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Sun 24 Apr 2011 10:32 AM

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Risks rise for West as Libya battle rages on

Gaddafi’s tenacity has forced the hand of allied nations eyeing a quick conclusion

Risks rise for West as Libya battle rages on
Britain, France and Italy said this week they would send small teams of military liaison officers to help Libyan rebels
Risks rise for West as Libya battle rages on
French fighter jet targets Libya no-fly zone

NATO's mission to protect Libyan civilians from Muammar Gaddafi's forces has expanded beyond initial plans, raising the danger of overstepping a UN mandate with damaging political consequences.

Britain, France and Italy said this week they would send small teams of military liaison officers to help Libyan rebels with organisation and logistics, and France has said it would intensify air strikes on Gaddafi's military assets.

All insisted there was no question of sending in ground troops or of advisers getting involved in the fighting.

The expansion of intervention beyond initially enforcing a no-fly zone and limited air strikes of Gaddafi's armour has raised some fears of being dragged into a protracted and costly conflict similar to wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam.

That would anger voters tired of drawn-out interventions abroad, especially as many in the West are reeling from harsh government spending cuts to tackle budget deficits.

"I think there is a real danger that once we put advisers onto the ground, the next logical step will be to start to advise the rebels on how to fight, and then the step after that is to supply them arms and train them on how to use them," said Major-General Patrick Cordingley, a 1991 Gulf War commander.

"You then have a full scale civil war on your hands. The danger is that it takes a long time. Training foreign armies is time-consuming, as shown in Afghanistan," he said.

The United Nations resolution authorising the use of force in Libya allows "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, but rules out a "foreign occupation force of any form".

Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford, said sending advisers pushed legal boundaries.

"It only just fits within the UN mandate. It's getting very, very close."

The advisers will not train Libyans to fight, but there are some signs that the number of foreign troops and their mission may change.

Media reports say British navy ships carrying marines are heading to Cyprus, near Libya, for training, and the European Union has drafted a provisional plan that could see troops sent to the besieged city of Misrata to protect aid deliveries.

Libya's rebel leadership says it would accept the presence of foreign ground forces to protect civilians.

In some ways, the West's hand has been forced, both by Gaddafi's tenacity and by a statement last week from the United States, France and Britain saying Gaddafi must go, shifting the explicit goal from civilian protection to regime change.

"The regime is proving more resilient than expected, it's proved quite versatile, so if NATO is going to pursue a policy of regime termination in the interest of humanitarian protection, it has to up the ante in some way," Rogers said.

Regime change requires more than just aerial attacks, and air strikes have even proved of limited use in protecting civilians, having not halted the bombardment of the western Libyan city of Misrata by Gaddafi loyalists.

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"European countries leading the charge in Libya are therefore confronted with the reality that the forces they have brought to bear on Libya are incompatible with the political goals they want to achieve," said intelligence firm Stratfor.

Governments are trying to finesse the issue by playing on the distinction between what NATO does collectively, and what individual allies do.

NATO's rules of engagement do not include deployment of ground forces in Libya, and any changes would have to be agreed by all 28 allies. But those rules do not preclude more extensive action by individual members outside the NATO operation.

While the Libya operation so far enjoys a broad political consensus in France, one of the two leading powers in the coalition, a small number of lawmakers from Britain's ruling Conservative Party have criticised "mission creep" in the campaign's evolution.

"You slide in these situations. First it's air strikes, then supporting regime change," said parliamentarian Peter Bone.

Lawmakers dissatisfied with the ruling coalition government may latch on to the Libya issue to voice dissent in other areas.

"Right-wing Conservatives are already discontented with the coalition ... Libya is an issue they would feel justified with speaking out on," said Steven Fielding, director of the centre for British politics at Nottingham University.

The political risk for NATO governments is limited for now given there are no Western military casualties, but the danger will rise if the number of foreign personnel involved increases and the mission drags on with no clear exit strategy.

"It's chiefly a domestic political risk, being seen to have adopted a cause in haste, without being sure that you've got the means to deliver the stated objective, and without being able to say how long it will take, or whether the outcome is going to be a good one," said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya now at the think-tank Chatham House.