NATO bombing in Libya leads to drawn-out war, more civilian deaths

The U.S. is now actively at war in four countries, counting the covert operations in Yemen and Pakistan, and maintains a sizable army in Iraq. All of these wars, like those of the past, were begun for purportedly noble purposes such as combatting terrorists, spreading democracy or protecting civilians. After 10 years of continuous warfare, however, only one of these aims has been accomplished–”the killing of master terrorist Osama bin Laden–”and meanwhile the U.S. has gained an expanded military presence in the region that is likely to become permanent.

NATO’s expanded interpretation of a U.N. mandate to intervene in Libya to protect civilians has increased, not lessened, the number of civilian deaths. An intensive bombing campaign directed at Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s army enabled his opponents to maintain a foothold in the city of Misurata, which Qaddafi’s forces then subjected to constant shelling, with hundreds more deaths as a result. Qaddafi has repeatedly offered a cease-fire only to be turned down.

President Barack Obama’s prediction of a bloodbath if NATO did not intervene was disputed by Prof. Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas, who wrote in the April 14 Boston Globe that until Misurata came under siege, Libyan soldiers were targeting only rebel fighters. His statement was backed up by Human Rights Watch, which found that no bloodbaths or arbitrary killings took place in the cities recaptured by Qaddafi’s troops.

In any case, bombing populated areas is hardly a way to prevent civilian casualties. NATO’s repeated bombing of Qaddafi’s family compound in Tripoli in late April killed Qaddafi’s son and three grandchildren, all under 4, and angered even Qaddafi’s enemies. Administration officials said the intent was not to kill the Libyan leader but to "change his calculus" and force him to surrender.

Whatever their intent, the allies agreed that Qaddafi had to go. "It’s a non-negotiable demand," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner in rejecting a proposal by the African Union for a cease-fire and the promise of reforms to Qaddafi’s regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that nothing could be resolved without "the departure of Qaddafi from power and from Libya."

The administration has yet to suggest a possible successor to Qaddafi. A State Department official praised his opponents as "a group of disparate individuals that has formed in the face of Colonel Qaddafi’s onslaught and oppression and has done a good job at coalescing, at forming a leadership, at creating certain values, and communicating those values and ideals."

But in the same week, New York Times reporters in Benghazi described the rebels as "a ragtag, undisciplined force," prone to firing high-explosive munitions repeatedly and indiscriminately, causing numbers of unnecessary casualties. The rebels could not even agree on which of two squabbling generals was their top officer. One of the rival generals, Abdul Fattah Younes, only recently defected from the Qaddafi regime. The other, Khalifa Hifter, returned from exile in suburban Virginia, where he was in frequent communication with the CIA. Both claimed to be in charge.

"I control everybody, the rebels and the regular army forces," Hifter said on April 18. "I am the field commander." A member of the rebels’ civilian leadership, the Transitional National Council, disagreed, saying, "This is not true. General Younes is over him for sure, and General Hifter is under him." There is no way to check. The Council is self-appointed, and most of its members’ names are kept secret for security reasons.

The U.N.’s limited mandate, the rebels’ disorganization, and Qaddafi’s ability to resist indicate that there can be no military solution. NATO’s policy of waiting until Qaddafi weakens is ill-advised, according to Tomas Valasek, a defense expert at the Center for European Reform."It may take everyone longer to realize that this is as far as military force takes us," he said. "Unless we want a divided Libya we need to sit down and negotiate."

Given NATO’s recent decision to escalate the bombing, negotiations are likely to be a long way off.

As the Obama administration wages war in Libya ostensibly to protect civilians, it continues to send arms to Bahrain, where King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa clamped down on peaceful protests by placing the country under martial law and calling in a 2,000-man army mobilized by Saudi Arabia. Over a thousand people in Bahrain, including dozens of medical workers, have been jailed and reportedly tortured, and clinics that serve the poor forced to close.

Criticism of the government is grounds for shutting down newspapers and political parties and arresting journalists. Bahrainis who call for moderate reforms are prosecuted for incitement. By mid-April at least four people had died in police custody, their bodies found covered with bruises. Others have disappeared.

More Difficult Challenges

Obama faces still more difficult choices in his war against the Taliban, who are deeply entrenched in large areas of Afghanistan. The more than 10 -year hunt for al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden ended on May 1, when U.S. commandoes, acting on information obtained from a prisoner in one of the CIA’s "black sites," cornered him in a compound deep inside Pakistan and shot him to death. But a war launched in 2001 to eliminate the perpetrators of 9/11 has since taken on more amorphous goals, and obstacles to a NATO victory have multiplied rather than decreased.

