How many countries have sought to reassure their publics that they were not getting involved in someone else’s civil war by promising that they were just sending advisors? President Kennedy was just sending advisors to South Vietnam. Five years later there were half a million U.S. troops in country. Even when that is not the plan, the deployment of advisors constitutes a major shift in the character and intensity of support for the recipient nation or group. When a nation sends advisors into a war zone it has one foot on the slippery slope and the other on a banana peel.
In Libya what started out as simply the imposition of a no-fly zone has become a small-scale air war involving hundreds of cruise missile strikes on Libyan air defenses and continuing air attacks on ground targets. Unfortunately, it has become clear that air operations alone will be insufficient to halt the conflict much less bring down the Ghadaffi regime. Rebel forces in the town of Misrata have called for foreign troops to protect the citizens from attack.
No less a person than Lord David Owen, former British Foreign Secretary, has called for UN intervention. “Misrata is about to be engulfed by Gaddafi forces. It is time for the French and British to go back to the UN and ask for a resolution that declares the city a UN safe haven and empowers French and British troops — in the name of the UN, not NATO — to push out Gaddafi’s forces. There should be a clearly demarcated 25-mile exclusion zone for Gaddafi forces, and French and British ground troops would not be authorized to go beyond it in defense of Libyan lives.”
So France and the United Kingdom have decided to send advisors. The current British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, announced that some 20 military advisors would be deployed to advise the National Transitional Council on how to improve their military organizational structures, communications and logistics, including how best to distribute humanitarian aid and deliver medical assistance. So called nonlethal military aid would be provided including body armor and satellite phones. In addition, there are reports that the European Union has a plan in the works to send around 1,000 soldiers to provide humanitarian assistance and secure land and sea routes into Misrata. Since these same routes are the ones Libyan government forces are using to besiege that city, the possibilities for a collision are obvious.
It was inevitable that NATO would slide down the slippery slope towards putting boots on the ground. The expansive nature of the UN mission, the repeated calls from Washington, London and Paris that Ghadaffi had to go, the inevitable limitations of an airpower-only campaign and even the inability of either side to quickly finish off the other all contributed to increased pressure to deploy ground forces.
Will President Obama have to go back on his pledge that there would not be U.S. “boots on the ground?” Possibly, the United States still retains capabilities unavailable to our NATO allies. Some of these like the F-16CJ, equipped to suppress enemy air defenses, continue to conduct strikes. More significantly, the U.S. has the tactical air controllers trained and experienced in calling in precision air strikes. If the 1,000 European soldiers get in trouble can the U.S. stand by? If we become involved with our own “advisors” could a larger scale deployment of U.S. forces intended to bring the Libyan conflict to a rapid termination follow close behind?
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