[Marxism] NATO support is of limited value to rebels

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 25 08:16:19 MDT 2011

July 24, 2011, 8:04 pm
In Libya’s West, Signs of Growing Frustration With NATO

One of the consistent experiences of reporting alongside 
opposition fighters in Libya is feeling the delineation between 
what the rank and file have to say of the NATO bombing campaign 
and the statements of the officials in the Transitional National 
Council, the de facto rebel authority.

Officially, the rebel leadership cannot thank the pilots flying 
overhead enough. The political figures of the T.N.C. are given to 
vanilla declarations of full support and gratitude for the work of 
NATO, whose leaders they clearly are wary of offending.

Those closer to the fighting or who live in harm’s way, however, 
have a richer take. They, too, express gratitude for NATO’s early 
work in the war, when Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces were 
stopped by airstrikes from overrunning the rebels in the east and 
crushing the uprising in Benghazi. But they also express deep and 
sometimes agonized frustration at the pace and target selection of 
the air support, and talk often of what they perceive to be NATO 
half-stepping and incompetence. You hear these complaints in 
Misurata, where the city’s residents faced sustained shelling, and 
which is still shelled or struck with rockets intermittently to 
this day. You hear them from fighters who have watched the Qaddafi 
forces’ columns drive forward in attacks, unmolested by aircraft 
audible a short while before. You hear them as well from those who 
have been hit, or nearly hit, by errant or mistaken strikes. And 
you could hear the exasperation loudly from Nalut on Sunday, near 
Libya’s border with Tunisia.

Nalut was struck again overnight by salvos of rockets from the 
Qaddafi forces. The following statement, translated and posted 
below, underscores the frustration of a population now living 
through a sixth month of war, and that is waiting for the 
batteries firing on their city to be silenced.

     The Media Committee of the Revolution of February 17 Nalut

     Urgent Appeal to the Transitional Council and the 
International Community and NATO.

     There was continued of bombing of the city with Grad rockets 
and cannon 120 [Reporter’s Note: it is not clear what weapons 
system is referred to here, perhaps D-30 artillery or 
120-millimeter mortars, or something else that has been mistakenly 
identified] from the northern side, from dawn this morning. More 
70 Grad rockets landed on the Nalut … large reinforcements to the 
Qaddafi forces have arrived and they are planting mines in the 
area of Takut and Barda, which are under the mountain and they 
completely cut off electricity, water and communications to the 
region. We urge the international community to intervene 
immediately to end the humanitarian suffering of the people.

The rebels have been prone to overstatement during the war, so not 
everything here can be confirmed. As of Saturday morning, for 
example, there was a limited electrical supply in Nalut. But there 
is at least one independent foreign journalist in Nalut now — 
Derek Henry Flood (follow him on Twitter at @derekhenryflood) — 
and he has publicly confirmed the sustained rocket attacks on the 
city overnight.

NATO’s air power is certainly not the only means of ending this 
war, and there have been ample signs that the airstrikes are less 
effective and more costly than NATO’s leadership would have people 
believe. But the unease reasonable people would have about waging 
war this way, and the finer points of the shortfalls in the way 
the air power has been used, is not at the front of the minds of 
those who have high-explosive rockets landing in their 
neighborhoods. They want the rockets to stop, and wonder: just 
what are those pilots (and those who direct them) doing each night 
and day?


Counterpunch July 25, 2011
NATO in Libya
The Limits of Air Power


Air strikes are becoming the main Western means of controlling the 
Middle East and South Asia without putting soldiers on the ground 
where they might suffer politically damaging casualties. Britain, 
France and the US have used only airpower to wage war in Libya 
over the last four months. The US is also stepping up its air 
offensive in Yemen, where the CIA is to start operating Predator 
drones alongside the US military, and is continuing its drone 
attacks in north-west Pakistan. Even in Iraq, where the US is 
supposedly ending its military commitment, it stunned people near 
the southern city of Amarah last week by unexpectedly launching 
bombing raids.

The use of air forces as colonial policemen in the region has a 
long and bloody history, but has often proved ineffective in the 
long term. A NATO pilot who bombed Ain Zara south of Tripoli 
earlier this month almost certainly did not know that his attack 
came almost exactly 100 years after the very same target had been 
hit by two small bombs dropped by an Italian plane in 1911.

