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22 March 2011

Allies divided over goals and command structure of Libya mission

Speed at which coalition was assembled begins to show, with uncertainty over regime change and futur

By Samira Shackle

After a third night of air strikes on Libya, cracks are appearing in the hastily assembled international alliance over the goals and command structure of the mission.

Yesterday, both William Hague and David Cameron refused to rule out targeting Muammar al-Gaddafi, even as the head of the British armed forces said that the colonel was “absolutely not” a target.

This apparent contradiction between politicians and the military has been mirrored in other Allied countries. The head of the US Africa Command, General Carter F Ham, said attacking Gaddafi was not part of his mission. However, Mark Toner, the US state department spokesman, said that regime change “remains our ultimate goal”.

Barack Obama argued that this was not contradictory because the military were restricted to fulfilling the UN mandate to protect civilians, while the White House could apply political and diplomatic pressure on the Libyan leader to step down.

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France – the other main driver behind the no-fly zone – experienced a similar dispute. A military spokesman said that even if Gaddafi’s exact location were known, he would not be targeted. However, Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, said that he hoped attacks would topple the dictator, causing the regime to “fall apart from within”.

This is a fundamental disagreement about the goal of the mission – between the explicit, mandated aim of protecting civilians and the underlying desire for regime change, which has echoes of Iraq – and one that must be worked out.

A separate fault line is the future role of Nato. Obama said that the US would hand over the command of the no-fly zone “in a matter of days”. However, a meeting of Nato ambassadors ended last night without agreement about who would take control. Turkey refused to back a mission that puts civilians at risk.

Given the speed at which action was taken, it was inevitable that some divisions would emerge. However, it is vital that these strategic difficulties are resolved as soon as possible, to establish an exit strategy and to avoid protracted action and losing Libyan support for the mission.