniatowski, warned that this offensive will get nowhere without "allied boots on the ground" — exactly the kind of woeful refrain Ottawa didn't want to hear coming out of this operation.   

A woman holds a picture of Moammar Gadhafi as she chants slogans during a government tour of a pro-Gadhafi rally at the leader's Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli on April 14, 2011. ((Louafi Larbi/Reuters))

Gadhafi's surprising resilience has already won him some diplomatic gains, including bitter quarrelling within NATO between "hawks and doves," with France and Britain openly contemptuous of members like Germany, who've refused to take part in the operation. While NATO quarrels on, an impressive chorus of other countries have sided with Libya in condemning the air attacks: among them, Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa and other countries of the African Union. 

Small wonder, perhaps, that diplomats report that Gadhafi and sons seem more defiant and even optimistic this week than they have been to date. As the West contemplates the strategic cost of failure, Gadhafi must surely toy with the possibilities of humiliating the West as never before.

Having not thought out options well before the bombings, NATO, including the U.S., has few ideas about what to do now. Yes, it may escalate airstrikes still more, but this is likely to set off popular protests in the volatile Middle East while achieving little on the ground.

There's speculation that France and Britain might send in special force commandos to help train the rebels, and perhaps ask Canada to volunteer its JTF2 commandos as well. But this will be clearly, and accurately, seen as "mission creep" — which is what all of the participating governments vowed to avoid at the start.

The reality is Gadhafi's continued survival has both surprised the world and left NATO with very few options, none of which are pleasant to contemplate.