The punishing air and missile strikes against Libya’s armed forces in recent days may have halted their advance against rebels in Benghazi, but the larger goal of the U.S.-led operation — preventing attacks on civilians throughout the country — is a much tougher military challenge, according to current and former military officers.
As the U.S. and its allies have discovered in past conflicts, it is no simple matter to use fighters and bombers flying high overhead to prevent a determined adversary like Col. Moammar Gadhafi from targeting his enemies on the ground.
Even if the airstrikes against Gadhafi’s troops and armored vehicles succeed in halting large-scale attacks, there is the danger that he will shift to less obvious but no less deadly tactics, including use of security forces and armed gangs to terrorize the ragtag opposition that has tried to drive him from power.
If the killing continues, the White House and its allies could face growing pressure to expand the military operation against Gadhafi — by expanding the list of targets struck from the air, by arming the rebels whom the U.S. admits it know little about, or by explicitly going after Gadhafi in an effort to drive him from power. (A bomb or missile struck Gadhafi’s compound earlier, but he was not there at the time, officials said, and he is not being described as a target for the airstrikes.)
The Obama administration has avoided such steps so far as it seeks to limit its role in the air campaign and turn over command of the operation to its allies. But with forces engaged, it could become harder to resist pressure to escalate the U.S. role if the campaign does not unfold as neatly as planned.