Night raids that killed at least 80 civilians last year continue to enrage villagers and gain recruits for the Taliban. The escape in late April of nearly 500 prisoners from Afghanistan’s largest prison was evidence that the Taliban had infiltrated even the prison guards. In the past two years 48 NATO troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers.

A major source of anti-American resentment both in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the drone missile attacks that have greatly increased since Obama took office. Geoff Simons in the April-May issue of The Lind cites a 2009 study by Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, that concluded that an average of 10 civilians to one Taliban fighter were being killed by drones. On April 22, just after top Pakistani military officials again pleaded for a halt in the attacks, a U.S. missile killed five children and four women.

The fact that bin Laden was found living in Pakistan is certain to deepen U.S. mistrust of the Pakistani military, and increase existing tensions between the two countries. Obama’s recent appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to head the CIA, which controls the drone flights, is hardly likely to please the Pakistanis, who resent the CIA’s presence in their country and, unlike Petraeus, favor efforts to achieve reconciliation with the Taliban and its allies in the border region. Both groups have worked closely with the Pakistani military in the past and could be counted on for help in a conflict with India.

Pakistan’s leaders also have reason to fear that continuation of an unpopular war could bring on the kind of revolts that have occurred in Arab countries. Huge income disparities, the lack of government services, and official corruption that have caused upheavals elsewhere are even more severe in Pakistan.

"We don’t know what the Americans’ endgame is," a Pakistani security official once complained. It is now evident that Washington’s endgame is to withdraw some 33,000 troops from Afghanistan starting in August, but keep others permanently in the country. The administration has begun talks with the Afghan government on forming a Strategic Partnership Declaration that would allow American soldiers to remain indefinitely. Mrs. Clinton described the proposed arrangement as "a long-term framework for our bilateral cooperation." Others might call a military agreement between the world’s most powerful nation and one of its poorest, a plan for permanent occupation.

"There was a time when the Americans were struggling to find one base in Central Asia," a regional diplomat noted. "Here is a place where they can have all the bases they want, and Afghanistan is a place between two potential nuclear Islamic powers, Iran and Pakistan." Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee last March that "It’s important to stay engaged in a region in which we have such vital interests." He failed to say what those interests are.

A NATO victory in Afghanistan has long been out of the question.The Partnership Declaration is likely to put peace out of reach as well. There is no way the Taliban will accept a permanent American presence as part of any peace agreement. The potential impasse is especially disturbing in view of a recent report published by New York University that suggests the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was unnecessary.

The authors of the study, Profs. Alex van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, say the Taliban had had no advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, and would have been more than willing to renounce al-Qaeda in return for guarantees of security. They offered to do so in 2002, as well as to take part in a process of political engagement and reconciliation. The Afghan government showed no interest, and arrested the Taliban member who came to Kabul to discuss the offer.

Still a Presence in Iraq

Americans will also remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Baghdad is the site of the largest U.S. embassy in the world, which the State Department plans to staff with 16,000 employees plus an army of civilian contractors to protect them. Military commanders are reportedly also looking into "creative ways" to keep at least 10,000 soldiers in Iraq indefinitely to promote stability and guard Iraq’s border with Iran.

One potential obstacle to this plan is Moqtada al-Sadr, a principal partner in the ruling government coalition who has vowed to renew insurgent warfare if any U.S. troops remain. What should worry Obama even more, however, is the nature of the Iraqi regime American forces will be protecting. Gates recently called Iraq "an extraordinary success story," saying, "It’s new and it is a democracy." The "democracy" Gates referred to is run by an autocrat, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who oversees the army and police and whose personal security force runs secret prisons where prisoners have been found brutally tortured.

Maliki has assumed the roles of minister of interior and defense, and recently took control of the agencies that run the central bank, conduct elections, and investigate corruption. Aliya Nasaif, an opposition member of parliament, commented, "This is the beginning of dictatorship. We are regressing by centuries."

The "success" achieved by the U.S. in Iraq so far has consisted of replacing one tyrant with another, and transforming a modern state into a society plagued by unemployment, a shortage of electricity and clean water, and sectarian violence. Instead of spending more resources maintaining an occupation army, Obama would do better to help the Iraqi people repair the damage that war and occupation have brought to their country.