In what has become a prolonged, seesaw slug between Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libyan army units and the rebels (now formally known as the Transitional National Council), the United States have been observing the conflict lately from the outside looking in. The first week was all about American planes and warships directing Tomahawk cruise missiles onto precise Libyan government facilities, including a strike that was aimed directly at Gaddafi’s military compound in Tripoli. But with violence now escalating and the conflict quickly looking more and more like a civil war, the Obama Administration has wised up and taken a back seat.
NATO, specifically the Belgians, British, Canadians and the French, have been under control of the allied assault since Washington diverted authority last month. For better or for worse, the Europeans are now the predominate executors of the no-fly-zone mandate, hitting Gaddafi loyalists massing near opposition controlled cities from thousands of miles in the air. Yet even with the operation still up and running, some of the bravado that was exhibited by the coalition during the opening phase of the campaign has been lost by a combination of frustration and confusion.
Foremost among that frustration are the British and the French, who have both been disappointed that other partners in the NATO coalition have not lived up to their end of the burden. The United Nations Security Council, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference may have all signed on to the humanitarian intervention but only a few are actually contributing fighters in the skies. Fewer still are patrolling Libya’s airspace in order to protect civilians who have been liberated from Gaddafi’s army. The only Arab states that are actively participating are Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Of those three, only Qatar is flying missions.
Therefore, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the United States reentered the fight and assumed a more proactive role. The Europeans and NATO both asked for American assistance during bombing runs: only the United States have the equipment and fighter jets that can indefinitely hit targets without inflicting substantial civilian casualties. The president heard their calls and deployed armed Predator drones over Libya in order to tilt the military balance in favor of the rebels.
For an administration that was hesitant to intervene in the first place, this decision is right in line with America’s minimalist objectives in Libya — avoid the deployment of ground troops by protecting civilians from the air. At the same time, dispatching drones to Libya demonstrates to the Europeans that the United States have not gotten soft as the conflict has gotten messier. (Some respected journalists have argued that drones may just make the war worse.)
Will drone strikes help the coalition effort in any substantial way? If the objective is to parse out Gaddafi fighters from the general civilian population, the answer is yes. As illustrated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, drone technology is quite reliable and their propensity for singling out people is virtually assured. Gaddafi loyalists have adapted to NATO airstrikes by hiding in residential areas and blending in with civilians, which inevitably makes it more difficult to neutralize them without killing innocents at the same time. Drones, which can hover above a target for up to twelve straight hours, mitigate the chances of collateral damage quite dramatically.
The assassination of Muammar Gaddafi himself may also be a motive for sending drone aircraft into the intervention. Hundreds of Al Qaeda commanders have been killed by drones over the last seven years in the Pakistani tribal regions and a top terrorist leader in Yemen was wiped out in the same fashion a year after the 9/11 attacks. Pilotless aircraft are clearly the weapon of choice in American counterterrorism assignments around the world.
Now, we can file “protecting Libyan civilians” as a new bullet point in the drone resume.