First, the military alliance holds its fire as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces advance a full 100 miles (160 kilometers) into rebel-held territory. Then NATO accidentally opens fire on Libyan rebels in tanks — a top general says NATO didn’t know the rebels had any — even though footage of rebels with tanks had been on YouTube for weeks.
NATO’s leadership of the air attack campaign is coming under increasing criticism for mistakes and ineffectiveness — particularly in comparison with the previous American-led effort.
“This is something new. We haven’t had a significant military operation in which the Americans have taken a back seat for quite some time,” Malcolm Chalmers, a professor of defense at London’s Kings College, said Friday. “It really is unclear whether the Europeans can rise to that challenge.”
The NATO bombing of a rebel convoy on Thursday, in which five people died and a number of rebel tanks were destroyed, appears to have crystalized the perception — to outsiders, at least — that the alliance is running a bumbling campaign.
But as the rebels angrily accused the alliance of mistakes and neglect, NATO’s frustrated leaders refused to apologize Friday for the bombing of the tanks. And NATO commanders, in turn, are frustrated that the rebels see NATO as their proxy air force, rather than a force to protect civilians in Libya.
Analysts say the recent developments have brought into sharp relief the confusion, ambiguity and constraints of NATO’s mission in Libya, which began nine days ago when the North Atlantic alliance assumed command from a U.S.-led coalition that launched the air war on March 19.
There is significant ambiguity about the scope and objective of the mission. The U.N. resolution under which the alliance operates requires it to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s forces while remaining impartial.
“There’s a very difficult trade-off for NATO here,” Chalmers said. “If they wait until they’re absolutely certain that they’ve got the targets right and that there are no civilians, Gadhafi’s forces will have vanished in the confusion by then.”
Adding to NATO’s woes, the U.S. — which handed off its leadership role March 31 — then went further and halted its combat role earlier this week. That move is depriving NATO of certain kinds of aircraft that could prove useful in some of the close urban warfare battles between forces loyal to Gadhafi and rebels bent on his ouster.
Yet if NATO did not know, that seems extraordinary: Video and photos from the start of the uprising against Gadhafi’s rule a month ago showed that some Libyan armored units had changed sides in the early stages of the rebellion, bringing their equipment with them.
On Friday, British Rear Adm. Russell Harding — deputy commander of the NATO operation — also said it was difficult for allied pilots to distinguish between rebels and regime troops engaged in a series of advances and retreats between the eastern coastal towns of Brega and Ajdabiya.
“I am not apologizing (for the bombing),” Harding told reporters in Naples, where the alliance’s operational center is located. “The situation on the ground was and remains extremely fluid, and until yesterday we did not have information that (rebel) forces are using tanks.”
NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed regret over the rebels’ loss of life, but he too offered no apology.