Allies discuss end of bombing operation amid concerns over cost and vagueness of aims after ousting of Muammar Gaddafi
by Julian Borger in Brussels
Nato defence ministers are to debate on Thursday when to declare an end to the air war in Libya amid concerns over the mounting cost of the campaign and the vagueness of the alliance’s war aims.
The Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said on Wednesday that the end of the war would not be determined by the fate of the fugitive former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“The key will be the protection of the civilian population, so when no threat exists against the civilian population then the time will have come to terminate our operation,” Rasmussen said at the start of the two-day meeting in Brussels, which will include Arab states involved in the campaign.
He said the decision would be based in part on an assessment of the ability of the new government in Tripoli to protect civilians, and would be taken in consultation with the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) and the UN.
Pro-Gaddafi forces still hold parts of the towns of Sirte and Bani Walid, but as the territory they control has shrunk, military targets for Nato warplanes have also dwindled.
Nato aircraft have not carried out any strikes since the weekend. However, sorties by RAF Tornado and Typhoon jets, even without any bombs dropped or missiles fired, still cost £35,000 and £45,000 respectively.
By some estimates the war could soon cost Britain more than £1bn, with France and the US facing similar bills, and there is anxiety in all three countries that the campaign should drag on indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Nato members who originally opposed the intervention, including Germany and some eastern European states, argue that its mission is no longer clear.
Nato officials admit it will be hard to make a judgment on when the civilian population is no longer under threat.
“An operation is like a marriage. The only thing you know for sure is the day it starts,” one senior official said.
“The big risk is that one day we stop and the next day there is a massacre, in which case we would have failed.”
Alliance policy planners are discussing a scenario in which Gaddafi loyalists cease to hold any territory, but continue to inflict casualties, as Saddam Hussein’s followers did in Iraq.
In such a situation, the population would be under constant threat, but Nato aircraft would be almost powerless to intervene without the risk of causing yet more civilian deaths and injuries.
Nato officials are also concerned that fighting could break out among the factions that brought down Gaddafi’s regime.
They believe the alliance would be under an obligation to intervene under the terms of its UN mandate to protect the Libyan population.
“If it degenerates into a big fight between factions, we will have to take action,” a senior official said.
“If the scale and scope is of an order that justifies Nato intervention, we will intervene.”
Even if the bloodshed came to an end, disengagement would not be entirely straightforward, Nato planners warn.
The alliance is currently responsible for air traffic control over Libya, for example, and it could take some time for the new authorities to take over.
(source: The Guardian)