Can air power end Libya war?
Libyan rebels carry away a comrade wounded during fighting with forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on June 7.
June 30th, 2011
11:00 AM ET

Can air power end Libya war?

By Moni Basu, CNN

It was supposed to have been over in a few days. World powers would go in with fighter jets and the world's most sophisticated precision-guided weapons to render Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi powerless.

But that's not the way things happened.

As NATO's airstrikes crossed the 100-day mark, analysts blamed a host of faulty assumptions, including success based solely on surgical airstrikes, for a protracted war that some fear could drag on for more months.

"It's absolutely wrong to think that an air campaign can win this," said Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation and director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.

The basic problem, McGregor said, stemmed from presuppositions about the fortitude of the Libyan opposition.

Buoyed by the successful uprisings to the east in Egypt and to the west in Tunisia, Libyan rebels believed they had the mettle to bring down Gadhafi. Western powers believed that with a little help, Libya could be freed from totalitarian rule.

But rebels launched an armed insurrection against a man who had spent four long decades preparing his state for unforeseen challenges. This wasn't a peaceful revolution of the masses against a government that had no public support.

"This revolt never really had the strength to succeed," McGregor said. "There was this feeling among the rebels that all we have to do is show up. But you should take a couple of years to get it organized first. If you're just going to run out on the streets, the results will be predictable."

Four months on, the rebels are not capable of supporting themselves, McGregor said. They are out of fuel, oil production has shut down, and they have few available resources. They will soon face even shortages of food and water, McGregor said.

President Barack Obama faces pressure at home to withdraw U.S. forces. There is debate, too, in Europe over the expensive air campaign.

The war may have been morally right, but NATO, said McGregor, is facing a conundrum.

Part of that failure was a lack of consideration of the makeup of the Libyan population, said University of Texas political scientist Alan J. Kuperman, author of "The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention."

"The fundamental error by the White House and NATO was to imagine that the Libyan people were united in opposition to Gadhafi," he said.

"In reality, Libya is divided along lines of clan and tribe, some of whom benefit greatly from Gadhafi, and therefore defend him fiercely," he said. "Any expert on ethnic conflict and intervention could have told the White House that ahead of time."

In that respect, said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies, the Libyan war has the potential for fallout that is worse than what happened after President George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" weeks after Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster in the Iraq war.

"To imagine that Libyans are going to come together - is a hope, but not a plan," Donnelly said. "It was a mistake to get involved in such a feckless way."

Behind the rhetorical rallying cry of protecting civilians, Donnelly said, has always been the real aim of NATO - to kill Gadhafi.

"If you made me bet my mortgage at gunpoint, I'd say we probably will get Gadhafi," he said.

But the question is when. And if it doesn't happen in a timely fashion, then NATO risks the erosion of public support for its campaign, Donnelly said.

"In some sense, 100 days is a short period of time," he said. "But when your political support is so tenuous and thin, and when your operations have heretofore been ineffective in achieving campaign goals, then taking ground forces off the table has not made the war any shorter or any less bloody."

The Libyan regime has also proven itself to be more robust and resilient than anyone imagined. It would be a mistake, said Donnelly, to assume that killing Gadhafi would mean a collapse of the entire system.

The Libya conflict has sometimes been compared to NATO's air war in the Balkans in the 1990s. Many people thought the Serbs would go down instantly once NATO began bombing. They didn't. And eventually, it was the threat of a ground invasion that led to the capitulation of then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Gadhafi, however, faces no such threat. And some believe the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court this week will only help strengthen his resolve to stay in power.

"If Barack Obama had thought a hundred days ago that he would be where he is now, you have to wonder whether he would have made the same decision," Donnelly said. "How can you tell the American people we're going to start jumping over the fence and we have no idea where we are going to come down?"

But not everyone is pessimistic about prospects in Libya.

Ali Ahmida, for one, stands by his belief that the Libyan opposition can defeat Gadhafi.

The rebels, he said, have made noticeable gains with the support of NATO air power. He cited recent rebel takeovers of western towns in the Nafusa Mountains and said Gadhafi is more isolated now than ever before.

"The Libyan people are capable of fighting this fight," said Ahmida, an analyst at the University of New England. "The consequences of this, even though it is more painful and brutal, will have a positive outcome in the end."

It has not been easy for Ahmida to watch the conflict unfold in Libya. But he is a strong proponent for self-determination who feels strongly that the Libyan people, not outside forces, must determine their fate.

