WHEN the news came through on November 26th that up to 24 Pakistani soldiers had been killed in a cross-border incident involving American and Afghan forces, your correspondent was at ISAF HQ in Kabul preparing to interview General John Allen, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. The mood at ISAF was one of deep shock combined with a sense of foreboding. The timing was awful. General Allen had only just returned from a visit to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of Pakistan’s army general staff, in a bid to improve relations that were already under the severest strain. As well as closing the land corridor that provides ISAF with up to half of its supplies, Pakistan announced that it would boycott the following week’s international conference in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan. The only (grim) smiles were caused by a reporter from a German news magazine who took a German general at ISAF to task for what he seemed to think was a deliberate attempt by America to sabotage his country’s hosting of a successful conference.
Although the official line was to offer Pakistan condolences for the loss of life and to wait for the results of an official investigation before saying anything more, it was clear that there had been a major “screw up”. It wasn’t just the lethality of what had occurred on the eastern border that was troubling—although it was the worst such “friendly fire” incident involving Pakistani forces in the ten years of the war—but the realisation that the air strikes had continued unabated for up to two hours. The release on December 22nd of the findings of the investigation largely bears out Pakistan’s version of events. After coming under fire from the Mohmand tribal region on the other side of the border, the American and Afghan commandos called in air strikes, apparently confident that there were no Pakistani forces in the areas and that the strikes would be hitting insurgents. That was wrong. The mistake was further compounded when the Pakistani border control centre was given incorrect data about where the fighting was taking place. Whether either General Allen or America’s defence secretary, Leon Panetta, will now issue the apology the Pakistanis have demanded is not yet certain. There is a precedent: Mr Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, apologised in 2010 after a similar incident.
Underlying the whole sorry story is the corrosive lack of trust between ISAF and Pakistan. ISAF is reluctant to tell Pakistani border forces precisely when and where it is carrying out operations against insurgents because it believes (with some justification) that the Taliban and their allies have in the past been tipped off by the Pakistanis when raids have been imminent. For their part, the insurgents often try to provoke incidents by launching attacks from positions near Pakistani troop positions. From Pakistan’s point of view, its border guards, poorly-equipped and with little situational awareness, are innocent victims caught in the crossfire. The problem is only likely to get worse. After the security gains of the past 18 months in the south and west, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the main focus of next year’s fighting is likely to be in the still very violent east of Afghanistan, which borders the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan (where the formidable Haqqanis are based) and other lawless territories to the north. Unless ISAF and the Pakistanis can find a way of working better together, the potential for further bloody and politically destructive accidents will grow.
IN THIS week's print edition our Lexington columnist considers the prospect of big cuts in America's defence budget, which are due to be triggered as a result of the failure of the supercommittee. Will a legislative accident really cause America to lose its position as the world’s leading military power?
IN THE summer of 2010 Admiral Mike Mullen, then still chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, said that the biggest security threat facing the nation was the national debt. The proposition that military strength depends in the long run on economic health is hardly controversial. But the admiral cannot have foreseen the astonishing sequence of budget negotiations that have paralysed Congress this past year. In the latest twist this week, Democrats and Republicans on Congress’s so-called “supercommittee” failed to agree on a plan to reduce the budget deficit, thereby exposing the defence budget to the prospect of a decade’s worth of deep spending cuts.
IN THE end, he had to go. Liam Fox is a bouncy, cocky, “nod’s as good as a wink” charmer, much loved by the right of his party for his ideological certainty and equally distrusted by the more liberal Cameroons for his poorly disguised contempt for their centrist pragmatism. But not even the ebullient Dr Fox could face down the daily flow of revelation about his reckless relationship with Adam Werritty and the manifest conflicts of interest it caused him. From the point of view of Britain’s dysfunctional Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its financially strained armed forces it is, however, rather a pity that Dr Fox’s indiscretions gave him no option other than to fall on his sword.
For a start, a bit of continuity would have done the MoD no harm after the rapid turnover of half-hearted Labour defence secretaries who serially failed to grip its problems. Although Dr Fox had only been in the job for 17 months, he had been shadow defence secretary in opposition for more than four years, which made him well-prepared for his ministerial duties when the coalition was formed in May 2010. He also loved the job. As a romantic nationalist with a deep commitment to Britain’s defence partnership with America, he was in his element (sometimes, a bit too much so) shuttling to and from Washington, visiting the boys in Afghanistan and carrying out an extremely active military-to-military diplomacy.
He also did far better than many had expected in addressing the MoD’s deeply embedded failings, in particular, the shambles over procurement that had left him with a £38 billion “black hole” of unfunded commitments. He presided, reluctantly and not without the occasional leaked protest, over a rushed Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), published almost exactly a year ago, that cut spending by around 8% over the next five years. However, such was the chaos in his department, he was forced to announce a further tranche of cuts in July to bridge the funding gap. Overall, he won praise for his determination to inject rigour and realism into Britain’s defence budget after a decade during which a “conspiracy optimism” among senior officers had divorced it from all reality. And despite the waves of redundancy notices going out both to soldiers, sailors, airmen and civil servants and despite the cuts in cherished capabilities and equipment programmes, morale was recovering, aided by a successful campaign in Libya and the belief that Dr Fox was a strong defence secretary who cared passionately about Britain’s armed forces.
His successor, Philip Hammond, who moves from the transport department, is a very different kettle of fish. He is the archetypal “safe pair of hands” with a cool, slightly desiccated demeanour. Mr Hammond, a businessman who was a highly competent shadow Treasury minister in opposition, will be unrelenting in keeping up the pressure on costs at the MoD. But he knows far less than Dr Fox about the armed forces or the big strategic issues facing Britain. Even though he is a “quick study”, there is a danger that he will be another defence secretary who is merely passing through rather than one with a long-term vision of what he wants to achieve. Moreover, Dr Fox has left behind him a great deal of work still to be done, not least what sort of army Britain will need after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is also the little matter of future defence spending. The government says it is committed to increasing the equipment budget by 1% a year in real terms after 2015—a critical underpinning of the Force 2020 plan that Dr Fox was working on. Mr Hammond will have to show that he is more than just an energetic cutter, but someone who will fight to prevent any further reduction in the strength of Britain’s armed forces, as Dr Fox would surely have done.
THE British foreign secretary’s Twitter-borne Q&A on cyberspace was, predictably, less than enlightening. In one tweet William Hague declares:
“I agree w/ @graphiclunarkid internet should be open & safe for all, with right balance between intellectual property & accessibility”
But how, precisely, should one balance openness and security on the internet? How to preserve the inventiveness and productivity of the digital age, while averting the threats of crime, espionage and warfare in cyberspace?
While millions are paying tribute to the interconnected world that Steve Jobs helped to create, securocrats fret about the growing vulnerabilities: could a country launch a crippling attack through cyberspace? For military types, cyberspace is now the fifth dimension of warfare, after land, sea, air and space. For more on this, see last year's cover story on Cyberwar in The Economist (here), and the accompanying leader (here).
Should there be arms-control agreements to regulate future digital conflicts? Are there less binding norms that can be promoted? Senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic are working away at the problem ahead of an international conference on cyberspace organised to be hosted by Mr Hague in London next month.
Charlemagne, The Economist’s former defence correspondent, sums up the state of the cybersecurity debate on his blog. The issue is so complex that, in the words of one official, “It is so big it does my head in.”
THE successful drone strike that on September 30th killed Anwar al-Awlaki and at least four other senior operatives from al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based franchise (known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninisula, or AQAP) may turn out to be even more significant than the raid on Abbottabad that ended the life of Osama bin Laden. Although bin Laden’s death was a cathartic moment for most Americans, and the special forces that swept through his squalid lair carried off an intelligence treasure trove, al-Qaeda’s embattled leader had been a busted flush, from an operational point of view, for some time. “Core” al-Qaeda, the original bit of the organisation that hangs out in Pakistan’s tribal areas is also, according to the White House’s anti-terror chief, John Brennan, “on the ropes”. Until yesterday, however, the same could not have been said of AQAP, which intelligence sources have regarded for a while as the branch of the terror network that posed the greatest direct threat to the West.
That was partly due to the ability of the American-born al-Awlaki, a smooth and articulate polemicist, to tickle the erogenous zones of disaffected young Muslims in Europe and America. He would capture their imaginations, persuade them to come to Yemen for training and then send them home as “lone wolf” terrorists ready and waiting to strike. Alone among al-Qaeda propagandists, al-Awlaki was not blindsided by the Arab spring. In this enterprise, al-Awlaki was assisted by his fellow American jihadist, Samir Khan, the web-savvy editor of the organisation’s online magazine “Inspire”, who was also killed in yesterday’s attack.
Equally satisfactory for Western security agencies is the probability that AQAP’s chief bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, was also in the two-car convoy that the Reaper drone’s Hellfire missiles ripped apart. Al-Asiri was the creative mastermind who persuaded his own brother to stick a bomb up his rectum in an attempt to kill a Saudi interior minister in 2009. He was also behind the Christmas Day “underpants bomber” and the bombs disguised as printer cartridges that came very close to blowing up two America-bound cargo planes last year. If al-Asiri is dead along with al-Awlaki and Khan, then AQAP’s so-called “Foreign Operations” unit will have lost its three brightest stars.
Moreover, it may find it very difficult to replace them. While al-Awlaki was adept at persuading useful idiots to become “martyrs” for the cause, the 40-year-old former cleric never showed much interest in joining them. The same is true of other al-Qaeda leaders, whose main purpose in response to their relentless tracking and destruction by America’s drones has become survival. The assumption that there is a steady stream of smart, motivated individuals eager to step into their shoes as they are systematically cut down is being severely tested.
AQAP will continue to be a threat, particularly in Yemen itself, which is the main focus of its local leadership. But its Foreign Operations section, which depended very heavily on a tiny group of talented individuals may find it hard to recover from yesterday’s crippling blow.
HAS Admiral Mike Mullen, who retires next month after two terms as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, become a tad “demob happy”—or is America engaged in a serious, some would say overdue, attempt to redefine its relationship with Pakistan? Nobody has put more effort than Admiral Mullen (pictured above left) into nurturing the fractious but vital military-to-military relationship between the two countries. When I saw him in Washington, DC late last year, America’s most senior military officer told me that he had travelled to Pakistan more than 20 times since 2008 for meetings with General Assfaq Kayani (pictured above right), Pakistan’s top soldier. Despite the many frustrations he had encountered on the way, Admiral Mullen remained determined to see General Kayani not only as a man whom he could do business with but also as someone with whom he had established warm personal ties. Admiral Mullen acknowledged that dealing with the Pakistanis was extremely tricky, but he praised the army’s efforts against the Pakistan Taliban in South Waziristan in early 2010 and said that America had no option other than to keep working at a relationship which had been characterised by fault on both sides.
But during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on September 22nd, Admiral Mullen castigated the role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency in sponsoring the Haqqani Network, close allies of the Afghan Taliban, which, he said, had been behind a spate of recent attacks. In written testimony, he alleged:
The fact remains that the Quetta Shura [Taliban] and the Haqqani Network operate from Pakistan with impunity. Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers... For example, we believe the Haqqani Network – which has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency – is responsible for the September 13th attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul... There is ample evidence confirming that the Haqqanis were behind the June 28th attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul and the September 10th truck bomb attack that killed five Afghans and injured another 96 individuals, 77 of whom were US soldiers.
Admiral Mullen was not revealing anything that most people who follow these things did not already know. Ever since the wars against the Soviets, Jalaluddin Haqqani and his clan along the Afghan border with Pakistani Waziristan have maintained close ties with the Pakistan military and an unbroken succession of Pakistani governments. As Anatol Lieven argues in his recent book, “Pakistan: A Hard Country”, the Pakistan security establishment’s support for the formidable Haqqanis has nothing to do with Islamist ideology and everything to do with the old (exaggerated) fear of India using Afghanistan as a base from which to support ethnic revolt in Pakistan. From that point of view, nothing has changed.
What has changed is that since the further souring of relations between America and Pakistan following the humiliating (for the latter) raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout, both sides have been using increasingly blunt language about each other. Anti-American feeling in Pakistan is intense, while American officials are no longer able to button up over what they see as Pakistani double-dealing. Admiral Mullen was right to say that in supporting groups such as the Haqqanis “the government of Pakistan, particularly the Pakistani Army, continues to jeopardize Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected and prosperous nation with genuine regional and international influence”. But on the other hand, he knows that there can be no successful (or even partially successful) conclusion to the mission in Afghanistan unless Pakistan can be somehow persuaded to see its strategic interests differently. Admiral Mullen says that America must “reframe” its relationship with Pakistan, but resist the temptation to “disengage” from it. That is easier said than done. But despite everything, Admiral Mullen’s successor, General Martin Dempsey, will soon be racking up the air miles on the long flight to Islamabad.
THE downing of a Chinook helicopter, apparently by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) or grenades, in the early hours of Saturday morning with the loss of 30 Americans (including 22 members of the same elite Navy Seal team that had killed Osama bin Laden) and eight Afghans, was a reminder of the risks special forces run in Afghanistan on an almost nightly basis. It was also unquestionably a major propaganda coup for the Taliban who took the opportunity to claim that the destruction of the helicopter in the Tangi Valley, not far from Kabul, was revenge for the death of the al Qaeda leader. However, despite the tragic loss of life in what was, for America, the costliest single incident since the war began nearly 10 years ago, attempts to attach strategic significance to what happened are mistaken.
It is true that as Barack Obama’s over-hasty troop drawdown picks up momentum the tempo of special forces missions is expected to quicken rather than slacken. That is partly because keeping up the pressure on middle-ranking and senior leaders of the insurgency, who are frequently the targets of night raids, is seen as a crucial lever in persuading the Taliban to start talking. And it is partly because as regular forces become stretched more thinly, special forces will be called upon more often to plug gaps or help extricate their comrades from tricky situations. But as a senior Pentagon official recently told the New Yorker magazine, in the past couple of years special forces have carried out around 2,000 targeted raids. Yet thanks to the element of surprise, the expertise of the soldiers sent on such missions and the overwhelming firepower they can deploy, the majority resulted in few if any casualties to NATO or Afghan army soldiers.
That said, any mission that involves flying troops by helicopters into harm’s way is inherently dangerous. Although helicopters are a much safer way to travel around contested areas of Afghanistan than road vehicles, they are unreliable machines that often crash or fail even without any enemy intervention. Out of 15 helicopter crashes or forced landings in Afghanistan this year, only two, including the Chinook at the weekend, were caused by hostile action. Helicopters are also highly vulnerable during the few minutes they take to land or take-off. The Chinook, in particular, is a lumbering old beast from the Vietnam era that presents a large and tempting target.
Fortunately for the NATO forces in Afghanistan, there is still no suggestion that the Taliban have got their hands on modern, portable surface-to-air missiles, such as the Stinger, which America supplied in large numbers to the Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan in the late-1980s to lethal effect. The heat-seeking Stinger, which has a range of nearly five miles and can hit aircraft at altitudes of up to 12,500 feet, made it far more difficult for the Soviets and their Afghan allies to use their superior airpower, especially their helicopters. An American army study in 1989 concluded that the Stinger had brought down 269 aircraft with a “kill ratio” of 79%. Others have disputed the Stinger’s effectiveness, but many believe it played a decisive role in ending the war. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, America launched a $55m programme to buy back the 300 or so Stingers it had doled out. Not all of them were retrieved, but, thankfully, by the mid-1990s battery failure would have meant that none of those left were operable.
For as long as the Taliban have only automatic rifles and RPGs to aim at NATO helicopters, it will take a lucky shot to do much damage and operations will continue much as before. If that changed, however, an already very difficult job would suddenly become a whole lot more dangerous.
AS ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN, America’s most senior military officer, confirmed to the House armed services committee on June 23rd, Barack Obama’s plan to cut troop levels in Afghanistan by 10,000 this year and by a further 20,000 or so by September 2011 is a more “aggressive” drawdown than he advised. It is a decision that inevitably adds a new element of risk to realising America’s (and NATO’s) declared objective, namely to create the conditions that will allow all combat operations to be handed over to Afghan national forces by 2014. It may also have inadvertently strengthened the Taliban's hand if and when the “talks about talks”, which are now being conducted through (unreliable) intermediaries, turn into the serious political negotiations that Mr Obama says he wants to take place.
The risk that the new American commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, will have to take is whether prematurely to start reducing his forces in the south and southwest (primarily Kandahar and Helmand), where huge progress has been made since Mr Obama first ordered the 33,000 troop surge in late-2009, or whether to put fewer resources into delivering the “clear, hold and build” strategy in the east than had previously been planned. He will have to choose between asking Afghan forces to take on much of the heavy lifting in the two most fought-over provinces before they are ready to do so (putting hard-won gains in jeopardy during next year’s fighting season) or accept that it may be impossible to clear out all the pockets of violent insurgency in the east before the 2014 deadline. Mr Obama might reply that generals always want more for longer, but as Admiral Mullen said, more force for more time would have been the safer option.
There may still be a little wriggle room over the precise phasing of the drawdown, however. The concern is that if Mr Obama sticks to his goal of fully unwinding the surge by September next year (well before November’s election), it may look to the Taliban like an open invitation to try and reverse their losses of the last two years. If, on the other hand, the larger part of next year’s 23,000 drawdown is postponed until the very end of 2012, the mission is likely to be in much better shape in 2013. What is critical is that space and time for training and mentoring Afghan army recruits is not dangerously telescoped. The aim is to reach a force of 375,000 by the end of 2012 from the current 300,000. Mr Obama would only have himself to blame if, for entirely domestic political reasons, he undermines the conditions for a security transition to Afghan national forces by 2014 that still looks just about doable. His rush for the exit could yet end up delaying the very thing his is hoping for.
THE first question that many in the West will have asked on hearing the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing is: does this make us any safer? The cautious reply of security experts is that in the short term the danger of terrorist attacks may go up as al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups look for ways to avenge the death of their symbolic leader, but that in the long-term Mr bin Laden’s demise may erode the al-Qaeda brand and thus its ability to influence the global jihadist movement. Even that may be too optimistic. Osama bin Laden dead is a great deal better than Osama bin Laden alive, but the truth is that his death may mean rather more to his enemies than to his followers.
Perhaps if the opportunity to capture or kill Mr bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains back in November 2001 had not been spurned, the blow to al-Qaeda would have been substantial. But over the best part of a decade, the terrorist organisation has had more than enough time to adapt to life without Mr bin Laden as much more than its titular head. The fact that the compound where Mr bin Laden had been hiding since 2005 appeared to have no internet access tells its own story of his diminished operational significance. Apart from the occasional rambling video recording smuggled to Al Jazeera, Mr bin Laden’s main value to al-Qaeda was his ability to inspire and unify as the network evolved into a classic franchise operation, albeit one based on quasi-tribal forms of allegiance.
In the past ten years, even as “core al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan has been ground down by special forces and drone attacks to no more than a couple of hundred active members, its network has spread, new operational leaders have been recruited and trained, resilient cells formed and new bases established. Core al-Qaeda has learned how to work with local and nationalist jihadist groups, helping to amplify and re-orient their violence, sometimes encouraging and presiding over collaboration between groups. Regardless of Mr bin Laden’s fate, the Taliban will continue the fight in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while franchise outfits in Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular, or AQAP), North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM) and affiliates, such as al Shabab in Somalia, will carry on much as before. For now, both al Shabab and AQIM are mainly regional players, although Westerners are sometimes targets as was the case in the bomb attack on a tourist café in Marrakesh last week. However, Western security sources see AQAP as a major and growing threat both to “far” and “near” enemies.
AQAP, under the leadership of Nasser al Wahayshi, a former personal aide of Mr bin Laden’s, and Anwar al Awlaki, an American-Yemeni cleric, has been the instigator of several recent terror plots aimed at America, from the Fort Hood shootings to the Christmas Day “underwear bomber” and the highly-sophisticated attempt last October to blow up two Chicago-bound cargo planes with bombs concealed in printer cartridges. With Mr bin Laden dead and its bases in south and east Yemen able to provide better protection from attack than core al-Qaeda’s North Waziristan heartland, AQAP has the potential to increase its influence over the whole organisation. To do so, however, it may need to carry out a successful spectacular to confirm its capabilities, which is easier said than done.
Such spectaculars can also take years to plan. In the meantime, al-Qaeda’s response to Mr bin Laden’s death is most likely to be in the form of activating sleepers to carry out “lone wolf” attacks in the West and more mayhem in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In other words, business as usual, only perhaps a bit more so in the weeks and months ahead. After a decade of relentless military and financial attrition, al-Qaeda may not be what it was, but it has evolved into something no less dangerous. Like a smart chief executive, Mr bin Laden’s greatest achievement is to have built something that no longer needed him.
THE changes to America’s national-security team that are expected to be announced tomorrow (April 28th) appear to have been designed with one aim in mind: to give Barack Obama greater control over a military machine that he regards as wasteful, arrogant and at times close to insubordinate. But Mr Obama has much to thank Robert Gates for. The outgoing defence secretary brought a cool-headed competence to the job that was desperately needed after Donald Rumsfeld came close to reducing America’s military to a state of nervous collapse. As a rare Republican who was prepared to practice the bipartisanship that others only preached, and as a seasoned defence professional, he provided cover for a young, leftish president.
However, Mr Gates was also a bit too independent for comfort. When he quietly backed the surge in Afghanistan that the military was calling for, Mr Obama had little choice other than to go along with it. Happy to be doing his last big job in government, Mr Gates was unsackable for as long as he was prepared to serve. And while Mr Gates has been willing to take an axe to Pentagon boondoggles, such as the Marines’ wildly over-budget Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (a sort of floating tank), and recognised that defence spending could not be ring-fenced from budget-cutting pain, there were also clear limits to how far he would go in presiding over a weakened defence establishment.
Mr Gates’ replacement, Leon Panetta, the current director of the CIA, is a vastly experienced operator who will have less compunction than Mr Gates in chasing down the savings implied by Mr Obama’s ambitious goal of cutting $400 billion from the defence budget by 2023. Mr Panetta is also a calming, consensual figure who will go about his work without frightening the horses too much. The doubts about Mr Panetta are mainly to do with his age. He will be 73 in June and although he has visited more than 30 countries during his stint at the CIA, the Pentagon will test his energy and appetite for the job severely. On top of lots of shuttle diplomacy maintaining America’s network of military-to-military relationships, he will have to withstand excruciating and frequently hostile congressional scrutiny, demonstrate executive efficiency of the highest order and be able to turn on a dime when "stuff happens". Mr Gates, five years younger, admits to being worn out by the job.
By taking on the toughest job in government at a very tough time, Mr Panetta has left the way open for General David Petraeus to succeed him as the CIA’s director. It is a compromise that probably just about works for everyone, but is still sub-optimal. It would surely have been better for General Petraeus to see out one more fighting season in Afghanistan after this one, which he was apparently ready to do if asked. Failing that, he was the outstanding candidate to replace Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mullen is retiring in October after a creditable four years in the top uniformed job.
