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The Libyan campaign is running into the sand

With Ramadan about to begin, Nato’s attempt to dislodge Gaddafi is in desperate straits.
If the Libyan conflict concludes later this summer with Colonel Gaddafi still clinging to power – albeit in a truncated rump of the country he has dominated for the past 42 years – David Cameron will have no one to blame but himself.

There is, of course, still the remote possibility that the Libyan dictator will heed the West’s calls to relinquish power, and retire to some well-appointed villa in the Libyan desert with his legions of adoring lady bodyguards. Indeed, William Hague clearly thinks this is still on the cards, conceding this week that he had no objection to Gaddafi remaining in Libya if the dictator agreed to stand down.

This does, however, represent a significant change in the position that the Foreign Secretary, and the anti-Gaddafi alliance, adopted at the start of the conflict in March. Overcome by their enthusiasm for the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world, Western politicians insisted that the military offensive would continue until Gaddafi had been driven into exile: indeed, Messrs Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy said as much in an ill-advised letter published at the start of the conflict, which declared that “Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good”. It was clearly their intention that the Libyan leader would decamp to foreign climes: Venezuela, Cuba, and even Zimbabwe were mentioned.

Yet the longer this conflict goes on, the more desperate the protagonists have become to extricate themselves from a war that is – in the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, America’s highest-ranking military officer – “in a stalemate”. This certainly appears to be Gaddafi’s take on Nato’s four-month assault, which has now resulted in RAF bombers blowing a gaping hole in the heavily fortified walls of his Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli. Rather than bowing to the West’s imprecations to do the decent thing, the Libyan leader appears as defiant as ever, vowing never to leave the “land of his ancestors”.

Mr Cameron and his allies had clearly not bargained for such obstinacy when they first embarked on their Libyan adventure. With the onset of Ramadan rapidly approaching (it is due to start on Monday, depending on the visibility of the new moon), Gaddafi’s intransigence has seen the coalition resort to ever more desperate measures. This includes the French supplying arms to the rebels – a clear breach of UN resolutions – and the Americans sending a secret delegation to persuade Gaddafi to surrender.

The reality is that, unless there is a dramatic change by this weekend, the military campaign will run into the sand: with the entire Libyan population observing a strict Ramadan fast, neither Nato nor the rebels will be able to make a decisive breakthrough. So the most likely outcome of the conflict will be Gaddafi retaining control of Tripoli and its environs, and Nato’s credibility lying in tatters.

It is at this point that Mr Cameron will need to muster some defences of his own, as the recriminations begin over how he got us into this mess in the first place. Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, makes no secret of his initial opposition to the campaign, and is said to have ordered his aides to prepare for the inevitable post-mortem examination in Whitehall by compiling a dossier of all the memos, letters and emails that were sent to Downing Street warning against an open-ended military commitment. Indeed, the overwhelming balance of the advice Mr Cameron received from both his military chiefs and senior officials was to stay clear. Again and again, he was warned that never in the 100-year history of air power had a campaign been won by bombing alone.

But Mr Cameron imagined he could replicate Tony Blair’s achievements in taking on and defeating rogue dictators. So he ignored the advice – and is now discovering the hard way that being a wartime leader can be a very lonely business. He quickly learnt that few Nato leaders shared his enthusiasm for regime change in Tripoli, but arguably his lowest moment came during President Obama’s recent state visit to Britain. Desperate for more air power to put Gaddafi’s forces on the defensive, the Prime Minister virtually begged the president to deploy more drones. Having invested so much political capital in Libya, Mr Cameron pleaded, he badly needed to get a result. Mr Obama, who has been perplexed by his counterpart’s obsession with the country from the start, was unmoved, and refused to allow US forces anything more than a supporting role.

Many would argue that Mr Cameron has got his just desserts for his cavalier treatment of the Armed Forces during last year’s botched Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which saw a wide range of key capabilities cancelled simply to cut costs, rather than to improve the defence of the realm. The reason the French have been able to fly three times more combat sorties than the RAF is that they can still call on the services of an aircraft carrier, while, thanks to Mr Cameron, HMS Ark Royal and its Harriers have been consigned to the scrapheap – not to mention our Nimrod surveillance aircraft and other essential military enablers.

If any lesson is to be learnt from the Libya debacle, it is that, if Mr Cameron ever wishes to confront a rogue state in future, he has a duty to ensure that the military is properly equipped for the task. He could start by launching a new SDSR that enables Britain to win its wars, rather than meekly conceding defeat.

Filed in: World News

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