Sunday 17 August 2014

Libya: a non-interventionist intervention

As much as the astonishing ignorance of Dan Hodges irks me, one is not altogether surprised. My expectations were not high to begin with. But some commentators ought to know better. The problem with being a modern journalist is that one is expected to project an air of authority and this can be done quite easily with certain linguistic tricks and rhetoric, and when published under a prestige title such as the Guardian or Telegraph, far too much plausible conjecture slips through the net and becomes part of a media narrative when closer examination of the facts tell a very different story.

It is oft said that journalism is the first draft of history, but in order to understand how we our understanding so badly wrong, we need to look at what qualifies as journalism these days. All too often it is delegated to young journalism graduates who lack the necessary scepticism and lack any kind of specialist knowledge. But even notionally experienced journalists still keep making the same basic errors. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to war reporting, and there is much air-headed speculation coming from Ukraine and Iraq this week.

We've had generals, lords and journalists calling for war when no such capability exists, so evidenced by the fact that our Tornado GR4s were restricted to reconnaissance missions. US air strikes are flying up from carriers in the Persian Gulf, whereas RAF strikes would require overflight permission from Turkey and Jordan to carry weapons which we would not get.

Similarly, we've had Guardian hacks on a roadside somewhere in Russia watching convoys of "tanks" go past, speculating over a possible "invasion", not knowing what a Buk missile launcher looks like - only a matter of weeks after the MH17 incident.

It is for this reason this blog keeps returning to the matter of Operation Unified Protector (OUP), the air campaign over Libya in 2011, as various journalists draw meaningless comparisons with the recent Gaza offensive. From various sources we get careless hyperbole such as "Libya has been bombed into the stone age" or "Libya has been pummeled". This is the language of teenage activists, not journalists. That's not so bad in that most grown-ups can see the transparency of such feeble wording, but more sophisticated narratives still come into play based on a fundamental misunderstanding of military operations from people who refuse to fact check their own assertions.

The popular narrative, derived from sloppy language and military ignorance, is that NATO had blitzed Libya in an intensive air campaign that decisively crushed Gaddafi's forces, wiped out civil infrastructure and wiped out any mechanisms of a central state. None of this stacks up.

I have been known to hammer this point home, citing the gap between narrative and reality in Libya, and while I have sketched out some of my own interpretations on this blog, I have happened upon this report, along with a day-by-day analysis of OUP. I trust it because I know that aviation analysts have a penchant for pedantry and a distaste for inaccuracy. While it is jargon heavy, and the authors first language is clearly not English, the reader does have things like Google at their disposal, and while the casual reader is not expected to understand these things, journalists have a duty and a responsibility to make sure they do.

To pontificate on wars without examining the tools of war leads to fatuous comparisons and false equivalence. To compare Libya with the recent Gaza operation is so militarily illiterate it is difficult to know where to begin. For those who have examined Protective Edge in sufficient detail, you'll see that David Cenciotti's analysis paints a very different, almost farcical picture of the NATO operation, hampered by a lack of military cohesion, deep political divisions and competing agendas. A far cry from Israel's ruthless efficiency.

While we have seen some highly sophisticated weapons used by the IDF, we have also seen clumsy shelling and large unguided munitions dropped on Gaza. It is my view that Israel could and should have done better. What was needed was a careful and intelligent application of technology, but what we saw was a devil-may-care attitude to civilian casualties. That cannot be said of NATO air operations over Libya. But there are caveats and further considerations.

In the wake of the PR disaster that was Iraq, NATO went to extended lengths to avoid civilian deaths. The results were impressive on that score but in terms of overall effect, we might as well not have bothered. The Aviationist report makes for some eye-opening reading. I have been cautious with my hunches and conclusions thus far, but David Cenciotti's conclusions, having done more thorough research than I, are not all that far from my own.
Unlike the more effective Allied Force in Serbia and Kosovo, Unified Protector represents an example of how an air campaign should not be executed. As I’ve pointed out many times in the previous debriefings, the way the air campaign was conducted and planned, transformed what could have been a quick victory into an almost deadlocked battlefield.

