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Can Libya's lethal stalemate be broken?

By Moni Basu, CNN
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Explain it to me: CNN's Nic Robertson on Libya's revolution
  • There was an expectation the military campaign in Libya would be quick
  • But weeks into airstrikes, Moammar Gadhafi is holding strong
  • Some say the war could drag on for weeks, months, or maybe longer
  • Military advisers were seen by many as a sign of mission creep

(CNN) -- A desperate call for more help sounds from Libya almost every day. Libyans are disappointed, feeling let down by NATO, said one resident of Misrata, the western city under a vicious siege from Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

As blood flows on the battlefields that are Libya's towns and cities, the optimism that surfaced at the start of the conflict is but a memory. The military campaign in Libya was expected to be quick and precise, using sophisticated aerial military technology optimized to reduce casualties.

But it became apparent that Gadhafi was not going to fall quickly in the footsteps of his neighbors Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. He was not going to be the third data point, as it were, in the trend line of the Arab Spring.

Now it seems the war could drag on for weeks, months or, by some troubling estimates, perhaps even years as NATO squabbles over strategy and Gadhafi camouflages his forces within civilian populations and, according to reports, is using banned weapons such as cluster bombs.

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It can be perceived as a snub of Western military might. And the question now is whether any sort of political victory can be weaned from a seemingly struggling military campaign.

How long before calm comes to Libya? Will Gadhafi go? And how will Western powers, facing potential military embarrassment, respond?

"They are trying to avoid losing," said military strategy scholar Michael Keane, a fellow of National Security at the Pacific Council on International Policy. "But we're not trying to win because we're not sure what that means."

Not sure because from the very beginning, U.S. President Barack Obama and his European counterparts have made it expressly clear that the Libyan campaign is not about regime change.

The airstrikes began in mid-March under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, and NATO has been cautious to operate under that threshold, even when three of its members -- Britain, France and Italy -- decided this week to send military advisers to Benghazi.

The choice to act in Libya came when it appeared the opposition effort -- previously implausible in a nation that has known only the iron grip of Gadhafi for more than 40 long years -- faced a series of setbacks that made massacre seem imminent in Benghazi.

Opinion: NATO's strategic incoherence is costing Libyan lives

Some now believe that had Western powers intervened earlier, when the rebels were high on momentum in their march westward, the situation might be different.

"Had they really kept the pressure on Gadhafi, I don't think we would be having this debate," said analyst Jawad al-Anani, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan. "Somehow there was a slack in the operation."

A "slack," perhaps due to Obama's reluctance to get U.S. troops -- already deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq -- involved in a third war. Even this week, the White House remained adamant there will be no U.S. ground forces in Libya, not even any advisers.

But al-Anani is sure no one in the Arab world believes that the West was not salivating at the idea of a Gadhafi-free Libya.

"It could have been done easily," he said. "This should have been Grenada, not Vietnam."

"Vietnam" was one of the words used this week as word of advisers came out. "Quagmire" and "mission creep" also surfaced in a flurry of opinion on Libya.

A slippery slope in Libya mission

There is little doubt that Gadhafi's forces have suffered damage from the airstrikes, but nagging questions remain about what NATO's air campaign can achieve.

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  • Libya
  • Moammar Gadhafi
  • Tripoli
  • Benghazi
  • Misrata

The alliance's secretary general has asked for more precision fighter jets so as to avoid civilian casualties as the bombardment continues. France and Britain last week aired a desire to get more aggressive.

The allure of precision bombing from the air is that it can reduce troop losses.

It is "an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment," former State Department adviser Eliot Cohen famously wrote after directing a U.S. Air Force Persian Gulf War air power survey.

Its limitations were learned in other conflicts.

"The examples of Mogadishu in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo will have played quite heavily in the minds of European policymakers," said Alexis Crow of the London-based think tank Chatham House.

"In trying to stop a humanitarian disaster, one thing that has been learned from these experiences is that you have got to have a 'hammer and anvil strategy,' which is airpower combined with a complement of ground troops in order to stop things like ethnic cleansing happening," Crow said.

If the goal, however, is to establish a Libya without Gadhafi, then it seems likely that a greater military effort will be required, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"But it's hard to get international consensus that supports military force deposing a government," he said, citing the Iraq example. That was a $1 trillion effort that did not garner widespread international support, he said.

The Europeans, Alterman said, have relied on U.S. leadership in the past. But with the White House playing a secondary role in this effort, they are struggling to mount a sustained campaign.

It's too early to speak in terms of Vietnam, Alterman said. But certainly, a key expectation is that the impasse will be broken soon; that the rebels have to be a more effective fighting force.

There are, of course, a host of different scenarios for Libya, which have been debated to no end by observers of this war.

Three future scenarios for Libya

Gadhafi could fall soon, though it seems unlikely. He could hang on to power for weeks, months or maybe years, fueled by oil resources in southern Libya. Or the country could be split in two.

"Two weeks from now, Gadhafi will certainly be in power," said W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. "I don't think major cities will exchange hands. It's not going to be any major offenses. Neither side has enough combat power."

Terrill said the threshold to trigger an invasion with troops on the ground has to be high and has not yet been reached in Libya. Gadhafi is killing his people but it's not a genocide when you consider the number of deaths, reported in the hundreds in Misrata, which has half a million people, he said.

"That's a tragedy, but we're still not talking genocide," Terrill said.

Political scientist Ali Ahmida said this week what he has said all along as he watches his homeland mired in conflict: "It is not going to be easy."

As much as he would like to see Libya prosper under freedom, Ahmida, a professor at the University of New England, said he cannot support a NATO invasion.

"I am against any military intervention in Libya," he said. "The people are wary of that. They had a horrible colonial experience and the generation of independence made a big mistake by aligning so closely with the United Kingdom and the United States."

But NATO has already upped the ante with military advisers on the ground, Keane said.

And history has proven, he said, that once you engage militarily, events take on a life of their own.

In Misrata, urban warfare rages on and the death toll mounts.

Acclaimed photojournalist and documentarian Tim Hetherington was among those killed this week. Before he died, he sent a message on Twitter that echoed the pleas of desperate residents: "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO."

CNN's Paul Armstrong contributed to this report.

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