Civilian deaths in Libya were inevitable

The real question is 'have more lives been saved than lost?'

Libyan State Television/Reuters
Qaddafi, here shown describing his opponents as rats and cockroaches that must be hunted down and "cleansed" from Libya on state television in February, is very upset about civilian casualties caused by NATO.

So, it's happened. NATO confirmed that it accidentally hit a civilian home in Tripoli yesterday, and reporters taken to the scene by their Libyan government handlers say at least five civilians were killed, two of them children.

The tragedy was pounced upon by Muammar Qaddafi's government with relish. Foreign Minister Abdulati al-Obeidi demanded a "a global jihad" to destroy the "oppressive criminal West" in response to the attack, which the Libyan government claims killed nine civilians. Qaddafi admirer Julius Malema in South Africa urged the International Criminal Court to indict Barack Obama and Nikolas Sarkozy for war crimes.

That Qaddafi would latch on to this tragedy as an argument for his regime to be preserved is wholly expected. But he helped breed the situation he now finds himself in. In February and March, before the UN and Arab League authorized action against him, he'd described his opponents in the rebel capital of Benghazi as "cockroaches" and vowed to hunt them down "house to house, room to room, alley to alley."

Hundreds of civilians died under the indirect fire he poured on rebellious towns, not to mention the flying teams of gunmen who shot down protesters in Tripoli in February. When the UN approved action, he was in the process of overrunning Benghazi, the country's second-largest city. US, French, and other officials were convinced massive reprisals would have been carried out against the citizenry once Qaddafi had regained the town (a completely unprovable assertion at this point).

Though Qaddafi's regime has alleged civilian casualties from NATO air strikes in the past, this is the first time the allegation has held up to any scrutiny. And since the formal justification for the NATO strikes is a humanitarian one -- that civilian lives are being saved by the protection afforded from Qaddafi's troops -- any civilian deaths are far more than "collateral damage."

But there's been a lot of coverage today in the vein of this breathless piece from the BCC: "Two days and two incidents involving civilian casualties. Could this be the moment when support for Nato's Libyan air campaign begins to unravel? (let me save you the trouble of clicking through. The answer is "no.") These stories will be largely forgotten tomorrow or the day after.

It's true that many members of NATO are restless about the Libya air campaign, as are influential members of the US Congress. Some of the concerns hinge on whether NATO bombers are doing more harm than good, a worthy question to ask.

But the fact that NATO acknowledged missing a target and causing civilian deaths yesterday, and may have killed civilians in what it insists was a Qaddafi command post today, changes nothing. The generals who planned and are running this operation knew that killing civilians was inevitable. They told the politicians who signed on for the mission this fact. And now the inevitable has come to pass.

While the shelf-life of the NATO action in Libya is limited, it's not going to be affected by something that would have been factored into planning and considerations from Day 1.

And there has been no evidence of great carelessness, or mounting civilian casualties from the NATO air campaign (11,000 sorties flown so far) that are within even an order of magnitude of the mortars and grad rockets Qaddafi's troops have rained down on towns like Misurata and Ajdabiyah. These so-called area weapons are imprecise and inappropriate for use in urban environments. Yet Qaddafi had directed hundreds of them toward residential neighborhoods before the NATO attacks on his forces began three months ago.

Since, his ability to use those weapons has been suppressed (he had four multiple grad rocket launchers arrayed around the southern edge of Benghazi as his forces began to assault the city in March; that assault was ended by British jets, which destroyed all the rockets). As this piece was being written, Ben Wedeman of CNN reported three grads landed in a residential area of Misurata, casualties unknown. (Editor's note: The original version of this blog incorrectly identified the type of British jet used.)

Would many more of these weapons be fired on rebel positions and residential neighborhoods alike if NATO air cover were withdrawn? That seems a reasonable assumption.

How much longer will the NATO mission last (assuming Qaddafi manages to hold out indefinitely, which seems unlikely given reports of $25 a gallon gasoline in Tripoli)? Not indefinitely, but no one is going to pull the plug soon.

In the US, while Congress could theoretically de-fund the Libya mission, it isn't likely to. As angry as some members are that Obama has skirted the War Powers Act by asserting, oddly, that the US is not engaged in "hostilities" in Libya, they're also well aware that American prestige (and French, British and others) has been put on the line, and that pulling the plug unilaterally would do more harm than good. They'll probably beat Obama up over the issue, but not press for a vote on the matter.

The situation is similar in other world capitals. There's public war-weariness and concerns about domestic finances. But that restlessness hasn't yet coalesced into the sort of force that could end what is, compared with the Afghanistan and Iraq war money pits, still a limited action with a reasonable chance of success.

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