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Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO military operations in Libya, listens to a reporter's question during a media briefing at the NATO's Southern Europe headquarters in Naples March 28, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)
Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO military operations in Libya, listens to a reporter's question during a media briefing at the NATO's Southern Europe headquarters in Naples March 28, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)

Military

Canadian directing war in Libya calls it 'a knife-fight in a phone booth' Add to ...

For the self-effacing helicopter pilot from Chicoutimi, the deputy commander's office in the prestigious but hardly over-worked NATO's regional command in Naples could have been a very pleasant last posting, a fitting swan song to a stellar 30-year-plus military career.

Exquisite Capri is close, the food is sublime, the living is easy and the Med is far from a hardship posting like Afghanistan or Haiti, nor is it the bureaucratic jungle of Ottawa.

Instead, Charles Bouchard, the Canadian three-star air force general, is running NATO's trickiest war to date: 10,000-plus sorties, taking out Libyan tanks, fighting in alleyways with no boots on the ground while sending food and medicine to both sides and keeping the United States out of the uncomfortable limelight of commanding hostilities in a third Muslim nation.

It's a war suddenly in the spotlight. In Ottawa, MPs want to know about mission creep: How a no-fly zone turned into daily, methodical destruction of most everything that props up the Libyan regime. Some countries are running out of bombs, sparking new U.S. accusations that NATO means Europeans playing mutual defence on the cheap while the United States pays the bills and bears the burdens.

Tripoli has been hammered harder than ever in the last few days. Yet even as Colonel Moammar Gadhafi remains defiant, cracks are showing in the alliance as the war goes on.

In charge of it all is Gen. - "call me Charlie" - Bouchard. He is funny and modest about his role, yet is unquestionably in command of this 86-day-old war.

"It's not about me, it's about  the whole gang here that NATO was able to so quickly put it together," he says in an interview at his headquarters, now ringed with razor wire and on a full war footing. He recounts how the often-disparaged alliance managed to put together full-blown war headquarters, deploy scores of warplanes and dozens more tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, rescue choppers and the whole intricate circus of a modern air war.

It's a complex, 24-7 air-and-sea effort that can put a missile in a suddenly-spotted pickup truck or treat Col. Gadhafi, on his 69th birthday , to an intense series of daytime bombing runs in downtown Tripoli.

Still, the general personally signs off on every last preselected target. It's not just attention to detail, it's a visceral sense of personal accountability. Gen. Bouchard may be determined but he is hardly gung-ho. He's careful, deliberate and worries deeply about how to apply the big hammer of air power in the small circumstances of a brutal dictator clinging to power by indiscriminately killing and terrorizing his own citizens.

"I must meet rules, the mandate, the political guidance," but, he adds, and grows quietly pensive, "I look at every target … at the end of the day it's a judgment call … and I'm accountable, I'm accountable to Canada, I'm accountable to NATO, and more importantly I'm accountable to myself," he says.  Make the wrong call and the wrong people, or maybe too many people, die. And, Gen. Bouchard adds: "I want those who know me best to be able to look at me and say, 'you did the right thing.'"

There's an intensely personal aspect to target selection when the imagery is so good you can see children playing.

So even after the target list gets culled by half-a-dozen layers of political and military experts, Gen. Bouchard looks over the finished daily product. Some times he scrubs one off the list - too close, too risky, too much danger of killing civilians.

Free-ranging warplanes looking for targets of opportunity - say a tank in the open - face equally strict rules. If there are people nearby, it can't be hit.

For instance, a planned attack on four artillery pieces located hidden in hedgerows had to be scrapped because a soccer game was under way when the strike aircraft arrived. Once the game ended and the players dispersed, the four guns were destroyed.

War in the 21st century is no longer about overwhelming force or crushing victory, it's about using extreme violence in so precise and restrained a  fashion that political aims are met with minimal bloodshed.

"It's a knife-fight in a phone booth," Gen. Bouchard says of the vicious violence at close quarters pitting Gadhafi loyalists and mercenaries against a rag-tag rebel army, ill-trained and ill-equipped.

"It's hard to put a giant foot in there to quell that, without inflicting more damage on the local population," he says.

**************

Gen. Bouchard didn't just wind up as a war commander because he happened to be No. 2 to a U.S. admiral in NATO's Mediterranean headquarters. Rather it was stunningly fortuitous that when U.S. President Barack Obama wanted to hand the Libyan war to NATO and "de-Americanize" it, that a Canadian who already had the confidence of U.S. political and military leaders at the very highest levels just happened to be in Naples.

A decade ago, on Sept 11, 2001, Gen. Bouchard was at  Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, a deputy commander of NORAD's eastern U.S. regional headquarters scrambling the fighters that tried but failed to thwart the attacks on New York and Washington. Six years later, he was named Deputy Commander of all of NORAD, the Cold-War-era joint Canada-U.S. air defence command that became newly relevant in the wake of terrorist hijackings that turned civilian airliners into human-guided missiles.

There's no more coveted job in the Canadian Air Force. Both the prime minister and the president must approve.

So Gen. Bouchard had the pre-existing trust and confidence of the White House and Pentagon and the kind of security clearances that mean he can see the sort of U.S. intelligence that few non-Americans ever handle. NATO may be an alliance of equals but not all generals and certainly not all nations have access to the most secret imagery and intercepts.

There's an almost Churchillian pugnacity about him (although his vice is sneaked cigarettes not chomping on big cigars) but Gen. Bouchard won't be drawn on whether Washington especially wanted him to command. He allows only: "I'm a known entity in the U.S. … I have three tours in the U.S., I served in Texas, in Florida and in Colorado," the latter a reference to his deputy commander's stint at NORAD headquarters.

So for the first time, Washington, London and Paris agreed to put their forces under NATO command with a Canadian in charge of the war.

Gen. Bouchard is running things his way. When there was some doubt as to whether British and French attack helicopters would come under NATO command, he insisted and won.

And he dismisses the notion that - after nearly two months of air strikes that begin with a massive barrage of cruise missiles - the Libyan conflict is stalled.

"I do not accept that this is a stalemate," he said, rejecting the claims that rebels control the east but lack the firepower and military skills to  dislodge pro-Gadhafi forces from Tripoli and other strongholds.

"There is a campaign plan," he says and while he won't hint at the future, the past is clear. Col. Gadhafi's air defences and air force are destroyed; the ability to move armoured vehicles anywhere in the country, and certainly on open roads, is gone. What is now happening is the steady, systematic destruction of everything that could possibly meet the threat-to-civilians definition.

So bunkers and ammunition stores and a central communications facility in Libya covered with satellite dishes have been bombed during the air campaign of NATO and its partner nations.

Anything that shows signs of activity gets bombed again.

Gen. Bouchard knows how it will end - with Col. Gadhafi dead or gone.

But he carefully sticks to the UN mandate that the conflict isn't to achieve regime change, just to protect civilians.

The general is repulsed by Col. Gadhafi. He lists off all manner of vile attacks, shelling hospitals, scattering anti-personnel mines, indiscriminate rocket attacks on neighbourhoods. He's evil, the general says.

"This is someone is giving orders to go and kill his own people. … He has lost his moral authority to lead his nation, … but my job is not regime change."

After months of watching grainy video - sometimes live from Predator drones - and poring over pictures, Gen. Bouchard says he feels like he knows parts of Libya - especially the embattled coastal city of Misrata where some of the most vicious street-to-street fighting has occurred.

"I would like to see Tripoli," the general says wistfully. "I would like to see Benghazi, I would like to see Misrata and walk the port … and see all those places. … I could probably find my way to the corners of that city pretty well."

Editor's Note: A central communications facility in Libya covered with satellite dishes has been bombed during the air campaign of NATO and its partner nations, but not the main television station in Tripoli, as incorrectly stated on Monday in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article. This online version has been corrected.

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