Updated | March 25 When the United States and its allies began bombing Libya five days ago, there were plenty of easy marks to be had.
“Early on, we had many fixed sites which we knew we could target,” General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a briefing at a naval air base in Italy Thursday. “There are not so many of those left.”
The allied bombing campaign, with its hundreds of Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets, has effectively wiped out the Libyans’ air defense systems and grounded the regime’s warplanes. What are left, experts say, are so-called “dynamic” targets, such as tanks and armed infantry that are moving from one city to the next.
And those are much harder to hit.
“It’s the most difficult target that we have because they are in and around the built-up areas of Libya,” Ham said. “Our concern for not causing civilian casualties makes that a particularly difficult target set for us.”
The challenge points up a broader concern for coalition forces as they transfer command of the allied mission in Libya from the U.S. to NATO: how to balance the narrow military objectives authorized by the United Nations Security Council with the more ambitious goal of ousting Moammar Gadhafi.
As military commanders have said repeatedly in recent days, their mission is not to target the Libyan autocrat. The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes the use of force only to protect civilians. And Arab leaders, including NATO member Turkey, have expressed opposition to expanding the bombing campaign beyond its initial scope.
Now that NATO has agreed to take full command not only of the no-fly zone but of the overall mission in Libya, a more aggressive military campaign seems unlikely. As a senior administration put it Thursday, France, Britain and the U.S. — which have all called for the Gadhafi regime to go — are no longer calling the shots. “When it comes to deciding on what will or will not happen within a NATO operation, that gets done in Brussels,” the administration official said.
Those constraints present a political dilemma for President Obama and his European allies. If recent developments on the ground are any indication, air power alone may not be enough to fundamentally shift the balance of power in Libya. By their own admission, rebel forces remain disorganized and poorly trained, and Gadhafi’s loyalists have been relentless in their attacks on opposition strongholds such as Misrata and Ajdabiya.