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Concern about mission creep grows as more bombs fall on Libya

March 22, 2011


Barely 48 hours into the Libyan war, the American general running the air strikes came under fire about mission creep even while insisting that allied warplanes won’t hunt Moammar Gadhafi or back the rebels seeking to oust him.

“I have no mission to attack that person. And we are not doing so. We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that,” said General Carter Ham, U.S. regional commander for all of Africa.

Concerns over mission creep continue to be raised around the world – including in Canada – as a new set of strikes hit Triopoli late Monday. On a day in which Canadian CF-18s flew their first missions over Libya and Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Canada had a “moral duty” to participate, all four opposition parties endorsed Canadian involvement in the mission but pressed for details over how long the mission would last, what it would cost, and how it would meet the war’s objectives.Warplanes from Western nations – American, British, Canadian, French, Italian, Danish and Belgian – are now scouring Libyan skies expanding the no-fly zone and destroying air defences progressively toward the west and Colonel Gadhafi’s stronghold of Tripoli. New strikes were reported late Monday with state television reporting that several sites were hit in Tripoli.

Despite repeated claims from Western leaders that Arab nations would join the bombing campaign, none as yet has deployed.

Western warplanes won’t be artillery in the sky for the bloodied but emboldened Libyan antigovernment forces, whose ill-advised and unrealistic foray toward Tripoli ended badly as soon as their pick-up trucks filled with gun-toting amateurs ran into tough mercenaries, tanks and military units loyal to Col. Gadhafi.

“We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces,” said Gen. Ham, the four-star general running the Libyan war. “We have no mission to support opposition forces if they should engage in offensive operations.”

That will distress jubilant rebels advancing past the charred corpses and burned-out tanks on the coastal road.

In Benghazi, rebels who were under relentless attack from a now-destroyed tank column, boldly proclaimed they were again taking the offensive as forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi fell back under the relentless air strikes. Rebels claim to have advanced to Zuwaytinah, an oil terminal about 25 kilometres from Ajdabiya, where pro-Gadhafi forces were digging in.

Gen. Ham said the war was going well. Most of Libya’s handful of still-flyable, Soviet-era MiG warplanes had been destroyed on the ground, wrecked in the hardened shelters by bunker-busting bombs. More than 125 cruise missiles fired from U.S. warships and a British submarine had wiped out radars and surface-to-air missile sites. Scores of tanks, rocket launchers and armoured personnel carriers poised to threaten Benghazi had been pulverized. The no-fly zone was steadily being expanded to the west and Gen. Ham said he expected allied warplanes to bomb mobile surface-to-air missile sites and lesser targets soon.

Col. Gadhafi’s main command-and-control headquarters – the Libyan Pentagon – had been reduced to rubble in Tripoli.

“I don’t worry too much about mission creep,” Gen. Ham said, adding he could achieve the war aims set out in UN Resolution 1973 and still leave Col. Gadhafi in power, albeit controlling only the western half of Libya and most of its oil wealth.

“I could see accomplishing the military mission … and the current leader would remain the current leader,” Gen. Ham said. “I don’t think anyone would say that is ideal, but … I would reiterate that I have no mission to attack that person, and we are not doing so.”

The general’s talk of the limited scope of the mission comes despite President Barack Obama’s insistence that Col. Gadhafi must step down. “It is U.S. policy that Gadhafi has to go,” Mr. Obama said Monday in Brazil, though he made it clear that ousting the Libyan leader isn’t a war aim.

In Moscow, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denounced the widespread air strikes, echoing the Libyan leader’s provocative comparison to another Christian crusade against a Muslim country. It’s like a “medieval crusade,” Mr. Putin said. “The UN Security Council resolution is certainly faulty and deficient. … It allows for an invasion of a sovereign country.”

Although Russia and China – both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council – had allowed the war-mandating resolution to pass by abstaining, leaders in both countries seem dismayed by the scale and severity of the air strikes.

The 22-nation Arab League, whose call for a no-fly zone was considered essential by the Obama administration before it would back one and commit military resources, flip-flopped again. In the hours after the air strikes began, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa had decried the bombing, suggesting it was too severe and could kill civilians, not protect them as mandated.

But on Monday, standing alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Moussa sounded vaguely supportive. “We respect UN Resolution 1973,” he said.

The diplomatic dissonance may pressure military commanders to bomb as many targets as quickly as possible, rather than face a truncated campaign if international political support erodes.

Meanwhile, no Arab nation, even those most closely allied with the United States and long at odds with Col. Gadhafi, publicly backed the air war. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have promised war planes. Neither has yet sent any, leaving the air war entirely to Western nations.

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