NATO nations doubted win in Libya, notes show
While insisting that Gadhafi would be beaten, international community feared protracted stalemate
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other world leaders may be patting themselves on the back for a successful intervention in Libya, which wrapped up at midnight on Oct. 31, but newly released briefing notes show there were serious doubts about whether they could win.
“For the moment, neither the forces loyal to [Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi] nor the opposition appear able to prevail, thus raising the worrisome prospect of a lengthy stalemate,” reads a briefing note prepared for Canada’s deputy minister of foreign affairs in advance of a meeting of allies in Rome on May 5.
“For the international community, there is no obvious solution in sight.”
The documents note that the NATO-LED air-and-sea campaign attained early results, neutralizing Gadhafi’s air force, navy and 30 per cent of his armoured forces while also destroying supply and ammunition bases.
These actions prevented a massacre in Benghazi and eastern Libya, where the rebels were headquartered, the documents state. They also may have prevented a larger catastrophe in Misrata, where hundreds of civilians and anti-gadhafi fighters were killed between February and May.
However, the notes go on to state that Gadhafi’s forces had “proven resilient to pressure” and “adapted quickly” by moving into cities, using non-military vehicles like those employed by the rebels and using human shields.
“NATO military authorities reported that air strikes are producing discernible effect on regime forces, whose mobility and ability to co-ordinate in the field has been substantially degraded,” reads a briefing note prepared for Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino in advance of a Libya meeting in the United Arab Emirates in June.
“Despite these successes, the armed struggle between pro-[gadhafi] forces and opposition forces continues in and around major population centres and strategic positions, with few prospects for a swift and peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
Another note prepared for then-foreign minister Lawrence Cannon in April adds: “Allies must address that there are no easy options for the next phase of the campaign.”
Throughout, the government gave no indication the war was teetering on the edge of a stalemate.
“After three months of energetic diplomatic, military and humanitarian engagement, the world’s resolve to protect the civilians of Libya against attacks and threats of attacks from the Gadhafi regime has not faded,” Foreign Minister John Baird told the House of Commons on June 14, as he requested an extension of the mission. “It is gaining momentum.”
The briefing notes, obtained through access to information, confirm deep divisions within NATO and the international community over how to end the fighting and bring stability to the Libyan people.
Fantino was encouraged to raise the idea of burdensharing during his meeting with fellow allies in the UAE in June, encouraging those not participating in the mission to contribute more aid and non-military support.
Officials noted that while 19 nations had contributed forces to enforce the UNmandated no-fly zone and arms embargo, “only” six to eight NATO allies were actually dropping bombs.
At the same time, Canada and its closest allies were being seen by some as going too far in interpreting UN Security Council resolution 1973.
“While many countries have stated that regime change is not the explicit goal of the intervention, Britain, France, [the] U.S. and Canada have called for [Gadhafi] to step down,” reads a March document.
Canada recognized the rebels’ National Transitional Council as a legitimate representative of those fighting Gadhafi’s forces, though officials were confused early on as to what the group really represented.
Several documents bearing the subject line “Who are the Libyan opposition?” read: “Canada is in contact with the Libyan opposition movement through the Transitional National Council (TNC), but like many of our allies we have limited understanding of what they represent for the political future of Libya.”