France, Britain boost Europe's image in Libya

October 24, 2011 - 12:32 PM
Mideast Libya

The wreckage of burnt vehicles from a convoy of pro-Gadhafi fighters trying flee the town of Sirte, Lybia, lie on the edge of town Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. Moammar Gadhafi was killed Thursday when revolutionary forces overwhelmed his hometown, Sirte, the last major bastion of resistance two months after the regime fell. Amid the fighting, a NATO airstrike blasted a fleeing convoy that fighters said was carrying Gadhafi. (AP Photo/David Sperry)

PARIS (AP) — In Libya, western Europe's powers finally got tough.

France and Britain, the European Union's most militarized nations, emerged as standouts in the NATO-led campaign that has all but ended with Thursday's death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Their efforts — led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain — have gone a long way toward erasing impressions that Europeans were weak-kneed peaceniks who preferred diplo-speak over derring-do.

It's unclear whether they will reap the political benefits. Sarkozy is unpopular and is facing a possibly tough re-election bid next year, and Cameron has enflamed public opinion over severe state budget cuts.

Still, Gadhafi's demise was welcome news for them. NATO's top commander, U.S. Adm. Jim Stavridis, said Friday he will recommend the end of the alliance's seven-month bombing mission in Libya.

With the United States determined to take a back-seat if crucial role, Sarkozy and Cameron gambled their political capital and their budget in the costly NATO bombing campaign that helped unproven and ragtag rebel fighters oust and ultimately kill Libya's tyrant of 42 years.

"This operation is quite significant for Europe, because without the Franco-British diplomatic initiative it's clear it would never have happened," said Malcolm Chalmers, a defense professor at Kings College in London.

"It demonstrates that Europe, and France and Britain in particular, retain significant diplomatic clout despite the economic crisis and the emergence of new powers," he said.

To be sure, many defense analysts noted that Gadhafi's military was undisciplined, and critics like former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned the war-making ability of NATO, which was created to face down a far mightier foe — the Soviet bloc.

Europeans have commanded NATO missions in Kosovo and its anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, but Libya marked the first time they had taken the lead in an actual shooting war. France and Britain — plus the U.S. — conducted the vast majority of the missions.

Still, only eight of NATO's 28 members, including the U.S. and Canada, took part in combat sorties. Others expressed concern about the implications of the campaign on NATO's main mission — the war in Afghanistan — where a resurgent Taliban have launched a series of high-profile attacks, undermining alliance claims that it was winning the war.

Even in Libya, the Americans did much of the heavy lifting. American refueling aircraft kept NATO planes in the air, and armed drones monitored and struck targets around the clock — stripping Gadhafi's forces of any respite or freedom of movement they might have enjoyed.

Despite all the problems, the Europeans persevered and plugged away week after week and gradually whittled down Gadhafi's forces, creating the conditions in which the rebels seized Tripoli and eventually got Gadhafi.

"The Europeans were vindicated in their efforts to protect the civilian population from massacres by Gadhafi's troops, and in their insistence to keep the air operation going on when a stalemate had set in on the battlefields," said Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think tank.

It took seven months, but Gadhafi fell — with Europe in the lead.

France, which hosted an international conference in March that paved the way for NATO's campaign under U.N. backing, fired both the first shot and possibly one of the last: a Mirage strike that immobilized Gadhafi's convoy Thursday as it sought to flee his hometown of Sirte.

France was relentless and merciless, and some critics said it exceeded the U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians with support from the air alone. Sarkozy insisted no French special forces were sent into Libya — but one official confirmed to The Associated Press that dozens of French intelligence agents had been deployed from two separate services, including the DGSE spy agency.

The British think tank RUSI has estimated that France and Britain each had 10 to 40 special force soldiers in Libya to help liaise with the rebels and guide the airstrikes. Italy sent about 10 elite troops and Bulgaria about 12, in addition to scores of others from Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, RUSI said.

During the Libya bombing campaign, French planes airdropped guns, rocket-propelled grenades and munitions to rebel fighters in Libya's western Nafusa mountains — the staging area for an eventual rebel advance into the capital of Tripoli in August. Critics said the airdrop violated terms of the U.N. resolution that imposed an arms embargo on Libya, while the French argued it was within the U.N. mandate to help protect civilians from attacks by Gadhafi loyalists.

Britain ushered in a new phase to the campaign by deploying attack helicopters in early June, when British Apaches hit targets near the eastern Libyan oil town of Brega. French helicopters soon joined in.

Chalmers said it's still too early to determine what the long-term implications of the European involvement will be, especially because the Libya war was unusual in that it was so close to Europe.

"There will probably be few conflicts in which the European powers are keener to intervene militarily than the United States — except perhaps in the immediate European neighborhood or possibly in parts of Africa," he said.

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Lekic reported from Brussels.

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