The Libyans are lucky that Muammar Gaddafi did not hold out longer. If he had, there might not be much of the country left. Nato long since ran out of military targets, and it had to hit something to get the ragtag rebels into the royal palace before they ended up shooting one another. ‘At present Nato is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya,’ General Sir David Richards told the Sunday Telegraph in May. ‘But if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit.’ (UN Security Resolution 1973 grants no authority to increase the range of targets, its stated intent being to protect Libyan civilians from an onslaught on Benghazi.) The running total for Nato air strikes is 7459. At about 2000 bombing runs a month, another six months would have added 12,000 sorties. As bad as Libya looked when the rebels at last forced the gates of Tripoli, it would have looked a lot worse by next February. Diminishing military targets had to be replaced by something.
In Vietnam, the Americans called the enemy’s non-military assets ‘Viet Cong infrastructure’. In Afghanistan, they are ‘terrorist infrastructure’. In Vietnam, it could mean a village that fed insurgents. In Iraq, which the US and Britain bombed from 1991 until their invasion of 2003, it meant the electricity system, water supply, sewage treatment, television transmitters, bridges, oil storage facilities, highways and houses. By the time Coalition troops rode into Baghdad, there was not much of modern life left. Libya has been spared that fate, apart from Nato’s blasting parts of its electricity grid.
The other aspect of previous military humanism that Libya has avoided, so far, is the arrival of a Jerry Bremer to take the country back to Year Zero. Nato for the most part limited its presence to the airspace above Libya, facilitating and directing rebel gains. On the ground there were British and French trainers and advisers, the least covert of history’s covert operations. One of them will some day write his Andy McNab tale about leading reluctant teenagers into Bab al-Aziziah, after which the British and French governments will go on pretending the rebels were running their own war all along.