Allied forces – including military from the United States, France and Britain – have begun strikes in Libya against forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. But what are the allied forces targeting, and why?
Paul Koring, The Globe and Mail's security correspondent based in Washington, explained. The following is an edited and condensed transcript. Listen to the full interview (.mp3).
The Globe and Mail: What are allied forces attacking in Libya?
Paul Koring: In the first 24 hours, we've seen a pretty classic effort to eliminate and destroy the anti-aircraft system in Libya, which was pretty old and decrepit, but still powerful with plenty of surface-to-air missiles.
What we really saw yesterday and overnight was a large effort, mainly using cruise missiles but also large U.S. intercontinental bombers, to destroy radar and surface-to-air missile sites. Most of the firepower was expended on destroying the Libyan capacity to threaten those over-flying airplanes – and that's pretty much done.
GM: Why were those places targeted by allied forces?
PK: It's self protection. You want to be able to fly anywhere in the airspace and enforce the no-fly zone. You don't want to be watching over your shoulder for that surface-to-air missile chasing up behind you. This was done in Iraq and Kosovo, too. You take out the other guy's antiaircraft network first.
GM: The stated goal of the mission is to protect Libyan civilians. What have allied forces done so far to protect civilians?
PK: It's a very interesting mandate, because it doesn't say to tip the balance against Colonel Moammar Gadhafi or oust the existing regime.
It says to establish a no-fly zone, which is more or less done – though those operations can go on.
And to protect civilians, that seems to be defined as preventing Gadhafi's regime using heavy weapons, armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery against cities. That's going to be pretty easy to do as long as the weapons remain out on the open on the coastal highway in the desert around those cities.
But you're certainly not going to be able to take out armoured vehicles or tanks once they're inside a city. And you certainly can't take out small units, like sniper nests or a machine gun post at an intersection, with an airplane.
Once you stop the big military movements, one of two things is going to happen. Either you get into a stalemate, where Gadhafi continues to control the cities he controls and allied airplanes fly overhead – that went on for more than a decade in southern Iraq, for instance, where oppression of people continued without major attacks or uprisings.
The other possibility is that this really is – without saying so explicitly – designed to tip the military balance in favour of the rebels, who are essentially unarmed and untrained. But if they want to pile in large convoys and drive towards Gadhafi's stronghold, air cover will give them lots of protection.
GM: How long will this military intervention last?
PK: I think the major military objectives will be done within days. They may already be done.
On the other hand, if we get into the stalemate situation, it could go on endlessly. As I said, the no-fly zone in Iraq went on for 12 years. It eventually ended in another war.
It's not at all clear what the end game is, in terms of objective or what the exit strategy is. If the exit strategy is 'let's help the rebels win' – and that's not written down anywhere, and the U.S. has explicitly said that's not what they're doing – if it's simply humanitarian, then we may wind up with, in effect, two Libyas. One in the east, controlled by the rebels, and one in the west, controlled by Gadhafi – and he may be able to hang on for a long time.