But General Petraeus, even more than Mr Gates, pushed hard for the Afghanistan surge, refusing to provide Mr Obama with the alternatives he was asking for. Even now, after rescuing the Afghanistan campaign following the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, General Petraeus has only been given qualified forgiveness by the White House. One other possibility was for General Petraeus to take over from Admiral James Stavridis as supreme commander in Europe. But people close to General Petraeus say he wants to come home after his series of long and demanding tours. At the CIA, there is a danger that America’s most distinguished soldier will get lost in the bureaucracy. That may be exactly what Mr Obama wants.
Among the other changes in the pipeline, it is high time that a replacement was found for General Karl Eickenberry, the increasingly semi-detached ambassador in Kabul. If Ryan Crocker is signed up to go there, Mr Obama deserves credit for his powers of persuasion. But with General Petraeus on his way out, the two men will have little chance to repeat their famous double act in Iraq: another wasted opportunity.
Admiral Mullen’s replacement will probably not be announced until July or August. His deputy, General James Cartwright, is still just about the favourite to succeed him. Mr Obama warmed to him during the drawn out deliberations over the surge because he argued for providing the president with real choices in Afghanistan. But he's a bit tarnished after being investigated in 2009 and last year for possible misconduct involving a female Marine captain. The investigators recommended administrative action for “failure to discipline a subordinate” and “fostering an unduly familiar relationship”. That may not disqualify him in Mr Obama’s eyes. A cynic might conclude that with a national security adviser (Tom Donilon) picked for his loyalty rather than his expertise, an ageing defence secretary tasked with slashing military spending, a beholden chairman of the joint chiefs and the country’s most famous and charismatic soldier out of uniform, Mr Obama will finally have the defence team he always wanted.
AT AROUND 10.00pm on March 25th, six days after their headlong retreat from Benghazi following the first coalition strikes, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s men were pulling out of the strategically important crossroads town of Ajdabiya. Attacks the previous night by British Tornados using "fire-and-forget" Brimstone anti-tank missiles destroyed much of the government armour and artillery that had been shelling the town for the best part of the week and with them the will of loyalist troops to continue fighting.
By March 26th, after a night spent mopping up the remnants of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, the rebels were in control of Ajdabiya again and were talking about rapidly moving on to Brega and then the oil refining town of Ras Lanuf. According to some reports, Brega, 45 miles to the west, and Ras Lanuf may already be back in rebel hands.
Meanwhile, however, the situation in Misrata, the rebels' isolated outpost in the west and Libya’s third-biggest city, remains desperate. The death toll has been mounting despite several coalition airstrikes over the past few days, including one on March 26th in which French aircraft destroyed five government jets and two helicopters preparing to take off from a nearby airbase. Relieving Misrata is the overwhelming humanitarian concern of the coalition.
It is not clear whether Colonel Qaddafi has tanks inside the city. But indiscriminate shelling is continuing other than when there is an imminent threat of attack from the air, while, according to reports from terrified residents, snipers are occupying high buildings in central areas and shooting at anything moving in the streets below. Whether or not Misrata, which is only 130 miles from Tripoli, can be saved may depend on two things: the coalition's ability to prevent resupplies of ammunition and fuel getting to the besieging government forces, and the extent to which it is prepared to take greater chances with the lives of civilians as it chips away at both Colonel Qaddafi's heavy weaponry and the morale of his soldiers.
What happens in Misrata will have an impact on whether the coalition and the rebels have to settle for a stalemate lasting at least some months, or whether hopes that the regime will collapse from within before too long will be realised. For now, it remains unlikely that the rag-tag rebel forces have the capacity to move much further west than Ras Lanuf. Colonel Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, which lies between Ras Lanuf and Misrata, has not risen up against him. That leads to the ticklish question of whether the coalition would be prepared to help the rebels mount an assault on it.
Even if the coalition is willing to provide advancing rebel forces with close air support—and that is a big and unresolved "if"—they still lack the training, weapons and command structure to be able take advantage of it against more disciplined troops. The arms embargo section of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 leaves open the possibility of supplying weapons to the rebels, but it does not specifically sanction it. Despite the compromise announced late last week in which NATO assumed command of the no-fly zone while an ad hoc coalition committee calls the political and strategic shots, there is still some confusion over precisely who is meant to be doing what. The ambiguous signals that continue to emerge from Washington have done little to clarify the situation. The expulsion of Colonel Qaddafi's men from Ajdabya is an important turning point. But the questions about how the next stages of the campaign will evolve have not gone away.
This is an updated version of the post that was made live at 16.55 on March 23rd.
EVEN as French warplanes set off on March 19th, under a United Nations mandate, to stop Muammar Qaddafi’s tanks and artillery reaching the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, it was clear that the hastily assembled “coalition of the willing” would have to make it up as it went along. The pace of events on the ground had left little time for reflection.
Security Council Resolution 1973, passed less than 48 hours earlier with Russia, China, Brazil, India and Germany abstaining, was a triumph for French and British diplomacy. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had worked energetically to persuade Arab countries to make an appeal through the usually fairly useless Arab League for the UN to come to the aid of Libyan civilians. David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, had done his part by nudging the Americans to overcome their reservations about military intervention. Remarkably the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Lebanon, gave the allies an almost free hand, short of a full-scale invasion and occupation, to use “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s advancing forces.
Yet those words have led to some confusion, among both allies and rebels, about what could or should be done. There has been wrangling, too, over who should lead the operation when the Americans carry out their pledge, supposedly within the next few days, to withdraw to a merely supportive role.
It already looks as if establishing the no-fly zone was the easy part. The first barrage of nearly 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles from American warships and a British submarine, which struck 20 command-and-control sites, severely damaged the regime’s ability to operate its air-defence system. Further salvoes of cruise missiles and attacks by British, American and French aircraft over the next few nights appear to have finished the job, although Colonel Qaddafi may have saved some of his radar simply by turning it off.
By March 22nd a no-fly zone covered most of the rebel-held eastern coastal region. Combat patrols were being flown by aircraft from countries including Canada, Spain, Denmark, Italy and Belgium. Planes from Qatar were expected by March 27th. Over the next few days the aim is to extend the zone eastwards until it covers the whole of the coast to the capital, Tripoli. A de facto maritime exclusion zone has also been imposed, preventing Colonel Qaddafi from either resupplying his forces or shelling rebel-held cities from the sea.
How useful the no-fly zone will be in halting the regime’s counter-offensive is debatable. Colonel Qaddafi may have had fewer than 40 operational combat aircraft at most, and has many fewer now; but his fleet of attack helicopters (also vulnerable to “all necessary measures”) has provided close support for ground troops, which at times has given him a critical advantage.
In some ways, the no-fly zone is as much a diplomatic as a military tool—a way of binding together a visibly fragile 14-nation alliance. But as the drafters of the resolution realised, it was never going to be enough on its own to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from killing his people.
Even without their combat aircraft and helicopter gunships, Colonel Qaddafi’s paramilitaries are proving too well-trained and well-equipped for the motley rebel forces to withstand on their own. The spectacularly destructive results of the first French attack on the loyalist forces descending on Benghazi may have led the rebels to think that their fighting would be done for them, and that their enemies would quickly crumble. But it had its effect because Colonel Qaddafi’s men, in their desperate attempt to reach Benghazi before the allies could get their act together, had allowed their supply lines to become dangerously overstretched, leaving tanks, transporters and rocket launchers strung out as sitting ducks along the desert road.
Benghazi and other rebel towns in the far east of the country, such as Tobruk, are now relatively secure from any attempt by the regime to recapture them—a huge change from only a few days ago. But the picture in towns already controlled by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces is less clear-cut. The rebels’ attempt on March 21st to relieve the strategic crossroads town of Ajdabiya, 145km (90 miles) south-west of Benghazi, showed what they are up against and the limits of their military capability.
Emboldened by the coalition’s demand that the regime should pull back from Ajdabiya, which was retaken by government forces last week, the rebels hoped that air attacks would do the same job for them as they had outside Benghazi. When jets were heard overhead, followed by big explosions, a few hundred rebels, toting a variety of light weapons from pick-up trucks, charged forward. But as shells and rockets began raining down on them they fled as quickly as they had come. Without discipline or training, adequate communications or a unified command structure, they are no match for Colonel Qaddafi’s men.
Repulsing government forces from Ajdabiya, which controls the water supply to Benghazi, is a key objective for the coalition and the rebels. Coalition aircraft began launching strikes on the loyalist forces on March 22nd, but they have so far proved hard to dislodge.
The situation in Libya’s third-largest city, Misrata, only 130 miles east of Tripoli and with a population of more than half a million, appeared even more desperate. After more than a week of heavy fighting in which well over 100 people are said to have died, the government announced on March 21st that it was in full control of the town. That now looks premature. Loyalist tanks and artillery that had been sporadically bombarding the city for several weeks were silenced (at least temporarily) after pinpoint air strikes on the 23rd. According to reports from within Misrata, many of the tanks were destroyed and many of Colonel Qaddafi’s men were seen fleeing. Snipers, however, continued their deadly work in the centre and around the main hospital.
In Tripoli, despite the nightly attacks on the regime’s command-and-control centres, there is not much sign of the government losing its grip. The regular pro-Qaddafi demonstrations do not accurately reflect feeling within the capital, but there is no way of knowing how strong opposition to the colonel may be.
A further complication for the coalition is the predictable exploitation of “human shields” (apparently, mostly volunteers) to protect high-value government targets. On March 21st an RAF Tornado aborted its mission close to Tripoli after it was warned that civilians, including some foreign journalists, were close to its target.
The strikes on Tripoli also raised the question of whether trying to kill Colonel Qaddafi himself was consistent with the terms of the Security Council resolution. The legal advice appears ambiguous. “Regime change” is not an allied goal, even though nobody believes that a peaceful, democratic Libya is possible while the colonel is around. On the other hand, if it is clear (as it surely is) that Colonel Qaddafi has given orders that have resulted in the butchering of Libyan civilians, he is indeed a legitimate target. This seems to be the position of the British government, which on March 21st was quick to slap down the chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, who had grumpily told a BBC journalist that going after Colonel Qaddafi was “absolutely...not allowed”.
All this means that the coalition urgently needs to work out what its strategic objectives are and what it is prepared to do to achieve them. But before that, it must sort out who is going to lead it.
The Americans were willing to accept that role in the first phase of the campaign because of the range of assets (from the opening cruise-missile barrage, to electronic jamming, intelligence-gathering, mission co-ordination and fuel supply) that only they could bring to the speedy establishment of the no-fly zone. But in line with the new humility and commitment to multilateralism that Barack Obama preaches, they were adamant that they would then hand over to somebody else.
That did not, however, mean falling in with Mr Sarkozy’s preference for a Franco-British command. Mr Sarkozy argued from the start that he did not want the operation led by NATO, because NATO is seen in the Arab world as a tool of American power, and Arab support for the coalition is already weak. The Americans and the British, however, were reluctant to sideline NATO. The result was a fudge agreed late on March 22nd. Mr Sarkozy and Mr Obama agreed that NATO would assume day-to-day military command of the no-fly zone under Admiral James Stavrides, the American supreme allied commander in Europe; but that, reflecting some of NATO’s own divisions, particularly the ambivalence of Turkey and Germany, political control would lie with the members of the coalition rather than with the North Atlantic Council, the main decision-making body of the alliance. However, late on March 23rd Turkey’s opposition to coalition ground attacks stalled the signing of the compromise.
Obstructions of this sort make it all the harder to settle other essential matters swiftly. The first is to devise a realistic set of strategic goals. One may already have been achieved. With no more than about 10,000 troops available and with any advance across the desert acutely exposed to coalition air strikes, Colonel Qaddafi has almost certainly lost his chance to reimpose his authority in the east.
However, there have been doubts about how far attacks from the air could help the civilians who are within Colonel Qaddafi’s reach. The position of the government forces besieging Ajdabiya looked precarious after air attacks on March 22nd, and they were said to be running out of ammunition. But the big test is bringing help to Misrata. Admiral Samuel Locklear, a coalition commander, said that all options were being considered.
Misrata is important not just for humanitarian reasons. If it cannot be saved, or the cost of doing so is deemed too high, the coalition would be sending a signal that for now there is not much it can do to prevent Colonel Qaddafi consolidating his position in the western half of the country. But if coalition air strikes are able to take out government heavy weaponry in urban areas without significant risk to civilians, as appears to be happening in Misrata, the pessimists may be confounded.
What happens to Misrata, in other words, could define the extent of the coalition’s objectives, at least in the short term. It must decide whether there is any realistic prospect of the rebels taking on Colonel Qaddafi’s forces and power structure in the west. The rebels themselves are reported to be divided between those who believe that the regime can be toppled with one more push, as long as they are supported by coalition air power, and those who believe that a temporary stalemate makes more sense. During such a stalemate, the rebels’ national council in Benghazi could turn itself into a government-in-waiting capable of speaking with one voice, and much-needed military capabilities could be developed.
There may also be some tension within the coalition between those keen to attempt a speedy resolution and those who are resigned to a lengthier engagement. Patience is still likely to be the better bet, unless the regime collapses from within.
Misrata makes that outcome just a bit more likely. Colonel Qaddafi’s troops and supporters are rapidly learning just how devastatingly effective western air power can be. But without substantial defections from the loyalist army, the rebels cannot hope to become a cohesive military force unless they receive weapons and training from outside, which would seem to be in breach of the UN arms embargo.
A short-term partition of Libya might be bearable, but a long-term one raises the prospect of an arms race, rapid economic decline and Colonel Qaddafi resuming his sponsorship of international terrorism. Algeria, which disavows the Arab League declaration, might start rearming the colonel across his western border.
Two further pressing issues for the coalition will be the enforcement of sanctions against the regime and the question of whether the rebels can gain access to Libya’s (diminished) oil revenues. The biggest refinery, at Ras Lanuf, lies in what is likely to be the rebels’ area of control; so too do many of the oilfields. On the other hand, if reports that the colonel has $6.4 billion-worth of gold stashed away in the country’s central bank in Tripoli are true, he has a potential advantage in any war of attrition. If he can liquidate this hoard into cash, arms and food, his chances of clinging on indefinitely will be boosted.
Given the range of uncertainties, the question of targeting Colonel Qaddafi himself becomes more relevant. Without him, it is hard to see the regime surviving for more than a few weeks. The coalition will not change its declared position that killing the Libyan war leader is not on its list of objectives. But were it somehow to happen, few would complain.
THE FIRST stage of the “multiphase” Operation Odyssey Dawn may already be over. At 19.00 GMT on Saturday evening, American and British naval vessels launched a co-ordinated Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Libyan air-defence systems. At least 110 missiles struck at 20 command and control sites that had been targeted earlier in the week by satellites and aerial-surveillance missions conducted by American and British aircraft. There were also unconfirmed reports of American B-2 “stealth” bombers hitting a major Libyan airfield.
According to allied military sources, the strikes “severely disabled” the Libyan regime’s ability both to “see” coalition aircraft entering Libyan airspace and maintain effective command and control over the country’s integrated air defence systems, which include nearly 100 Mig-25s and 15 Mirage F-1s and a huge arsenal of Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). A bomb-damage assessment is now underway to determine whether more attacks are needed to degrade Muammar Qaddafi’s air defences further before enforcement of the UN-mandated no-fly zone can begin in relative safety. A second phase is likely to begin later on Sunday with coalition aircraft (including 16 British GR4 Tornados, Rafales from the French carrier Charles de Gaulle at Toulon and F-18s from the USS Enterprise in the Red Sea) launching attacks with anti-radiation missiles that lock on to and destroy enemy radar systems.
Just over two hours before the main assault began, French Rafale (pictured) and Mirage 2000 fighters went into action over Benghazi. As international leaders met in Paris to agree the outline of the UN-backed military campaign, anxiety had grown over the threat to Libya’s second-biggest city. The ceasefire declared by the Qaddafi regime on Friday had been exposed as a ruse, as loyalist forces sped towards the rebels’ stronghold, beginning a major tank and artillery bombardment early on Saturday, while infiltrating snipers into central areas of the city.
The French mission, which deployed 20 aircraft including aerial refuelling tankers and airborne command and control planes, was an attempt (a little belated according to some military observers) to prevent Colonel Qaddafi establishing a fait accompli in Benghazi before the allies had got their act together. By preventing the regime from using its airpower effectively and suppressing for a time the artillery bombardment, the French brought some relief to the beleaguered city, but by not striking earlier, the allies have made things more difficult both for themselves and the civilian population they are trying to protect. Unless the Qaddafi forces withdraw, hitting them rather than the rebels resisting them will be difficult, while the risks of collateral damage if the fighting spreads within Benghazi will be high.
The pattern seems set for the next two or three days. As more allied forces arrive in the theatre of operations—Danish and Canadian jets have landed at the American airbase at Sigonella in Sicily or are on their way and fighter aircraft from Spain, Qatar and the UAE have been promised—and as the tricky technical job of co-ordinating the participating air forces progresses, the no-fly zone will become increasingly effective. A naval blockade will also come into force. Ground attacks on the Libyan regime’s armour, artillery, rocket launchers and mechanised infantry in both the east and west of the country seem certain to intensify if Colonel Qaddafi insists on carrying on the fight. A major uncertainty is whether his forces will continue to obey his orders if they start to believe the game is up. The 20,000 well-trained tribal paramilitary forces that the Colonel most relies on may feel they have no alternative. But the mercenaries he employs may think differently: they are paid to fight, but not to the death.
Although the Americans appear to be reluctantly leading the operation at the moment through Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of the Allied Joint Force based in Naples, there is talk of mission leadership being handed over to either Britain or France once the first phases are over. Some tricky issues are coming up fast.
The UN resolution appears to exclude the use of foreign ground forces in Libya, but if strikes on the regime's ground forces are to be fully effective (and less likely to hit the wrong targets), air forces will need specialised ground spotters to guide them. Relying on intelligence from the rebels will not give allied pilots the kind of real-time situational awareness that they will want. Secondly, the coalition does not yet have a declared policy on what it will do to support rebel counter-attacks. Regime change is a hope, rather than an aim of the operation. But at some stage, the distinction is likely to become blurred between protecting civilians from Colonel Qaddafi and effectively fighting for (and perhaps arming) one side in a Libyan civil war.
THE comforting idea that Muammar Qaddafi might go relatively gently into that good night like his more conventional autocratic neighbours has been dashed. Instead the Libyan dictator seems determined to follow the poet’s advice by burning, raving and raging against the dying of the light. It would be bad enough if Mr Qaddafi were merely determined to kill as many of his fellow citizens as possible before quickly succumbing to his own end. But the prospect is for something even worse: either a stalemate that allows Mr Qaddafi the time he needs to re-establish his authority in the east of the country; or a bloody civil war with an uncertain outcome and the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Which is why after much pious rhetoric in Western capitals about Mr Qaddafi’s growing illegitimacy, there is now urgent discussion of what kind of practical assistance could be extended to the rebels. However, after a flurry of excitement on February 28th when the British prime minister, David Cameron, told parliament that he had asked “the chief of the defence staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone”, the following day, Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, warned about the dangers of military intervention in another Muslim country. Mr Gates announced he was sending two naval vessels towards Libya, an amphibious assault ship, USS Kearsarge, and an amphibious dry dock, USS Ponce, but with the aim of providing humanitarian assistance.
At this point there are many objections to the use of force by outsiders to remove Mr Qaddafi. Foreign intervention would not be popular with Libya's opposition. There is so little intelligence about what is happening on the ground that it would be hard to distinguish friends from foes. America has both theoretical and practical objections to using force: it does not want to divert resources from Afghanistan and is in no rush to resume toppling Arab dictators.
Nevertheless, the option of creating a no-fly zone may yet gain ground. Mr Qaddafi’s 18,000-strong air force with its 13 bases is a critical element in his bid to hold on to power. The regime’s use of ground attack jets against its enemies may have been exaggerated—they are hardly the weapon of choice for street-fighting.
But of much greater use to him are his 30 or so attack helicopters (Russian Mi-25s and Mi-35s) and his substantial aerial transport capacity. These comprise seven squadrons equipped with Russian 23 An-26s, 25 IL-76s and 15 C-130s. He also has a heavy transport helicopter squadron with four Boeing Chinooks and a medium transport squadron with Soviet-era 35 Mi-8s and Mi-17s which can also be used as gun-ships. According to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the transport squadrons are by some measure the most effective part of the Libyan air force.
Mr Qaddafi’s ability to move reinforcements rapidly around the vast country has already proved important. According to intelligence estimates, far from being the delusional loon he affects to be, the Libyan leader has been preparing for the situation he finds himself in today for many years. Unlike the well-equipped, albeit poorly run, air force, the nominally 50,000-strong Libyan army (most of whom are conscripts) has long been distrusted by the regime and kept on short rations. In contrast, Mr Qaddafi and his sons have built up a paramilitary force of some 20,000 well-armed and well-drilled tribesmen loyal to their clan and supplemented by handsomely paid mercenaries from Chad and Niger.
It was tribal militiamen ferried by air from the Sahara who were dropped into the streets of Tripoli on February 21st and who bloodily cowed resistance in the capital. A few days later air transport was crucial again to Mr Qaddafi’s plan to recapture the coastal towns close to Tripoli from rebel hands. Both Zawiya and Misurata still appear to be controlled by the opposition after assaults by heavily armed forces loyal to the regime were repelled on February 28th. But Mr Qaddafi’s forces have surrounded the towns and cut off the road links to Tripoli.
A further concern for the opposition is that any attempt it makes to move its own forces along the 1,000km coast road to Tripoli from its stronghold in Benghazi will be highly vulnerable to air attack. There were also reports on February 28th of Libyan warplanes flying over Benghazi as if to warn the rebels they could be bombed at any time and of an attack on an arms depot 160km to the south either by jets or helicopters that had been seized by the opposition.
At present, without clear leadership, the rebels appear divided about whether they actually want an American/NATO no-fly zone. Some say that Western help would tarnish their revolutionary credentials and besides they hope (perhaps a little naively) that a combination of defecting air force pilots and planes seized on the ground will soon give them the ability to launch air attacks of their own. Buoyed by their early spectacular gains and the large number of army defections in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, they may, however, have over-estimated the ability of popular momentum to deliver victory over the whole country. Others realise that without help from Western air power they could be sitting ducks. On March 1st, the newly created revolutionary council was reportedly considering a request to the United Nations for air strikes against some of the regime’s military assets.
Without a no-fly zone the anti-Qaddafi revolution could yet stumble and fail. However, while the West has plenty of experience in policing no-fly zones, they are neither easy to put into effect nor guaranteed to prevent large-scale killing on the ground. Although Saddam Hussein was deterred from taking terrible retribution on the Kurds after the first Gulf war by the no-fly zone in the north, a similar attempt to neuter the Iraqi air force in the south was much less successful in curbing his brutalities against the Shi’ite population. It is also worth recalling that the no-fly zone over Bosnia did not stop the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, while, if anything, the NATO bombing of Serbia four years later accelerated ethnic killings in Kosovo.
If a no-fly zone over Libya is to be established, it looks as if it will have to be through another “coalition of the willing” rather than with the blessing of a UN Security Council resolution which would probably be opposed by both Russia and China. In the first instance, planes flying from an American carrier, probably the USS Enterprise, could establish the no-fly zone, but land bases, such as the well-positioned US Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily or a similar facility at Souda Bay in Crete, would soon be needed to sustain a long campaign. And while enforcement of a no-fly zone is not especially complicated once everything is in place, it does require both careful planning and adequate resources (a fleet of around a hundred fighter jets, aerial refuelling, airborne warning and control, robust data links between coalition aircraft, rescue arrangements for any pilots shot done).
In establishing the no-fly zone, coalition aircraft would first have to nullify Libyan air defences, which include nearly 100 Mig-25s and 15 Mirage F-1s equipped with still-capable Soviet era air-to-air missiles and a huge arsenal of Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that come in all shapes and sizes. It is unlikely, however, that either Mr Qaddafi’s pilots would fare any better than the similarly equipped, but better trained, Iraqis who failed to shoot down a single allied aircraft in 11 years of no-fly zone patrolling. But military experts, including Lieutenant General David Deptula, a former fighter pilot who until recently oversaw air force intelligence at the Pentagon, believe Libya has succeeded in acquiring more up-to-date SAMs in the past few years than were available to Iraq and that these could pose a serious threat to allied aircraft.
Before going ahead with a no-fly zone over Libya, the allies (America and Britain perhaps joined by France and Italy) would have to ask themselves two more questions. The first is how long they are prepared to stick at it if Mr Qaddafi manages to hang on. The second is what degree of “mission creep” they are prepared to contemplate. A no-drive zone to prevent the regime from using the full weight of its ground forces against the rebels might be a next step. The prospect of an open-ended, possibly escalating military commitment without UN sanction is hardly a welcome one.
Getting rid of a burning, raving and raging Mr Qaddafi may prove a lot more difficult both for the brave Libyan opposition and their anxious well-wishers in the West than was hoped only a few days ago.
SO THE rumours that EADS had managed to gain an edge over its rival, Boeing, on price in the long and bitter contest to supply the United States Air Force with a new generation of aerial re-fuelling tankers turned out to be wide of the mark. On February 24th the secretary for the air force, Michael Donley, announced that the home team had after all beaten the European defence firm that also owns Airbus to win a $35 billion contract to replace the 1950s-era Boeings (pictured above) that currently do the job.
It should not have come as a surprise, because this was a competition decided more by politics than the capabilities of the two aircraft on offer. In 2008 EADS and its then-partner in America, Northrop Grumman, pulled off a shock victory when its KC-45 triumphed over Boeing’s 767-based alternative. The air force had preferred the bigger plane based on the much more modern Airbus A330 mainly because of its ability to shift more fuel and other payloads. It was also in many ways a less risky option because the aircraft actually existed (see picture, below) and had been picked by other air forces, while Boeing’s offering, even now, will not make its first flight until 2015. There was also little difference in the number of American jobs that either plane would secure: about 50,000.
But amid howls of rage on its behalf from (mainly) Democratic members of Congress, Boeing refused to take defeat lying down and exercised its right to protest at the award, coming up with 110 complaints about a bidding process that had been unusually fair and transparent (in part because of a scandal six years earlier when Boeing had first bid but had been disqualified on grounds of criminal collusion with an air-force official). The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, upheld seven of them. With a presidential election looming, the Pentagon decided to kick the can down the road.
In September 2009 the air force duly issued a new draft Request for Proposals (RFP) that, by making price the main criterion for selection, effectively undermined the case for the KC-45. A Northrop executive condemned it as a “lowest-common-denominator approach designed to favour a less capable, smaller aircraft by turning the contest into a cost shoot-out”. Unless the RFP changed Northrop, he said, would pull out of the bidding, which it duly did in March last year. At the time, I wrote a piece with the provocative headline of “The best plane loses”. It attracted a huge number of venomously furious e-mails, accusing The Economist of bias, ignorance and probably being in the pay of EADS. Quite a few of the correspondents had direct connections with Boeing.
As it happened, EADS was not ready to throw in the towel and it tried hard to find another American partner to help it carry on the fight. But one of the firm’s most senior executives told me that fears of possible political retribution had meant that no big defence company was willing to raise its head above the parapet. Even so, EADS soldiered on, partly because it still believed that the combination of its plane’s superiority and much lower procurement risk might still prevail, partly because it calculated that the campaign would help to establish its credentials as a serious competitor in America whatever the outcome.
In the end, Northrop’s concerns proved fully justified. Boeing’s offer came in more than 1% lower than that of EADS, which meant that the air force could bypass a set of 96 non-mandatory requirements that could have tipped the balance the other way. Another factor in the Boeing plane’s favour was its lower fuel burn—a direct consequence of the KC-45’s 25% higher maximum take-off weight. EADS may still find grounds to protest and says it is studying the air force’s reasons for its decision closely. Whether it would be wise to do so is another matter. As for Boeing, its persistence and political clout has paid off, but it will be under pressure now to execute flawlessly, something it has struggled to do in recent years.
YESTERDAY'S formal passing of the baton from the outgoing Israeli Defence Force chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gaby Ashkenazi, to his successor, Major General Benny Gantz, is unlikely to mark the end of a very public squabble between past and present generals that is extraordinary even by Israeli standards. Having just returned to England from a spending a week in Israel, I am still trying to disentangle what lies behind the apparently poisonous and no-holds-barred personal rivalries at the heart of the country’s defence establishment.
Without going into too much detail, the first choice of the defence minister, Ehud Barak (backed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), to succeed Mr Ashkenazi was Major General Yoav Galant. There were rumours that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak wanted Mr Galant because he was the most gung-ho of the top brass about attacking Iran’s nuclear installations, something Mr Ashkenazi had feared would trigger a new Middle East war. But Mr Galant also became a controversial pick for other reasons, after allegations were made against him involving the seizure of public land near his home in Moshav Amicam. A fortnight ago, after a thorough investigation, the attorney-general concluded that his findings raised "significant legal difficulties" for the decision to appoint Mr Galant. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak decided to drop Mr Galant and replace him with the more consensual figure of Mr Gantz, who had been deputy chief of the IDF until his retirement in November.
Other controversies surrounding the appointment of a new chief of staff have been gleefully reported in the local press. In early August a document surfaced that appeared to show how Mr Galant intended to get the top job in the IDF by “presenting a negative image” of his rival, Mr Gantz. It subsequently emerged, however, that the document was a fake. Boaz Harpaz, a retired lieutenant-colonel who was a close associate of Mr Ashkenazi, has been charged with forging the document. It is also alleged in a book called “The Pit”, published this week by two journalists, that Mr Harpaz operated from 2010 as a spy in Mr Barak's office for Mr Ashkenazi, who had become convinced that the defence minister was trying to destroy him. The IDF has refuted these allegations.
Mr Ashkenazi is seen by many Israelis as having restored the morale and fighting efficiency of the IDF in the aftermath of the troubled 2006 Lebanon campaign, while Mr Barak is given little credit. Mr Ashkenazi also ran a slick PR operation designed to polish his image at every opportunity, while Mr Barak’s political fortunes, as an increasingly semi-detached leader of the Labour Party, slumped. No wonder there was jealousy, or that Mr Barak and Mr Ashkenazi fell out, particularly when Mr Barak moved to deny Mr Ashkenazi another year in office.
Fractious relationships between defence ministers and IDF chiefs of staff are nothing new in Israel. In the early 1990s, when Mr Barak was himself the IDF chief of staff, he clashed with Moshe Arens, the defence minister, over whether authority for preparing against an attack from Iraq should lie within the army or the ministry. More recently Shaul Mofaz faced bitter resistance from the then chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, to the government’s plan for disengagement from Gaza. Mr Ya’alon is vice-prime minister in the current government.
It is unlikely that anyone will come out of the present farrago of accusation and counter-accusation looking good. The core of the problem is the very special role that the IDF and its generals have in Israeli society. Occasionally derided for their failings, but more often worshipped for their achievements, Israel’s generals become household names and popular heroes in a way that is unimaginable in most liberal democracies. So it is not surprising that they are so frequently tempted to enter politics when they retire, sometimes with the mud (or sand) still fresh on their boots. Whether it is entirely healthy is another matter.
THE mood at the 11th annual Herzliya conference, where Israel’s top policymakers come to debate strategy and diplomacy with invited international experts, is understandably twitchy. The events in Egypt hang over the conference like the threatening grey clouds. And yesterday those clouds unleashed a savage hailstorm, in the form of a stinging attack on the Netanyahu government by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who now leads Israel’s fragmented opposition. Nobody here claims that they saw the upheaval in Egypt coming, and few think that President Hosni Mubarak's regime will be replaced by one that Israel will find anything like as easy to live with.
Members of the government have taken a vow of silence not to comment, even off the record, on the unfolding situation in Egypt. But if you talk to people here privately, they suggest there are three possible scenarios. The first (intended to sound incredible) is that Israel’s biggest neighbour will be transformed into a peaceable, pluralist democracy. The second is that Egypt will become something like Turkey, either with an army-dominated government as in the past or with a government a bit like the present one in Ankara that has a quite a strong Islamist flavour (either more or less intense, depending on the role within it of the Muslim Brotherhood). The third is that something similar to the Iranian revolution in 1979 is played out “with dramatic consequences”. If the third scenario were to be realised, the psychological impact on Israel will be such that any conceivable land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians will have to be accompanied by much more rigorous security arrangements on the ground. That said, the emergence of a moderately Islamist government that remained committed to peace with Israel could, after the initial shock, prove quite positive.
Perhaps inevitably, the turmoil in Egypt is only entrenching people here in their existing positions. The right is saying that it goes to show how quickly things can change in the unstable Arab world. Even if you could do a deal with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who anyway only speaks for half the Palestinians, how confident can you be that the peace would hold? For its part, the pro-peace camp says that the situation in Egypt means that there may be only a narrow window to get a settlement negotiated and that a new urgency is required. Realistically, few people here expect this Israeli government to do very much given Mr Netanyahu’s dependence on the support of parties ideologically hostile to the whole idea of “land for peace”.
Yet neither the possibility of an Egyptian repudiation of the 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel nor the remote prospect of progress on the Palestinian front are the biggest security concerns among those at the Herzliya. Iran’s nukes are still seen as the overwhelming existential threat to Israel, but the difficulties that the Iranian nuclear programme is thought to be having, thanks to tighter sanctions and the disruptive effects of the Stuxnet computer virus, are widely believed to have pushed the timeline for acquiring a bomb out to at least a couple of years from now. And that may be affecting the strategic calculus of at least some within the Iranian leadership.
A veteran of the Sharon and Olmert governments suggested to me that if only America was prepared to do as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested last year—and impose on Iran the kind of far-reaching sanctions that have applied to Cuba for half a century—the regime in Tehran, which is already under severe economic pressure, would not last for more than 12 months. The fact that the Castro brothers are still in power seems not to weaken the argument. Generally speaking, there’s a view here that America needs to get more serious about regime change in Iran, as that may be the only thing that will lead to any alteration in the country’s determination to press on with becoming a nuclear power able to bully the region. As usual, however, the details of how to do it are a bit sketchy.
Of more immediate concern even than the menace of a nuclear Iran is the growing threat from Lebanon since Hizbullah’s bloodless coup last month. With up to 50,000 missiles of increasing accuracy and technological sophistication having been supplied by Syria and Iran, government sources here claim that the Shiite guerrilla force (which for most practical purposes should now be regarded as Lebanon’s real army) has around four times the missile power it had when it unleashed 4,000 projectiles at Israel during the bloody five-week war in 2006. The Israeli military believes that Hizbullah has also learned lessons from the conflict in Gaza two years ago and that in any future confrontation IDF soldiers will sustain significantly more severe casualties.
Despite large investments in anti-missile defences with the help of the Americans, there are fears that Tel Aviv is still vulnerable to attack from salvoes of 200km-range Zelzal II guided missiles fired from south Lebanon and cruder devices, such as the 50km-range Fajr-5 missile, that could be launched by Hamas from Gaza in the event of hostilities. In a speech yesterday General Gabi Ashkenazi, the outgoing chief of the IDF general staff, warned that while Hizbullah and Hamas could not take territory, the battlefield had now shifted to the home front. No missile shield can be fully effective, especially when the missiles fired cost a tiny fraction of the interceptors used to stop them. Israel will still need superior intelligence and the ability to put boots on the ground to defend itself.
Israelis often feel the need to remind their critical European and American friends that they live in a pretty tough neighbourhood. Special criticism among most of the people you meet at Herzliya is reserved for Barack Obama. After the row over settlement building, which many Israelis thought was the wrong fight to pick, and what is seen here as shameless flipflopping by the administration over the fate of Mr Mubarak, the kindest description of the president you will hear in Herzliya is that he is naïve. Others are harsher, saying that he is a serial blunderer who is presiding over a rapid waning of American power and influence within the region. In particular, there is both puzzlement and anger over what is seen as the very public betrayal of Mr Mubarak, which, it is claimed, will cause every moderate Arab government to review its security relationship with America. As one source puts it: “They could have told him in private that his time was up, while sticking outwardly to a position of neutrality. But by saying they supported all the aims of the protesters and telling Mubarak he must go immediately, they took a very serious, very dangerous risk.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post got the names of its missile-defence systems in a twist. This has now been fixed.
LAST month we asked our readers to suggest a name for our new blog, covering defence, security and diplomacy. The very first suggestion, from a user called Tzimisces, also proved to be clear favourite among other readers: Clausewitz. Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz was, of course, a great Prussian military strategist of the early 19th century and the author of "On War", a classic book on strategy that is still studied today. Clausewitz perfectly fits the bill as the name for this blog because of his famous observation that one way to consider war is as "the continuation of politics by other means". But that is not the only way to think of it: Clausewitz declared that war should be considered from an instinctive, an analytical and a political point of view in order to be understood properly. Similarly, this blog will consider a range of interconnected defence-related subjects, from the technical details of new weapons to spy spats and diplomatic negotiations.
Some readers thought Clausewitz was too obvious a choice of name; but sometimes the obvious choice is the right one. Others objected that Clausewitz's book is more owned than read, because it is deeply tedious. But even if you are not a fan of his writing (and 19th-century German can be impenetrable to modern readers, including native German speakers), it is difficult to think of a more suitable alternative. Dreadnought was a popular choice, since dreadnought battleships were as much tools of diplomacy as weapons, but we felt it was too British. There was also support for Machiavelli (not military enough); various classical names (but only Athena, the goddess of warfare, wisdom and strategy, combined military and political aspects); and a selection of British generals and foreign secretaries (but we wanted a more international flavour). So in the end Clausewitz carried the day.
Update 9/2: Thank you for your comments. Several readers have pointed out that Clausewitz refers to war as "the continuation of politics by other means" in the course of his discussion of the nature of war, which he considers in several different ways before arriving at the rather more nuanced conclusion that war is the combination of a "trinity" of tendencies, of which politics is only one element. We stand corrected; the text above has been amended accordingly. Readers who wish to see the original context of the quote are invited to consult Clausewitz's original text (English translation).