LONDON (AP) — The NATO-led air campaign in Libya needed luck to overcome its initially haphazard command, complex new international partnerships and the withdrawal of the United States from a leading role, a top military think tank says.
The London-based Royal United Services Institute said in a report published Friday that the "curious operation" — which was unlike recent troop-heavy combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and involved a broad cluster of nations — succeeded only through a mix of "improvisation, innovation, and good luck."
NATO took over control of the mission from the U.S. several days after airstrikes began March 19, working alongside nations including Qatar, Jordan and the UAE under a United Nations resolution to protect Libyan civilians from attack by strongman Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
Russia and other nations have been heavily critical of how Britain and France and interpreted the U.N. resolution, accusing them of using the authorization to help Libya's rebels topple Gadhafi.
"Whether saving civilian lives automatically meant fighting to remove Gadhafi was a difficult political line to maintain," Michael Clarke, the director of RUSI, said in the report. "This made the military objectives more ambiguous than they might otherwise have been."
The decision by President Barack Obama to limit the role of the U.S. in the campaign and to hand leadership duties to NATO saw Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy unexpectedly take a diplomatic and military lead.
Praising the men, who were greeted by jubilant crowds on a joint visit to Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi last week, Clarke said they had been the "accidental heroes" of Libya's civil war.
"There can be no doubting that the allied air operation was critical to saving many innocent lives and removing a dictatorial regime," Clarke wrote. "Britain and France, almost alone among the international community, took a consistent and robust line from the beginning and have now seen it through to the verge of military success."
The RUSI report predicted the relationship between the United States and its other NATO allies would be strained by the campaign, with the alliance more likely to rely on European leadership in the future. Working alongside a cluster of non-NATO nations — who needed to be integrated into a command structure — will likely also become more common.
Most analysts predict that future conflicts will also frequently see nations come together in short-term alliances to fight specific campaigns, rather than act as established blocs, such as NATO.
RUSI's examination also concluded that special forces had played a key role in the Libya conflict, despite the fact the U.N. resolution ruled out the deployment of foreign ground troops.
European and former U.S. officials confirmed special forces from Western and Middle Eastern nations carried out operations, though Britain and France have declined to confirm publicly that their troops were involved.
"The high profile air campaign in support of rebels was not undertaken in isolation of efforts on the ground, nor could it have guaranteed the success of rebel attempts to advance. Special forces activity was a vital enabler," Mark Phillips, RUSI's military and intelligence research fellow, wrote in the report.
RUSI estimates France and Britain each had between 10 and 40 special force soldiers in Libya to help liaise with rebels and guide airstrikes, while Egypt deployed around 100 and Qatar and Jordan both supplied 20. Italy sent about 10 elite troops and Bulgaria about 12, it claimed.
Britain's defense secretary Liam Fox said Friday that 16 British Tornado jets and two attack helicopters were continuing operations in Libya, where the ousted Gadhafi remains at large and fighting still rages in some areas.
"The work is not yet over, and the U.K. will maintain its commitment for as long as it is required," he said.