NATO’s top official said Thursday that the air campaign in Libya had seriously damaged Moammar Kadafi’s ability to fight and that continued military and political pressure would “eventually lead to the collapse” of the North African strongman’s regime.
But two months into its aerial campaign, there are signs of impatience within the alliance because Kadafi has managed to cling to power so long and concern that the confrontation could settle into a protracted stalemate unless NATO ratchets up its operations.
Over the last several days, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has picked up the tempo of its airstrikes on targets associated with Libyan security forces. On Wednesday, the alliance flew 159 sorties, bombing suspected command centers and ammunition dumps. On Wednesday of last week, the number of sorties flown was 141.
The increasing bombardments reflect a push by some NATO members, Britain in particular, to muscle the conflict past a potential war of attrition and into an endgame.
“Such intensification is necessary to avoid a stalemate,” a spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last weekend, the head of the British armed forces, Gen. David J. Richards, urged NATO to widen the target list in Libya beyond military hardware to include infrastructure useful to Kadafi’s forces, in a steadily broadening interpretation of a United Nations mandate that calls on the alliance to protect civilians.
Kadafi’s continued control of Tripoli, the capital, and much of western Libya has frustrated Libyan rebels as well as NATO leaders, who have made it clear that they would like to see him expelled from power.
On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the alliance was on track.
“We have significantly degraded Kadafi’s war machine,” Rasmussen told reporters. He said a “combination of strong military pressure and increased political pressure and support for the opposition will eventually lead to the collapse of the regime.”
Though there is growing impatience within NATO for that to happen, analysts say that the leaders of the campaign, Britain and France, seem prepared to sweat it out for some time yet.
“If there’s no bloodshed on the part of allied soldiers, and if there is no mission creep [to include ground forces], this can be something that goes on for a while … without it really gaining the attention of the public,” said Barak Seener, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London.
The BBC reported this week that the air campaign had already cost Britain more than $160 million, beyond what was originally envisaged. But the Libya campaign has been overtaken in the headlines by the slaying of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York.
Patrick Smith, editor of the Paris-based Africa Confidential report, said France would probably stay committed to the war effort but warned that Kadafi and his cronies would be difficult to dislodge.
“It’s definitely a long game,” Smith said. “They may be gangsters, but they are really smart gangsters.”
Special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.