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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice