Casualties complicate NATO tactics in Libya

Reports of civilian casualties in Libya have shown the limitations of NATO's ability to step up its military involvement to break a stalemate between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

NATO, which took control of a Western military campaign against Gaddafi last week from a coalition led by the United States, Britain and France, faces mounting pressure to address complaints by rebels that it is not doing enough to help them.

Its firepower has helped keep a balance in Libya so far, preventing Gaddafi's forces overrunning the seven-week old revolt that started in the port city of Benghazi.

To tip it in favor of the revolt, military experts say, NATO may have to significantly increase its presence in Libya.

But the political consequences to participating governments of a potential rise in casualties -- either among civilians or Western troops -- stemming from a shift in military tactics may be too daunting for now, they say.

NATO air strikes killed more than a dozen rebel fighters last week in the oil town of Brega, rebels say, and on Thursday, the alliance faced accusations of having caused five more casualties in the area.

"Stepping up the military pressure is not going to happen, because of the cost," Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute said.

"You will only see a major expansion into (new) tactics if there was some sort of a major setback, for example the rebels being pushed back to the outskirts of Benghazi, but this isn't going to happen because of the military balance."


A senior U.S. general highlighted the challenges on Thursday, saying the likelihood of a stalemate was higher now than before NATO took over command of operations in Libya.

But General Carter Ham, who led the coalition air campaign before handing over command to NATO, said Washington should not arm the rebels without knowing more about them.

Arming rebels is one option military experts list as a solution to the impasse. But there are other possible shifts in the campaign which for now focuses on air strikes and enforcing a no-fly zone, mandated by the United Nations to protect civilians.

"To break the stalemate, there is nothing that can happen short of an invasion but that's not going to happen," said Marko Papic of political risk consultancy Stratfor.

He said France, one of the biggest contributors to NATO fire power, was preparing public opinion for a drawn-out campaign.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday the West must work harder for a political solution.ç

"You can already see France setting itself up politically for a stalemate," Papic said.

Other military options could include changing equipment used in Libya in favor of more precise firepower, to address mounting concerns from NATO that Gaddafi's forces are hiding their equipment in urban areas. But this could carry more risk of casualties among coalition troops.

"Helicopter gunships crash," Joshi said. "They are more vulnerable to ground fire. The are slow and they have more mechanical failures. A simple crash could kill a dozen (troops).

"It would be politically disastrous if that happens."

Another alternative, experts say, would be to send specialized commando troops to assists the rebels, but there is little Western appetite for sending in ground troops.

[Source: By Justyna Pawlak, Reuters, Brussels, 07Apr11]

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