Wednesday, April 20, 2011

British military advisers will follow American CIA teams already deployed in Libya as part of the broad Western effort – beyond any UN mandate – to help rebel forces oust the despotic and ruthless Moammar Gadhafi.

Mission creep is denied, nonetheless. “This deployment is fully within the terms of UN [Security Council Resolution] 1973, both in respect of civilian protection and its provision expressly ruling out a foreign occupation force on Libyan soil,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “Our officers will not be involved in training or arming the opposition’s fighting forces.”

The British advisers will take handguns but leave their uniforms at home to preserve the appearance that foreign forces are not deploying to Libya. “We will now move quickly to expand the team already in Benghazi to include an additional military liaison advisory team,” Mr. Hague said.

France, the most aggressive of the allies in pushing for robust military strikes to topple Col. Gadhafi, also has military advisers in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. However, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé rejected calls for special forces to help target air strikes. “I remain, for my part, entirely hostile to the deployment of forces on the ground,” he said.

Accusations of “mission creep” are steadfastly rejected, even as senior allied officers charged with running the war acknowledge that air strikes alone won’t save the tens of thousands in besieged Misrata from Gadhafi loyalists indiscriminately engaging in brutal urban warfare.

“There is a limit to what can be achieved with air power to stop fighting in a city,” acknowledged Dutch Brigadier-General Mark van Uhm, NATO’s chief of operations.

With U.S. warplanes withdrawn from the fray, NATO has no combat aircraft available that are well suited for risky close-air-support missions and no helicopter gunships capable of striking enemy positions inside crowded urban areas.

After a month and 2,800 missions – more than 1,000 of which were air strikes – the war has so far failed to safeguard Libyan civilians (its official mandate) or to undermine the regime.

A senior Gadhafi loyalist, deputy foreign minister Khaled Kayim, warned that Britain and France were blundering into a quagmire. “This is a big trap for Britain and France … they will get nothing in return apart from more casualties,” he told The Guardian.

The European Union, meanwhile, said it was working on a plan to send additional troops – but only for humanitarian assistance – a claim derided by Gadhafi officials in Tripoli who said any foreign soldiers would be killed.

NATO escalated the air war on Tuesday with cruise missile strikes fired from a British nuclear submarine that returned to the Mediterranean after restocking. And British warplanes attacked a military headquarters inside Tripoli – a target considered within the UN war mandate to protect civilians because it is a base for Col. Gadhafi’s elite and feared 32nd Brigade.

Canadian air force Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard is running the air war for NATO, although he reports to a U.S. admiral.

President Barack Obama ordered the U.S. military to take only a secondary role after providing most of the firepower in the opening days of the war.

The no-fly zone has morphed into NATO warplanes strafing and bombing forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi – verging on serving as the rebels’ air force – despite denials from Mr. Obama and other Western leaders who insist air strikes aren’t intended to achieve the admitted goal of regime change.

Sending British advisers irked some British MPs – the escalation compared by some to the ill-fated decision by John F. Kennedy to send additional U.S. military advisers to Vietnam in the early 1960s.

“However much one despises the brutality of the Gaddafi clan,” Labour’s David Winnick said, “there is a danger of mission creep …. there is a civil war in Libya and this is a big escalation.”

Dutch Brig.-Gen. van Uhm acknowledged that Col. Gadhafi’s forces have adapted to NATO’s superior firepower and self-imposed limitations, no longer presenting easy targets of tank columns out in the open desert or on the main road linking Libya’s coastal cities.

Libyan “forces have changed their tactics, hiding their tanks, using civilians as human shields,” he said. “We cannot and we will not attack those targets because that could cause collateral damage, that could cause civilian casualties.”


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