"I warned against this from the start, that Libyan public opinion would not like it," he said, referring to the possibility of foreign boots on the ground. And Ahmida still questions the motivation of Western powers and the agendas of exiles who he fears may want to exploit oil-rich Libya.

"I'm optimistic but guarded," he said.

Ahmida said the bad news is that NATO lacked clarity in its mission and also in a negotiated exit for Gadhafi, which he said is more difficult now because of the arrest warrant for alleged crimes against humanity.

Still, Gadhafi's regime will fall, he said. Then the real battle for the future of Libya will just be starting.

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Topics: Libya • Military • NATO

soundoff (156 Responses)
  1. Jesseca5

    Speaking in a conventional manner...No! but if you give it the Hiroshima treatment, then yes...but that is out of the question..

    Jesse in Texas

    July 2, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
  2. wat

    obamas blood for oil campaign

    July 2, 2011 at 11:34 am | Reply
    • Phil

      Sadly, there are too many morons like you in the world today.

      This isn't Obama's war...and it's not for oil. You just show how truly stupid you are when you make comments like that.

      July 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • JiminNM

      Wat is correct. It is about oil because Gadhafi wanted payment for oil in gold and not dollars and was establishing a gold based currency. Kennedy tried to bring back the gold standard, identified the world's real enemy and was eliminated. Better learn your history and stop listening to the liars.

      July 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  3. sam kohen

    I think the US made the same mistake dyrung the war in Viet-Nam during the bombing of the North. The only way this war can end is if France sends in the Foreign Legion and the UK a Gurkha regiment. It will be over in 24 hours.

    Incidentally Mr Gadaffi never trusted his own army. He has hired thousands of Tuareg warriers from Mali and Mauritania, probably the toughest fighters in Africa.

    July 2, 2011 at 11:47 am | Reply
  4. Erickson

    Since the begin of the times, humans has ever aimed their own objectives... Nowadays, it hasn't changed. Europe is not concerned about the people killed, the women raped or the children missing their childhood... They're one worried about the petroil. Why don't you europeans try to effectively save the lybians instead of pretending like you're trying? Try do it once in the history of our world... Please, save those who are suffering because of the european's and Gadaffi's interests... The world is not just a game, and lives are not just toys... How many people must be killed for you, presidents of developed countries, take a stand against Gadaffi? If countries like the U.S., France, Germany, U.K. (contries strong enough) make a bigger presure and Brazil (which is very well-seen in negociations) mediate a agreement with Lybia, I am sure it would work. If it does not, a effective attack against pro-Gadaffi troops should be done, aiming the peace to the lybians.
    Take about the LYBIANS not only about the PETROIL!

    July 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  5. Jim

    LOL. Its a shame that people are still buying into the myth that air power wins wars. Air power is merely long range artillery. In all our wars since Korea we're had air superiority yet we often lost (e.g. Vietnam). It takes boots on the ground to win a war.

    July 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Reply


    July 2, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • Joey

      Thanks for the lesson, Pro-Gadhafi government propaganda commenter. I know you people go into comments of CNN and Twitter to try to share propaganda.

      July 3, 2011 at 1:18 am | Reply
      • vadon

        joey, you have been brainwashed my friend

        July 4, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  7. JiminNM

    Hope not!

    July 2, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  8. Gregory Pierce

    Air power can not win a war. At the end of the day you need to plant a flag and hold land and that has to be done on the ground – it can never be done from the air. That is both basic logic and basic military tactic.

    July 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  9. jt_flyer

    As long as it's European airpower I really don't care. I've made it clear I don't want any of my tax dollars spent on Libya. None. Zero. Zip.

    July 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  10. Old Timer

    This really was a lose lose situation for Obama. If he didn't do anything and Gadhafi marched a mass of troops into Benghazi and killed thousands of unarmed people, Obama would be trashed internationally as a coward and the right wing would say he is unfit to stand as president. So, Obama walks a fine line of quasi-engagement with Gadhafi's forces and gets beat up as well. I'd say the president had no good options.

    July 2, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Reply
    • sherman

      He did no such thing, kids and CIA agents attacked one of his command posts and began looting weapons. – feel for the truth...(feel the force young sky-walker) the truth is something you can find as easily as car keys, ask you wife.

      July 3, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
  11. Joey

    Air power can do nothing.
    Here's a fun fact. If the United States invaded Libya, without simply using drones and airpower (because you still hear of rebels moving back from areas they've gained control of, because NATO is trying to pretend they are not on the rebel's side even though they clearly are), Gadhafi would be out of power. NATO and the United States are strong military forces, yet, Gadhafi is still in power. They're not using their full resources to stop Gadhafi. Why? He's not a target. Unlike George W. Bush, which was more aggressive and was determined to go into Iraq even if no one was at his side, Obama is walking too fine a line. It's a little annoying. And this is coming from a Democrat who's hated Bush before and after reading more into why we went into Iraq and Afghanistan. I realize how much I've missed a President who's more aggressive in his foreign policy instead of trying to be as calm as the Monarchy of Britain.

    July 3, 2011 at 1:17 am | Reply

    Where does this weird preconcieved notion come from that the NATO forces involved in this newest conflict are involved for "morally just" reasons? Nations do not throw their expensive, well trained forces into the fray unless there is some tangible benefit to itself. Everyone is ready to cry foul because the French, English and Italians are looking to secure sources of oil, that's the trade-off for offering up support. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    July 3, 2011 at 1:43 am | Reply
  13. randy

    Goldman Sachs owes Gadhafi too much for him to live. Fired up a few instigators to mask his murder. Business as usual.

    July 3, 2011 at 3:45 am | Reply
  14. Gooblaygatz

    Fish or cut bait. Fight a war to win or don't fight. This part of the Arab spring has not sprung. Syria and Yemen too. The west simply does not know what to do with Arab culture or its turmoil. There are no good allies and the enemies have memories that last for thousands of years. Can these people even DO voting democracy? Time will tell. So we're stuck with a set vague wars against brutal dictatorship as a archetype. That's not bad, but its goals are not all that concrete nor the vacuums it creates easy to fill.

    July 3, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
  15. ggg

    I've read a number of these postings. Most are devoid of facts. The other problem is that most are also devoid of words which are spelled correctly. How can you expect anyone to take you seriously if you can't even spell 4 letter words correctly.

    July 3, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
  16. Mark

    I have always said that Gadaffi is an intelligent man, he has probably planned this whole thing, of attacking people and attracting western forces on his land to keep them occupied in Libya, while the other Middle Eastern nations secretly plan war on the West, so far it looks like his plan is working out.

    This is the beginning of WW3, yes the war is going to be taken to the West. I was told by my spiritual leader that from 2012-2022 there shall be hell on earth, the west and the middle east shall have land destroyed, no more buildings all flat.

    It'll be sad if its true, the ultimate outcome is that both sides middle east and west lose out and the victors of the war get to inherit an earth that is nuked out. In a way I am glad that peace shall come after war, if it was possible to have peace we would have had it by now.

    July 3, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
  17. Harvey Wallbanger

    Gadhafi is a bad man, no one denies that. But he is their bad man, let them storm the Bastille.

    July 3, 2011 at 10:35 am | Reply
  18. j vlasaty

    seeing that gadhafi's a wanted man and hasn't handed himself over, there should be a two million dolar price tage put on his head. someone will turn him in and maybe save nato 100 million dollars on bombs and missels.

    July 3, 2011 at 11:07 am | Reply
  19. Liberation

    Why can't any of the neighboring countries send in their army who pretend to aid the west but instead turn against them, making it an even bigger war, isn't africa supposed so send the uranium to china sho that china can make nukes and supply them to the mulims, who shall use it for suicide bombing against the west.

    July 3, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  20. sherman

    I'm reading the green book and I'm having a little problem with the Freedom of the Press part, as a journalist. So what would one do then, one that was born to write and eat spaghetti, only write books which reflect the individuals opinion which they are free to do, or be published in the state owned media randomly and without pay? The individual seems to start out as the one being both honored and saved and ends up being lost in the sauce. – But I am still reading.

    July 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
    • sosafesosaneandsosecure

      Journalism is permitted. – good. for a minute there I thought we were in trouble.

      July 5, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  21. truthbetold

    If anyone wants the truth about Gadhafi and Libya you may want to get some information from sources other than these CNN mainstream puppets. They only say what there told to say. I'm not saying go to FOX either. Gadhafi has done amazing things for Libya and it's people. The only opposition there before the CIA/Mossad got involved were muslim fundamentalists who didn't like women having rights, AKA – al qaeda. Mainstream media won't tell you Libya's homeless or poverty rate because it embarrasses the west that a leader can actually take care of ALL it's people.
    Time for people to start filtering some media lies. Or just keep on drinking your Kool-aid and embrassing your loss of freedoms.

    July 3, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  22. Descarado

    What did overwhelming air power against North Vietnam accomplish? Ask America's Great Kinetic Warrior. He wasn't even scooping ice cream for Baskin Robbins yet.

    July 3, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Reply
    • Corbijn

      Different war, different tactics. They are two totally different things. Alexander didn't fight Gaugamela the same way in Tyre; both were revolutionary and successful and utterly different.

      July 3, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  23. Felix Howard

    I just read and my first reaction was wow, this Gadaffi is a great man, is it any wonder that he has planned this war and so far he has also intended to take it to Europe.

    July 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Reply
    • Felix Howard

      I just read about Libya and Gadaffi on wikipedia and my first reaction was wow, this Gadaffi is a great man, is it any wonder that he has planned this war and so far he has also intended to take it to Europe.

      July 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  24. Courtenay Barnett

    The Western media for quite some time has utilised Gaddafi’s eccentricities to portray him as mad.
    In reflecting on how this war in Libya has progressed, I, however, have reason to doubt the sanity of some Western leaders.
    The war has been advanced by mainly three NATO nations, America, France and Britain.
    Obama, while bombing Libya has professed that this is not a “war”. With stunning linguistic gymnastics, the war has somersaulted from the feet first “war” to a head over heels “support” mission and merely an “intervention”. I must now conclude that if I dislike my neighbour and start throwing Molotov cocktails on his roof and stones into his windows, I am not at war with him, but in an effort to have him remove from the neighbourhood, I am involved in a support mission and have merely intervened across the fence into his property. Sounds like a defence, then once I run it, I would have provided the Judge a good reason to order a psychiatric examination.
    Sarkozy, for his part, is faced with a UN Resolution which prohibits the supply of arms to Libya. He then in seeking to enforce the UN Resolution supplies arms to the rebels, while professing to be upholding that UN Resolution. Candidate number two for mental status assessment.
    In Britain, by parity of reason, one must assume that if a community took up arms, set up its own central bank, professed itself the new legitimate government of the UK, then for consistency, David Cameron, would simply fold his arms and direct that the British army not suppress the rebellion? Absolutely, because, no doubt, he would have to be politically consistent with his conduct in Libya – now, would he? On the 1st of July, and after 3 months of bombardment of Libya by NATO, several thousand people have marched in the streets of Tripoli in support of Gadaffi, yet in the words of Cameron:-
    “As I’ve said, we will help fulfill the UN Security Council [resolution] – it is for the Libyan people to determine their government and their destiny. But our view is clear – there is no decent future for Libya with Colonel Gaddafi remaining in power. [The world cannot] stand aside while this dictator murders his own people.”
    So, there are no equivalent public mass rallies in Benghazi of any size, and yet Gadaffi’s own people come out in mass support of their leader, but we cannot forget what Obama said:-
    “Muammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave,"
    and that Cameron and Obama are of one mind.
    All three leaders are, of course, on a “humanitarian mission”. And to implement same, one drops bombs relentlessly on the Libyan people, who then come out in mass support of their leader and demand that the NATO bombing stops. But, as we know, Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron are all great humanitarians and thus they shall not relent from the humanitarian bombing for accomplishment of the noble humanitarian mission of removing the leader who over a million people want, while insisting that a leadership that no one ever heard of before – is installed in power to uphold the democratic wishes of the Libyan people.
    Who really needs to consult the psychiatrist, Gadaffi, Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron or the masses of Libyans who marched in Tripoli (
    P.S. I note now that you tube is busy, yet again, blocking the videos showing the size of the pro-Gadaffi demonstrations. Of course, we have freedom of expression here in the West.


    July 3, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • vadon

      Somebody is making sense here. Its all so obvious, but people are blinded and brainwashed by media propaganda A+

      July 4, 2011 at 12:59 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      @courtenay barnett
      Actually Cameron and Sarkozy were the instigators and Obama jumped on the bandwagon of "Liberation movement". Cameron and Sarkozy have learned a hard lessonand realised that they had been too impetuous at the onset of their military foray, They underestimated their enemy and thought the mission would be over in a couple of days if not weeks. Now facing the stalemate, they do everything they can to finish their "job".

      July 4, 2011 at 5:28 am | Reply
      • sosafesosaneandsosecure

        what is wrong with saying you were mistaken. we all have to do that, what if everyone said, you know I was wrong, I was wrong to impede dissent, who cares what kids say where they are in their 20's – come to us with better ideas and we will look at them seriously. what if cameron and sarkozy said – we were wrong we thought you were going to blurt out some things that we ... would prefer remain between us, and obama said, oh I was in error. what if we fixed it all back up and took the cia mercenaries home and ... oh, I forgot. there is no rewind button for some of this. is there. so instead we will make it worse and kill more people – we could make them stop. but that would take a lot of feet on the street. of course it would be totally worth it.

        July 5, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • sosafesosaneandsosecure

      Good Girl – don't be surprised though if someone contacts you and threatens you as they did to me this morning on another Libya related article. He was posing as a US government agent, but all of my Tea Party friends told me to relax, that we have first amendment rights here and that the fact that all of the current articles were taken down is not indicative that I was in truth threatened. it was pretty scary though. Its a sad world when they can tell you who to talk to and who to love. Pretty sad.

      July 5, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  25. Corbijn

    The only way to really end the Libyan war is to get rid of Gadhafi. If he's taken out with a missile or just a rock it will be the deciding factor. He's the one who's run the nation like a dictator and has made a small group of fanatics powerful enough to rule by his will. His rule has to do with him controlling the oil and anything financial in the country. Helping those of neighboring countries who only want the same kind of power he has within their own borders has created an army of mercenaries. With Gadhafi gone, his group that runs the nation would lose it's muster, power, everything. Only then will Libya be able to control its own fate. Maybe if the UN just put a bounty on him a few of his mercenaries might change their minds and chose to retire in comfort.

    July 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  26. Corbijn

    I think the world has forgotten that waging war is basically a bloody and ruthless mess. There is nothing "humanitarian" in war. While waging war is decisive to win, a fighter doesn't enter a ring thinking he can talk the opponent into submission, in the end it's about getting him to submit with pain or knocking him senseless to the point that he's physically broke. I'm sorry but a part of me feels that if those who wanted Gadhafi removed would just gather their forces and pound him into the stone-age it might save more lives in the end and be more economical. While he continues to punch without gloves on and we go in with our gloved hands tied behind our back, he's going to stay in power and you can bet he utilizes this as a tactic. Dictators stay in power by being ruthless. He may be eccentric but he's not the madman the west portrays him as.

    July 3, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Reply
    • Felix Howard

      Gadaffi is very clever, he invested well in Africa, he ran his nation well, he really will take the war to the west, and this shall officially mark the start of WW3, and that is when it all begins Europe truly cannot afford any war, neither can US, imagine the condition of the world now and how much it is deteriorating especially for the west.

      July 4, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • sosafesosaneandsosecure

      No he's not – he's really nice. and smart and funny and you know if everyone around him had not spent years telling him only what they thought he wanted to hear and not the truth – none of us would be here. I could fix this you know for everyone, but you understand there are those that do not want a nice solution at all. Despite the sarcastic smirks on the face of today's state department spokeswoman. –

      July 5, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  27. vadon

    I have one simple question to ask: what right does EU or US forces have to bomb other countries? Bombing the country for the sake of civilians? Who are these civilians, cause once you got an AK 47 in your hands you aren't a civilian in my book. Imagine if China or Russia would have bomb another country; I could just imagine the hysteria in the media. What a hypocrisy.

    July 4, 2011 at 12:41 am | Reply
  28. Walter L Johnson

    The air campaign will eventually make it possible for the opposition in Libya to win, but an expectation of a quick finish was never reasonalbe after the first week or two had gone by. A basic truth though is that air campaign can continue for years and still cost only a small fraction of the daily expense of having ground forces directly involved.

    The conflict will end when all the men with power in the Gaddafi family are dead or when the casualties on both sides of the conflict has worn down the resistance to compromise. The conflict at its core is not that much different than the current budget standoff in Congress, which may too result in deaths before it is over.

    July 4, 2011 at 1:54 am | Reply
    • sosafesosaneandsosecure

      the naturally funny thing to say after your post would not be at all politically correct. –

      July 5, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  29. Courtenay Barnett

    @ Vadon,

    " Imagine if China or Russia would have bomb another country; I could just imagine the hysteria in the media. What a hypocrisy"

    Unfortunately, by reading along this thread – some people are of the mindset that the US and EU/NATO have an almighty ( pun intended) right to bomb, invade and dictate to other countries what is good for them. Of course, if the same were tried in reverse, the question from the US and EU would be – what right do you have to tell us how we ought to govern our country? – go govern your own.

    Hypocrisy and double-standards around the globe.


    July 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  30. Glenn beck

    The Mecca must be invaded and a big church should be built for the Lord Jesus Christ.

    All Muslims must be forcefully converted to christianity.

    July 4, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
    • Timerbeltkiller

      By this statement you successfullly prove yourself to be exactly like Taliban and Alqueda – only with opposite sign.

      July 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Reply
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