The Italian air raid was the first in history, carried out soon 
after Italy had invaded what later became Libya during one of the 
many carve-ups of the Ottoman Empire. The first ever military 
reconnaissance flight took a route near Benghazi in October, and 
on November 1 Sub-Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti became the first pilot 
to drop bombs. He swooped down on a Turkish camp at Ain Zara and 
dropped four 4.5lb grenades from a leather bag in his cockpit. The 
Turks protested that Gavotti's bombs had hit a hospital and 
injuring several civilians.

The pros and cons should have become swiftly apparent. It is not 
that air strikes are wholly futile. I was in Baghdad during the US 
bombing in 1991 and again during Desert Fox in 1998. Crouched on 
the floor of my hotel room, watching columns of fire erupt around 
the city and the pathetic dribbles of anti-aircraft fire in 
return, was a testing experience. On the other hand, being shelled 
in West Beirut during the civil wars was in some ways worse 
because it went on for longer and was completely haphazard. In 
Baghdad I hoped that the Americans were taking care about what 
they targeted, if only for reasons of PR.

Frightening though it is being bombed, air forces often exaggerate 
what they can do. They are always less accurate than they claim; 
their effectiveness depends on good tactical intelligence. Bombing 
works best as a blunt instrument against civilians as a 
generalized punishment. Against well-prepared soldiers, such as 
Hezbollah's guerrillas, it is far less effective. Israel's 
disastrous venture in Lebanon probably rated as history's most 
ill-thought out air war until this year when France and Britain 
decided to ally themselves to an enthusiastic but ill-trained 
militia to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

It did not start like this. When NATO planes first attacked, it 
was with the aim of preventing Gaddafi's tanks advancing up the 
road from Ajdabiya to rebel-held Benghazi. The strikes were 
effective, but the objective swiftly changed to become an 
open-ended campaign to overthrow Gaddafi in which NATO provided 
air support for the rebel militia. Very similar to French imperial 
forays in West Africa, it is extraordinary that this open-ended 
foreign intervention has been so little criticized in Britain.

The rebels have always been weaker than their NATO  sponsors 
pretended. It is all very well to recognize them as the legitimate 
government of Libya, but evidently not all Libyans agree. The 
highly informed International Crisis Group says that a key 
component "in Gaddafi's ability to hold on to much of the west [of 
Libya] has been the limited defections to date among the main 
tribes that traditionally have been allied with the regime". In 
reality, a divided NATO  has joined one side in a civil war in 
Libya, just as it did earlier in Afghanistan, and the US and 
Britain had done in Iraq.

In air wars, the first week is usually the best. By the end of it, 
the easiest targets will have been destroyed and the enemy will 
have learnt how to hide, disperse its forces and avoid presenting 
a target. In the case of Libya, the pro-Gaddafi troops started to 
use the same beat-up pick-ups with a heavy machine gun in the back 
as the rebels. Several times NATO  struck at their allies with 
devastating results.

So far in Libya there has not been a mass killing of a large 
number of civilians in an air strike. When this happened with the 
Amariya shelter in Baghdad in 1991 killing 400, the selection of 
targets in the city had to be confirmed by the chief of staff, 
Colin Powell, and air strikes on the capital largely ceased. Air 
force generals point to the wonderful accuracy of their smart 
weapons, singling out tiny targets, but they seldom explain that 
this depends on correct intelligence.

Such intelligence is often very shaky. I was in Herat in western 
Afghanistan in 2009 when US aircraft killed some 147 people in 
three villages to the south. Bombs had smashed the mud-brick 
houses and bodies of the dead had been torn to shreds by the 
blast. What had happened in these villages, which were deep in 
Taliban territory, was that some US and Afghan vehicles had been 
successfully ambushed. Frightened and bewildered soldiers had 
called for air support. Shouting "Death to America" and "Death to 
the Government", enraged survivors drove a tractor pulling a 
trailer piled high with body parts to the governor's office in 
Farah City.

The response of the US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, to all 
this was to claim that the Taliban had run through the villages 
hurling grenades. Lies like this were very much designed for US 
consumption, but they infuriated Afghans who could see the deep 
bomb craters on their televisions. Will the Libyan air campaign 
end in a similar disaster? Political tolerance in the UK and the 
US for the war in Libya is shallow and it would be fatally 
undermined by any accidental mass killing of civilians.

 From the moment, 100 years ago, when Sub-Lieutenant Gavotti threw 
his grenades over the side of his cockpit, Western governments 
have been attracted by the idea that they can win wars by air 
power alone. Victory will be cheap without committing ground 
troops. Only late in the day does it become clear, as we are now 
seeing in Libya, that air power by itself hardly ever wins wars.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the 
Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

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