Tripoli

‘We have some civilian martyrs for you,’ said the Libyan government minder, with the triumphant look of a Soviet housewife who has just found a bottle of Scotch in the state-controlled supermarket. He pulled aside a blanket to reveal a charred, twisted corpse, blackened arms fixed stiffly upwards, skin seared away to reveal the tendons.

It was the kind of thing that stays in the memory — but mainly because that body, and another one next to it, were the first two that any western reporter in Tripoli had seen in weeks. Even they, it turned out, were journalists for Libyan state television — proud purveyor of news headlines such as ‘Upper Volta ambassador says Gaddafi is source of all competent authority’ — who just happened to have been filming on top of the colonel’s leadership bunker at 2.50 a.m. Three more corpses were brought out last Tuesday. And that, so far, has been it. 

For the Tripoli press corps, a typical Crusader airstrike has three phases. First, nearly always in the middle of the night, comes the bang itself, or multiples thereof — often conveniently close to our hotel, allowing us to report that Nato has launched its ‘heaviest attacks yet’ on the Libyan capital.

Then there is the government-organised bus ride to what is generally an empty building with smoke billowing from it (more sensitive targets tend to be omitted from the tour itinerary). Finally, the evening may conclude with a visit to a hospital, at which we will be told that there have been dozens, even hundreds, of civilian casualties, but will actually be shown perhaps six young men with superficial wounds. The others, it will be explained, are being treated elsewhere, or have already recovered — praise be to Allah!

This week, the regime claimed that Nato has killed 718 civilians since the bombing began. But in the whole ten weeks of the air campaign, the authorities have not produced a single one of the dead babies, bombed schools, or large-scale ‘martyrdoms’ that feature so prominently in the state-controlled media. They are starting to get desperate.

Othman Baraka, an official of the anti-corruption ministry, gave a press conference to denounce a Nato strike on his headquarters. Twenty-five of his civilian staff had been injured, he stormed. No, on second thoughts, make that 54. The hacks politely pointed out that the attack had taken place in the middle of the night. ‘The anti-corruption ministry works around the clock,’ said Mr Baraka.

Did anyone die, he was asked. ‘The number of deaths is irrelevant,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter, because they are bombing civilian sites.’ Meanwhile, another man stood silently by with his arm in a plaster cast, carefully dyed Gaddafi-green — presumably one of the, ahem, civilian casualties, though nobody seemed quite sure.

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The regime thought it had a big story for us with the alleged deaths of 11 imams from a Nato bomb in the front-line town of Brega. But at their funeral, which was held in Tripoli, some of the mourners said that at least two of the nine being buried were soldiers, and one of those had been dead for weeks. The service had been advertised all morning on state TV, with citizens told to come and vent their anger at the Crusader barbarians. Only about 400 bothered.

Nato’s incredible precision and care — in Tripoli, at least — must be one reason why virtually no Libyan we talk to privately seems to support the government, or oppose the war. In most dictatorships, you need at least a little professional skill to tease dangerous confidences from the citizenry. Here, once you get out of the hotel without a minder, people accost you in shops and say that Gaddafi can’t go soon enough.

They may, however, have to wait a while. For the other effect of the West’s military caution is that its campaign has, at least in the last two months, changed virtually nothing. The main front line remains exactly where it was at the end of March, though there has been movement around the enclave of Misrata.

With the piercing insight we’ve come to expect from our security services, MI6 has pronounced that Gaddafi is becoming ‘increasingly paranoid’. Well, yes — we are trying to kill him, after all. But though Nato may be dropping more bombs on Tripoli, they would be fairly lucky to find the colonel beneath one.

For all the ritual incantations about ‘intensified’ attacks and ‘heaviest bombing yet’, the bombing is and always has been relatively light. Across the whole operation, the number of Nato strike sorties — only a proportion of which actually result in airstrikes — has averaged 57 a day, less than half the number in the alliance’s very similar mission in Kosovo, and a mere fraction of what the US and Britain did in Iraq.