Odyssey Dawn (OUP) represented just a series of independent national missions: the US, French, British and Italian contingents were not fully integrated, to such an extent that each one had to have its own tankers. When NATO took over and the US stepped back to a support role withdrawing its attack planes, it took 2 months to understand that it was better to start targeting Gaddafi’s capacity to resupply his forces on the front rather than attacking each single vehicle on the frontline. Furthermore, coalition planes went after a large number of ammunition depots throughout the whole air campaign. Since there were 4000 in Libya, a wiser move would have been to attack the most important ones in the early stages of the air campaign, in order to prevent loyalist forces from being able to fight for about 7 months.
Consider that 80 days since the beginning of Odyssey Dawn (then Unified Protector) NATO still had some fixed targets (like C2 sites, national intelligence centre, State TV antennas, and so on) to attack even if these targets should be hit in the very early phases of any offensive air campaign.

For this reason, in spite of the official statements, NATO has been criticised by the rebels and by many analysts for being too cautious. In my opinion this was caused by a series of reasons: a UN Security Council Resolution that was open to different interpretations and that prevented the alliance to strike Gaddafi forces if they were not threatening civilians; caveats and strict ROE imposed by those partner nations facing internal struggles and that could not “afford” the risk of collateral damages (UAE AF took part to the air strikes even if the news was initially kept secret but only attacking fixed ground targets); the need to provide cover to the “freedom fighters” in a typical TIC (Troops In Contact) scenario without troops on the ground; and the lack, especially at the beginning, of a direct contact and a standard communication protocol with the rebels.
So what we have here is an humanitarian mission hindered by humanitarian concerns to the point where NATOs presence for the most part could be said to be neither help nor hindrance.

Cenciotti's other work confirms that we didn't need RAF big wigs to tell us that the Libyan Arab Republic Air Force “no longer exists as a fighting force”. We'd been enforcing an arms embargo for a very long time and a shortage of spares for antique Soviet jets, along with a lack of engineering skill to keep them running ensured that what the rebels hadn't already sabotaged had little chance of flying in any case.

We also see a procession of raids hitting two or three tanks per sortie or empty sheds on remote airfields, with short loiter times, spending more time breaking away for in flight refuelling than patrolling, and a very large part of  the operation was dedicated to suppression of air defences which to my mind is inconsequential to the military outcome on the ground.

The closest we see to substantive intervention is a number of short range helicopter gunships operating along the coast were the closest to direct involvement in the fighting, which seem largely part of the policing of arms embargoes.

OUP could be described as a non-interventionist intervention, where the reluctance to engage in any meaningful sense looks to have prolonged the fighting, prompting the operational shift to remove Gaddafi at the last minute. NATO had been bombing away at nothing for over two months with very little to show for it and needed to be seen to be scoring a quick victory.

I think this demonstrates the folly of working to UN resolutions. Bush was heavily criticised for "unilateralism", but the speed at which Hussein's regime collapsed tells its own story. If a clear intent to intervene is defined, with a meaningful objective in mind, with a single command structure, there is no practical reason why we can't bring about swift regime change if that is the military objective - but not when dancing around humanitarian pretensions.

I have already argued that if there was a case for intervention then it should have been an all out commitment to an objective. Instead we saw attempts to level the playing field to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, but it seems we will still get that catastrophe one way or another as fighting continues in Libya.

If we are going to have joint operations then it must be toward a joint agenda. Libya demonstrates there is no such thing. The motivations are fragmented, the military objectives ill-defined and the result is that we end up making policy on the fly to react to rapidly changing events with only a limited understanding of the political realities on the ground. The operation was in complete disarray because of a lack of military cohesion, but more profoundly a lack of political coherence.

This week has seen both the Guardian and the Telegraph speaking of the need for a foreign policy strategy, but nobody seems to fully comprehend the rogue non-state actor, known to us as the EU. There is an unwillingness to acknowledge the EU as a foreign policy actor, with interventionist politics being as parochial as ever they were. Until our politicians begin to recognise this, they will continue to see foreign policy in the infantile terms of the good guys in the West coming to the rescue of the little people in foreign lands and we will continue to stir up hornets nests for no political or strategic advantage.

All the clues are there, starting with our military procurements, but because such detail is beyond the wit of our political and media class, the realities elude them. It was the disparity between the narrative and the order of battle list for OUP that alerted me to the possibility that there were larger political divisions at play. This was supposed to be a grand showing of European co-operation. It wasn't even that.

The lack of a US strike component, the insistence by Italy that France should not be allowed to assume command of OUP, opting for NATO instead, Germany's refusal and US reluctance are hints of something much more politically complex. I can find no rationale for British involvement other than what has been widely described as "me-tooism" and "moral posturing". But somebody has been doing a very careful weighing up of interests, even if Britain has not.

The EU saw Libya as an opportunity to flex its foreign policy muscles, while the French saw arms export potential and the Italians saw the need to protect their former colonial interests. To write off our failed interventions as run of the mill political naivety and stupidity is to understate and misrepresent.

But it's no good saying that we should never intervene. The fact is we will intervene for as long as we have no direct voice in the decision to go to war. Therefore the challenge for political activists is to influence the coming debate in shaping a strong intervention doctrine that ensures that we never commit our forces to any operation that is not in the direct national economic or security interest, and that if there are humanitarian interventions, they must only be for immediate relief where a people through no fault of their own face extermination where there is no possibility of a diplomatic resolution.

At present we seem to want to have our cake and eat it. We seem to think that we can send in the fast jets and expensive toys, fly the flag and be free of consequences. We can't. If we go in, we have to accept we are militarily and politically connected to the conflict for as long as it takes. I think we have demonstrated that we cannot install democracy, but we can, as in the case of Iraq, turn a government in our favour. Moral aspects aside, that would be the national interest we ought to be seeking if we are to intervene.

Some would say Iraq is an example of why we can't do this, having caused a catastrophe. But compared to what? While we have used sanctions and subterfuge to destabilise the Assad regime, we have not intervened militarily and that war seems to be racing up a body count faster than Iraq ever did with a larger refugee crisis.

Some point to the failure of Iraq to stand up to ISIL as a reason why Iraq was a failure. But hold your horses. It should be noted that the threat of ISIL is massively overstated. It's a rag bag of amateurs from all over the place, who are not cohesive fighting force. Their military successes are in thanks to their reputation for casual brutality and a reluctance by Iraqi Sunnis to fight them because they had been excluded from government by Maliki.

Now he has gone, notably peacefully and without conflict, we are starting to see the Iraqi army come back into play with some impressive successes. Not forgetting there has been an amnesty for Sunnis who joined ISIL and many have been reintegrated into the army with some success. Tribal loyalties can turn on a sixpence in Iraq and the situation can change overnight. We have yet to see if Iraq will hold together, but it is showing signs of working through this first major constitutional crisis without it falling apart. We are now only eleven years past the initial invasion. It is unrealistic to expect a miraculous conversion in such a short time and in fact the rebuilding of Germany and Japan took a great deal longer.

ISIL serves as a useful political football for both sides in the West. Some want to over-hype the threat from Islamists for their own ends, and the left are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of Iraq failing, as they wanted it to all along. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army appears to have different ideas and will be kicking ISIL back into Syria where Assad's forces might just finish them off. The future for Iraq is not as bleak as some would have it.

It will be a decade or more before we see what the region looks like, assuming we see a decisive end to the Syrian civil war any time soon. When we look at the two conflicts side by side, history may be kinder to the Iraq invasion than our generation and we might wonder if the absence of US forces would not have meant a similar fate for Iraq.

There are those who argue that it is not our place to fight the battles of self-determination for others. But there are still realpolitik concerns and sometimes the price of non-intervention means a shift in the global balance of power. As clumsy and inept as the West is, I would prefer that the US remained the global superpower considering the alternatives. That said, Iraq has been expensive and damaging to our reputation, and is not the sort of thing we should involve ourselves in unless the broader geopolitical context demands that we must.

As it turns out, it was accidentally in our own interests to side with the US and go into Iraq because, by way of UK military spending constraints, it scuppered the EUs ambitions for its own military and killed the FRES rapid reaction force stone dead, which may mean we have inadvertently prevented the EU from starting wars of its own. A delicious irony of its own.

But assuming you could construct a watertight moral and legal case for intervention, we must start from the basis that we lack the intellectual capital, intelligence resources and military capability. Our forces are over-equipped with toys, under-equipped with intelligence assets and badly under-skilled. We need an urgent debate as to why this is so, and whether it can be reversed, and whether the price of a more integrated foreign and military policy is too high, assuming any such thing can be achieved with proper democratic consent.

What I am certain of is that our media cannot be relied upon to give us an accurate picture. As much as they are incapable of interpreting events as they unfold, they are incapable of admitting when they are wrong. Thus our media is just another wing of the entertainment industry. If you want to be entertained they do a half decent job, but if you want to be informed... ask a blogger.

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