Friday, April 1, 2011

On the Edge of Libyan Mission Creep

As the Libyan civil war approaches its eighth week, and as involvement by Western powers continues into its third week, the future of the Qaddafi regime remains obscure. After two weeks of airstrikes from coalition forces, the Libyan army and mercenary forces remain intact and the fighting rages on in a ground war. While the Obama Administration insists that regime change is off the table, it is difficult to interpret all of our military operations in a manner consistent with UN Resolution 1973's mandate of "protecting civilians". As Glenn Greenwald writes at Salon, 
"The no-fly zone was established long ago; the focus is now on attacking Qadaffi's ground forces, enabling rebel advancements, and regime change."
After classified briefings on Wednesday by the secretaries of State and Defense on Libya, Senator Jimm Webb of Virginia said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, 
“We are clearly involved in regime change.  It is definitely a diplomatic reality.”
Opposition fighters were locked in combat with pro-
Gaddafi forces near Brega on Friday [Reuters]
Two days ago, the NY Times reported "The Obama administration was engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya, according to senior officials." Of course if Qaddafi isn't shot in the head by a defector in a miraculous situation, and if the rebels are to stand any chance in overthrowing the regime, they are bound to require arms supplies from third parties. There are consequences we should embrace however. The NY Times reports:
But some administration officials argue that supplying arms would further entangle the United States in a drawn-out civil war because the rebels would need to be trained to use any weapons, even relatively simple rifles and shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons. This could mean sending trainers. One official said the United States might simply let others supply the weapons.  
The question of whether to arm the rebels underscores the difficult choices the United States faces as it tries to move from being the leader of the military operation to a member of a NATO-led coalition, with no clear political endgame. It also carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of which backfired. The United States has a deep, often unsuccessful, history of arming insurgencies.
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, raised a crucial point. After speaking with two senior administration officials about the issue, Mr. Levin raised the question of what the weapons would be used for after a ceasefire:
“Would they stop fighting if they had momentum, or would they be continuing to use those weapons?” he asked. 
We should keep in mind that after arming the mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980's, many of our former allies turned against the United States and the NATO-backed Northern Alliance. This includes Osama bin Laden, who was not hostile to American intervention in Afghanistan's fight against its former occupier. The legality of arming the rebels is not certain as well; many legal experts argue that the action will be in violation of the UN arms embargo. And it is very likely that the U.N. along with NATO allies are already arming the rebels and providing material assistance.
According to the latest article from Al Jazeera, Forces loyal to Libya's leader of nearly 42 years spent much of this week pushing the rebels back about 160km along the coast. Attempting to regroup, the rebels hit back with mortars on Friday - weapons they previously appeared to have lacked. The previous night, they drove in a convoy with at least eight rocket launchers - more artillery than usual.
The rebels also appeared to have more communication equipment such as radios and satellite phones, and were working in more organized units, in which military defectors were each leading six or seven volunteers.
Reuters also recently reported that President Obama authorized a secret order authorizing covert U.S. government support for rebel forces. The order is known as a "presidential finding" which authorizes secret operations by the CIA. According to The Nation's Jeremy Scahill, it is normal for U.S. Presidents to order the CIA in foreign countries covertly for intelligence gathering purposes. CNN sheds some light on the history and implications of presidential findings:
A former senior intelligence official said covert action is seeking to change such things as the political future of a country, the attitudes of the populace, and/or the economic conditions within a nation.
 For instance, in the case of the rebels, the former official suggested some of the things the CIA operatives are doing on the ground are "finding out who they (the rebels) are, what they are doing and what they need" to be successful. The official went on to say the officers "might be advising on how to target the adversary, how to use the weapons they have, reconnaissance and counter surveillance."
In addition, McClatchy published an article detailing the profile of a new Libyan rebel leader who traveled back to Libya two weeks ago from the U.S., his home for the past twenty years. It's curious that he lived in suburban Virginia, remarkably close to Langley which happens to be the home of CIA headquarters.

The escalation of U.S. military involvement seems to provoking a lot of internal disagreement within the Administration. Secretary Gates for one seems hell-bent on getting himself fired before he retires from his post later this year. It is strangely reminiscent of former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley’s comments earlier this month when he characterized Private Bradley Manning's confinement as "counterproductive" and "stupid". In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary Gates said his own view was that any assistance to the Libyan opposition ought to come from another country. While not outright condemning U.S. intervention, he has strongly expressed his concerns over mission creep in recent days. McClatchy reports further:
Repeatedly pressed by members of both parties about whether there would be American “boots on the ground,” a euphemism for U.S. troops, Gates at one point replied, “Not as long as I’m in this job.”
In addition, we have some new reports highlighting civilian deaths as a result of coalition airstrikes. According to the Jerusalem Post, the top Vatican official in Tripoli has claimed he has received reliable witness accounts of civilian deaths inflicted as a result of "humanitarian raids". 
"I have collected several witness accounts from reliable people. In particular, in the Buslim neighborhood, due to the bombardments, a civilian building collapsed, causing the death of 40 people," he told Fides, the news agency of the Vatican missionary arm.
The BBC has a more detailed piece today reporting that 7 civilians were killed in a coalition airstrike and 25 were injured. The strike, which took place on Wednesday, hit a truck carrying ammunition, and the resulting explosion destroyed two nearby homes.
Four of the dead were female, including three children from the same family, aged between 12 and 16, the BBC's Ben Brown reports from Brega. Three boys, aged between 14 and 20, were also killed.
It's rather sickening to see the humanitarian interventionists content with the fact that coalition airstrikes and missiles are killing civilians. The justification for this is the claim that more civilians would have been killed by pro-Qaddafi forces otherwise. Even if that were true, and it is impossible to prove, the true humanitarian position is unwavering in its conviction that it is always unjust to kill civilians under any circumstances.  

Although calls for a ceasefire by the opposition was rejected earlier today, the movement of both pro-Qaddafi and opposition forces back and forth across the country suggests a stalemate may be declared. The growing number of defectors in Qaddafi's camp gives hope to all those who want to see him out of power. Whatever the situation on the ground may be, let's hope the U.S. moves closer to a policy of pure abstention. 

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