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Afghanistan mission will suffer as Libyan stalemate continues

US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have staked their political reputations on overthrowing Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime following last week's publication of a letter signed by all three in which they declared there will be no peace in Libya while Gaddafi remains in power.

Precisely how they hope to reconcile their desired objective of achieving regime change in Libya with the more modest goals set by the UN -- to protect Libya's civilian population and to establish a ceasefire -- is likely to occupy much of their energy and time in the weeks ahead.

There is also the tricky issue of having to explain how what began as a humanitarian mission to prevent the massacre of Libyan civilians in Benghazi has metamorphosed into a campaign to oust Gaddafi and his cohorts from their stronghold in Tripoli.

Mr Cameron's ambitions are very different to what they were when the military offensive in support of UN security council resolution 1973 began on March 19. When Mr Cameron committed British warplanes to bombing Gaddafi's air defences, the government repeatedly stated that whether or not the regime survived the current crisis was for the Libyan people to decide.

But with the Gaddafi clan resistant to any thought of capitulating to the West's wishes, those governments that were mainly responsible for launching military action in the first place -- Britain, France and America -- have upped the stakes by insisting that the military campaign will continue until Gaddafi is overthrown.

Senior military figures are alarmed at the prospect of a stalemate in which Nato forces become bogged down for months or years.

But arguably one of the most important considerations is the impact the commitment to Libya will have on the military campaign in Afghanistan.

For, unlike the Libya conflict, where the main thrust of the military operation involves dropping bombs on Gaddafi's forces from 40,000 feet, the war in Afghanistan requires a completely different approach.

In order to defeat the Taliban, British and other Nato troops need to clear the ground of insurgent fighters.

There are likely to be many more casualties in Afghanistan this year as General David Petraeus, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, prepares to launch what he hopes will be the decisive offensive to crush Taliban resistance around the key southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

The West has committed a litany of mistakes since it first launched military action against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida following 9/11. But the counter-insurgency strategy devised by former Nato commander General Stanley McChrystal two years ago is finally starting to pay dividends.

Gen Petraeus told Congress last month that the relentless assault on the Taliban, which had mainly been led by British and American special forces, had seen an average of 360 Taliban leaders killed or captured every 90 days.

British and US intelligence officers have picked up encouraging reports that some of the more moderate Taliban tribal leaders are giving active consideration to renouncing the fight and entering a political dialogue to end the conflict.

The danger is that the importance of the long-overdue gains risks being lost as the politicians become increasingly distracted by the turmoil in Libya.

Unlike Libya, which long ago ceased to support terrorism, al-Qa'ida continues to thrive in the lawless region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Apart from stabilising Afghanistan, the success of the mission is vital if other failed states, such as Yemen, are to be persuaded that the West will deal seriously with any threat to its security posed by Islamist terror groups.

The stakes in Afghanistan are immeasurably higher than they are in Libya. Politicians would do well to consider this before they commit forces even deeper into the Libyan mire. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent