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Tuesday, April 19, 2011 

Mission creep and self-inflicted wounds.

The announcement that we're sending 10 or 12 "experienced military officers" (the Graun's quotation marks, not mine) to Benghazi, it should be clear, changes precisely nothing on the ground in Libya. Ever since the passing of the UNSC 1973 or even possibly before there will have been special forces/spooks in the country, doing the same or similar jobs to that which this new team will supposedly be carrying out. The US, for instance, actively signed orders allowing the CIA to potentially covertly arm the rebels back at the end of last month.

No, what William Hague's admission signifies is our desperation at how the situation has turned against the rebels, and also our inability to do anything about it other than gestures. Despite the caveats made above, it is also a clear example of mission creep, precisely because we have now made official what was previously only being done in the shadows. Hague's statement was a master class in euphemism - apparently the main work of these experienced military officers will be to advise the rebels on how they can better "protect civilians", which it seems is unlikely to be a reference to the horribly inaccurate weapons some have welded and bolted to their vehicles, with a side-order of telling them how they can better organise themselves. This though will absolutely not amount to training fighters, nor will it breach the UN resolution, because we've said it doesn't.

For all the allusions to how the Vietnam war escalated, it's difficult to believe this is anything other than ourselves and the French having to do something, anything, to prove that we aren't starting the process of abandoning the rebels to their fate, although it's hardly going to convince them of our long-term intentions. You can give the Benghazi-based rebels all the advice in the world; without proper training, something that will take months and which we aren't offering, the best they'll be able to do against Gaddafi's forces barring a ceasefire will be a repeat of what's happened in Misrata, where those who rose up have been able to slow the advance through urban guerilla warfare. Even with the best will in the world, they can only hold out against such a superior adversary for a few months.

It's an equally bad sign that we've also now started to target communication systems, which will undoubtedly be used by civilians and military alike. Not only will this have the unfortunate side effect of making it far more difficult for civilians to get word out of any atrocities committed by Gaddafi loyalists, it's also an unwelcome reminder of the far broader rules of engagement adopted during the intervention in Kosovo, where NATO was unhindered by an UN resolution. Up until now there seem to have been relatively few civilian casualties as a result of the airstrikes, almost certainly due to how only definitively military targets have been hit; by widening this to "dual-use" buildings and equipment the risks increase accordingly. Possible as it is that such strikes could help to turn further turn feeling against Gaddafi in the towns and cities under his control, bombing from the air with "good intentions" rarely wins the affections of those meters away from being blown apart.

Here, as Simon Jenkins writes, are the limitations of half-cocked liberal interventionism being played out: not all of those who wanted a no-fly zone were naive or paid little attention to what it would actually mean in practice; then there's Ming Campbell, one of the first to call for something to be done, who seems to be incredibly uncomfortable with how it means sending in those blighters in the military. Alan Juppe meanwhile says with considerable understatement that NATO underestimated Gaddafi's "capacity to adapt", as though bombs from the air were ever going to be able to topple him alone. All of this was both predicted and warned of, and yet the same old traps have been eagerly walked into once again. Excepting the regime suddenly imploding from within, something there's no sign of, or the establishment of a protectorate around the ever decreasing land which the rebels control, the negotiations UNSC 1973 demanded and which ourselves and those in Benghazi have rejected look to be the only viable way out. Tony Blair might not have won his last two wars, but he was never humiliated by his failure to do so. Cameron's belligerence looks more like a self-inflicted wound by the day.

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