Patrick Cockburn: Nato in Libya has failed to learn costly lessons of Afghanistan

For too long, Western governments have believed they could earn a cheap victory by using air power alone. But experience shows this is not enough

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Air strikes are becoming the main Western means of controlling the Middle East and South Asia without putting soldiers on the ground where they might suffer politically damaging casualties. Britain, France and the US have used only airpower to wage war in Libya over the last four months. The US is also stepping up its air offensive in Yemen, where the CIA is to start operating Predator drones alongside the US military, and is continuing its drone attacks in north-west Pakistan. Even in Iraq, where the US is supposedly ending its military commitment, it stunned people near the southern city of Amarah last week by unexpectedly launching bombing raids.

The use of air forces as colonial policemen in the region has a long and bloody history, but has often proved ineffective in the long term. A Nato pilot who bombed Ain Zara south of Tripoli earlier this month almost certainly did not know that his attack came almost exactly 100 years after the very same target had been hit by two small bombs dropped by an Italian plane in 1911.

The Italian air raid was the first in history, carried out soon after Italy had invaded what later became Libya during one of the many carve-ups of the Ottoman Empire. The first ever military reconnaissance flight took a route near Benghazi in October, and on 1 November Sub-Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti became the first pilot to drop bombs. He swooped down on a Turkish camp at Ain Zara and dropped four 4.5lb grenades from a leather bag in his cockpit. The Turks protested that Gavotti's bombs had hit a hospital and injuring several civilians.

The pros and cons should have become swiftly apparent. It is not that air strikes are wholly futile. I was in Baghdad during the US bombing in 1991 and again during Desert Fox in 1998. Crouched on the floor of my hotel room, watching columns of fire erupt around the city and the pathetic dribbles of anti-aircraft fire in return, was a testing experience. On the other hand, being shelled in West Beirut during the civil wars was in some ways worse because it went on for longer and was completely haphazard. In Baghdad I hoped that the Americans were taking care about what they targeted, if only for reasons of PR, although my confidence was severely dented when they killed some 400 civilians in the Amariya shelter.

Frightening though it is being bombed, air forces often exaggerate what they can do. They are always less accurate than they claim; their effectiveness depends on good tactical intelligence. Bombing works best as a blunt instrument against civilians as a generalised punishment. Against well-prepared soldiers, such as Hezbollah's guerrillas, it is far less effective. Israel's disastrous venture in Lebanon probably rated as history's most ill-thought out air war until this year when France and Britain decided to ally themselves to an enthusiastic but ill-trained militia to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

It did not start like this. When Nato planes first attacked, it was with the aim of preventing Gaddafi's tanks advancing up the road from Ajdabiya to rebel-held Benghazi. The strikes were effective, but the objective swiftly changed to become an open-ended campaign to overthrow Gaddafi in which Nato provided air support for the rebel militia. Very similar to French imperial forays in West Africa, it is extraordinary that this open-ended foreign intervention has been so little criticised in Britain.

The rebels have always been weaker than their Nato sponsors pretended. It is all very well to recognise them as the legitimate government of Libya, but evidently not all Libyans agree. The highly informed International Crisis Group says that a key component "in Gaddafi's ability to hold on to much of the west [of Libya] has been the limited defections to date among the main tribes that traditionally have been allied with the regime". In reality, a divided Nato has joined one side in a civil war in Libya, just as it did earlier in Afghanistan, and the US and Britain had done in Iraq.

In air wars, the first week is usually the best. By the end of it, the easiest targets will have been destroyed and the enemy will have learnt how to hide, disperse its forces and avoid presenting a target. In the case of Libya, the pro-Gaddafi troops started to use the same beat-up pick-ups with a heavy machine gun in the back as the rebels. Several times Nato struck at their allies with devastating results.

So far in Libya there has not been a mass killing of a large number of civilians in an air strike. When this happened with the Amariya shelter in Baghdad in 1991, the selection of targets in the city had to be confirmed by the chief of staff, Colin Powell, and air strikes on the capital largely ceased. Air force generals point to the wonderful accuracy of their smart weapons, singling out tiny targets, but they seldom explain that this depends on correct intelligence.

Such intelligence is often very shaky. I was in Herat in western Afghanistan in 2009 when US aircraft killed some 147 people in three villages to the south. Bombs had smashed the mud-brick houses and bodies of the dead had been torn to shreds by the blast. What had happened in these villages, which were deep in Taliban territory, was that some US and Afghan vehicles had been successfully ambushed. Frightened and bewildered soldiers had called for air support. Shouting "Death to America" and "Death to the Government", enraged survivors drove a tractor pulling a trailer piled high with body parts to the governor's office in Farah City.

The response of the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, to all this was to claim that the Taliban had run through the villages hurling grenades. Lies like this were very much designed for US consumption, but they enraged Afghans who could see the deep bomb craters on their televisions. Will the Libyan air campaign end in a similar disaster? Political tolerance in the UK and the US for the war in Libya is shallow and it would be fatally undermined by any accidental mass killing of civilians.

From the moment, 100 years ago, when Sub-Lieutenant Gavotti threw his grenades over the side of his cockpit, Western governments have been attracted by the idea that they can win wars by air power alone. Victory will be cheap without committing ground troops. Only late in the day does it become clear, as we are now seeing in Libya, that air power by itself hardly ever wins wars.

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