Monday, April 04, 2011

The ghosts of wars past and not-yet-passed: Libya, Kosovo, Afghanistan

This report by Kim Sengupta, Rebels die as victims of their own disarray The Independent 04/03/2011 illustrates one of the limitations of air power in the Libya War:

The rebel fighters were celebrating "victory" in their usual wasteful way, loosing off round after round into the air, using up ammunition in short supply. But this time it was a suicidal mistake: seconds later their vehicles, and an ambulance parked near by, were destroyed in an attack arriving with shattering explosions.

Air strikes had been carried out by a pilot from the international coalition who then thought an anti-aircraft barrage was being directed at him. Fifteen people, including three members of medical staff, were killed instantly when the warplane, believed to be an A-10 Tankbuster, responded with its devastating firepower.

These were the second set of "collateral casualties" in two days: eight others died in another bombing aimed at a regime convoy passing through the village of Argobe, near Ajdabiya. It ignited ammunition, spraying shrapnel into nearby houses. Four of those killed were female, including three girls aged 12 to 16 from the same family; two others were teenage boys.
This 04/02/2011 report from Aljazeera English reports on the same two incidents:

Initially, the US-French-British approach in Libya sounded a lot like their approach in the Kosovo War. I've speculated that Juan Cole's enthusiasm for the intervention in Libya was largely based on an optimistic view of the Kosovo War. In a post of 04/01/2011, Defections, US Withdrawal Point to Political Solution in Libya Informed Comment, he seemed to confirm this:

US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates clearly has a model in his mind somewhat like Serbia in 1999-2000. In spring 1999 Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic sent troops into Kosovo, which began committing a massacre. NATO intervened to roll that back. During that war, Milosevic was indicted at the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Milosevic's attempt to tinker with the presidential election of October 1999 provoked massive street protests against him. His military informed him that they would not support him. By spring of 2001 he was arrested by his own people and that summer he was surrendered to the United Nations.

NATO's aerial bombing missions were what stopped the advance into Kosovo of Serbian troops. But it was the world community's relegation of Milosevic to pariah status that helped the Serbian elite turn against him.
There are two problems with this. It's an unrealistic view of the Kosovo War, and the Western strategy in the Libya War is starting to look more like Rummy's fanciful approach in Afghanistan.

What we saw in the Kosovo War of 1999 was that air power can inhibit the use of ground troops but didn't prevent it. Cole writes, "NATO's aerial bombing missions were what stopped the advance into Kosovo of Serbian troops." But in fact, Serbian troops intensified their ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars after the bombing campaign began. William Arkin in "Operation Allied Force: 'The Most Precise Application of Air Power in History'," from Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen, eds, War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age (2001) explains:

From the perspective of allied pilots, attacking forces in Kosovo translated into huntng down and hitting individual vehicles - with negligible effect on the progress of Operation Horsehoe [the ethnic cleansing campaign Serbia launched in March 1999 just before the NATO bombing began]. [US Defence] Secretary [William] Cohen would later claim that the attacks proceeded according to plan, creating the conditions that shifted the "balance of power" toward the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). NATO, he said after the war, had been "creating the possibility that the military efforts of the Kosovar Albanians, which were likely to grow in intensity as a result of Milosevic's atrocities in Kosovo, might be a more credible challenge to Serb armed forces." But that is patent nonsense. In claiming that its Phase 2 efforts [which started after the initial 48-hour Phase 1 bombing] constituted a serious effort to stop ethnic cleansing by killing its perpetrators, NATO (and by extension the Clinton administration) was being either stupid or disingenuous.
NATO initially hoped that Serbia would relent on the ethnic cleansing campaign after the Phase 1 bombing campaign of the first 48 hours had taken place. That didn't occur. NATO then had to extend the bombing into Serbia proper and strike urban targets. The air war began on March 25. Arkin relates:

Toward the end of May, with the support of American intelligence and Albanian artillery, the KLA mounted a counteroffensive. "The is the beginning of a new phase of aggression, the so-called land operation," Major General Vladimir Lazarevic, commander of the Yugoslav Pritina Corps, said. Regardless of the ferocious debate inside NATO about the need for a ground war, Belgrade saw threatening signs that suggested NATO preparations for just that contingency.
NATO shored up their international diplomatic support with the crucial backing of Russia, which had been Serbia's supporter. There was also increasing anger among the Serbian public toward Milosevic. The combination of these factors persuaded him to call off the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and leave the area, which was a part of the nation of Serbia, as a de facto NATO protectorate.

Milošević, like Muammar Qaddafi more recently, was indicted for war crimes and thus faced the prospect of criminal prosecution under UN auspices, it's highly questionable whether this makes the leaders more likely to capitulate in an immediate conflict, whatever its value may be in the larger scheme of things. Ousting Milošević was never a war aim of the Kosovo War. Had NATO had to send in ground troops, Milošević had to calculate that it might become the goal. Combined with the internal political pressure in Serbia, Milošević could and apparently did calculate that he was more likely to survive in power - and stay out of the hands of international prosecutors - if he capitulated to NATO on Kosovo.

Its now obvious that regime change is the goal of the US-French-British forces in Libya. More is on the line for Qaddafi and his close supporters in this war than there was for Milošević in the Kosovo War in 1999.

But we also now know that the CIA, the British MI6 and Western Special Forces are operating on the ground, giving military direction to rebel fighters and coordinating air strikes. This sounds far more like the approach that the Cheney-Bush Administration used under Rummy's direction in 2001 in the initial stage of the ongoing Afghanistan War. The idea was to use the CIA, Special Forces and air power to support the Northern Alliance forces to take power in Kabul.

That strategy worked in Afghanistan to put the Northern Alliance in power in Kabul. It didn't work so well in bringing maximum power to bear directly against Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida, although the damage done to Al Qa'ida seems to have been very substantial. In a grim irony, advocates of permanent war want to pretend that the bogeyman of Al Qa'ida is a greater threat to the United States than the nuclear-armed Soviet Union was, so even a decade later, it's hard to tell from the information in the public record just how far-reaching the damage to Al Qa'ida was in 2001-2.

But the "Afghanistan model" for the Libya War looks to me like an even grimmer prospect that the Kosovo War model. With bombing and no-fly zones, the external powers have the option to limit their involvement or to pull back, however complicated that might be in practice. It's not so easy to do when the US is so deeply involved in the Libya civil war as we've becoming in the last three weeks (and maybe earlier than that?).

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