The number of strike sorties in the seven days to last Tuesday was 366, the second lowest in any week since Nato took control of the operation, bringing the daily average down to 52. The claim of intensification is not a total lie — the attacks are becoming more focused — but nor is it true for the whole country. Nato’s military commander in Libya, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, admitted last week that for all the alliance’s work, ‘there remain a significant amount of forces’ available to the regime.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary-general, is starting to look like the Harold Camping of international diplomacy, repeatedly predicting the end of Colonel Gaddafi’s world but having to revise his forecasts when the Apocalypse falls behind schedule. ‘The game is over for Gaddafi,’ he said on 9 May. The colonel, alas, decided to play on. On 13 May, Mr Rasmussen informed us that Gaddafi’s ‘time is up’. The Brother Leader appears not to have got that particular memo. And on Monday, Mr Rasmussen insisted that Gaddafi’s ‘reign of terror’ was ‘coming to an end’. On Tuesday, meeting South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Gaddafi said he still wasn’t going anywhere.

If Mr Rasmussen had the Almighty to help him, he might be better off. Instead, he must make do with the Royal Air Force, an organisation so badly weakened by recent defence cuts that it can deploy just 18 strike jets over Libya. Further cuts this month are due to take out two more squadrons of Tornados, the very aircraft doing the lion’s share of the British air campaign. In December, Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell, the head of the RAF’s combat fast jets, warned that the cuts would leave the Air Force only ‘just about’ able to fulfil its existing missions — and that was before what looks like being a prolonged engagement above the North African sands.

Other British assets — the frigate HMS Cumberland, and the RAF’s Nimrod R1 reconnaissance planes — were temporarily reprieved, literally days before they too were to be scrapped, as essential capabilities for Libya. How lucky it was that the crisis started in March, rather than April. An aircraft carrier — like the one the French are flying from — would have been nice, too, allowing the RAF to base closer to the targets and get more sorties in. But Britain’s carriers have now, of course, become HMS ebay.

France is contributing more forces than us, and several smaller European nations also pack a punch. But some of these are already exhausting their capabilities, and will withdraw at the end of the month. The largest European Nato country by population, Germany, refuses to take part, as do half the alliance’s members. In the absence of major American involvement in strike operations (the US is still doing enormous amounts of other flying), Eur
opean limitations are exposed even more graphically than normal. Only this week, Mr Rasmussen admitted that Nato has ‘sometimes struggled to generate the right forces and capabilities’ and said he was ‘concerned about the low level of [European] military spending’.

Britain especially, with its disastrous, back-of-the-envelope Strategic Defence and Security Review, has been exposed as a Walter Mitty power, a giant in its own imagination, with a now yawning gap between our bicep-flexing war aims and the amount of military effort we are able or willing to deploy in their service. Paul Cornish, of Chatham House, says the SDSR might be ‘one of the fastest failures in modern British strategic history’.

The mistake, if there was one, was not to start the operation. Without it, there would certainly have been a massacre. The problem was the gradual and imperceptible shift from rebel protection to regime change, something beyond both Europe’s military capacity and the legal scope of the UN resolutions.

Despite going through a similar rough patch, the Kosovo air campaign did eventually work, wearing down the Serbian military so they withdrew from the disputed enclave. It took 78 days; Libya has so far lasted about 70. But the military and legal constraints in Kosovo were far fewer, with the US taking a full role and no prohibitions on infrastructure targets. And even in Kosovo, postwar analysis showed relatively little damage to Serbian forces, suggesting that Russian-led diplomacy played at least as great a role in Milosevic’s decision.

Back in March, when Britain first went into action in Libya, David Cameron told MPs that a ‘successful outcome’ would be ‘the ceasing of attacks on civilians. That is what we are aiming at.’ Only last week, General Bouchard repeated that the aim of the operation was ‘to meet the directions … following [April’s] Berlin conference’. Those directions did not include regime change. And at his press conference in London, President Obama, always much cooler on Libya than Cameron or Sarkozy, spoke of ‘making sure that, at minimum, Gaddafi doesn’t have the capacity … to murder innocent civilians’, another formulation containing the possibility that the colonel could stay in power.

Interestingly, Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians do now seem mostly to have ceased. Regime forces are still killing people in the Nafusa mountains and at points to the west of Misrata, but nowhere much else. In some ways, a permanent stalemate, with Gaddafi contained and Nato protecting the east, would be a reasonable outcome, avoiding what could be a messy fight for control of the country if the regime fell.

But Mr Cameron now seems unlikely to settle for his original war aim. Though Libya, with just six million people, may be strategically minor, political pride is at stake. We will continue to prod away at the colonel, with the increasing assistance of attack helicopters, special forces and shadowy private contractors. Perhaps the rebels, helped by Nato airpower, will make more Misrata-style advances. And because Gaddafi’s weakness is even greater than ours, it will probably work out for us … in the end.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated