Con Coughlin: Way to crush Gaddafi is with ground troops -- not from 40,000 feet
COLONEL Muammar Gaddafi's defiant reaction to the ferocious bombardment of his country illustrates the scale of the military challenge that lies ahead as the coalition attempts to overthrow the Libyan tyrant.
After British and American warships fired an estimated 110 missiles to destroy Libya's anti-aircraft installations, Gaddafi responded in a radio broadcast from his heavily fortified bunker in Tripoli, declaring: "We promise you a long, drawn-out war with no limits."
If the Gaddafi clan really is prepared to fight to the bitter end, then it is unlikely the coalition's ultimate objective of removing them can be achieved by air power alone.
As British Prime Minister David Cameron remarked only four weeks ago, you cannot "drop democracy from 40,000 feet". The only way to get rid of a determined and resourceful dictator like Gaddafi is to send in ground troops.
The conflicts in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003 both began with the imposition of no-fly zones. But Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq's Saddam Hussein were only defeated by the introduction of ground troops.
After the Iraq experience, Western leaders are understandably reluctant to deploy ground troops, particularly as UN resolution 1973, which authorised the military offensive, states there will be no military occupation of Libya.
The UN is concerned about protecting Libyan rebels from Gaddafi's revenge attacks rather than seeking regime change in Tripoli. But the West would be made to look impotent if the conflict ended with Gaddafi still in power. For that reason, coalition commanders argue a ground intervention is not the same as an occupation, and that this form of military action must remain a viable option if Gaddafi refuses to go.
But, for the moment, the main focus on the coalition's effort will be to protect anti-government rebels while at the same time increasing the psychological pressure on Gaddafi. The fact that the UN resolution allows the coalition to conduct attacks against Gaddafi's ground forces means commanders are not just limited to attacking anti-aircraft installations.
"This means we can target Gaddafi's forces directly and hopefully will persuade many of his supporters that it is not worth fighting for a lost cause," said a senior coalition officer involved in planning the air strikes.
I understand the British and American governments are also looking at the possibility of arming the rebels so they will have the military capability to defeat Gaddafi's forces.
It would certainly be preferable for the Libyans to set their own house in order rather than have the American-led coalition do it for them. Arab sensitivities over Western military intervention in Libya have been highlighted by the Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, who only last week backed calls for a no-fly zone, a decision that was crucial to winning UN backing.
But yesterday Mr Moussa criticised the coalition's handling of the conflict, claiming the aim of the mission was to protect Libyans, not bomb them.
Mr Moussa's comments will play into the hands of Gaddafi, who has already denounced the coalition as a "crusader's alliance", which wants to seize control of Libya's oil and gas reserves.
It is for this reason that, in the days ahead, the coalition will need to proceed with caution. Otherwise the Libyan leader will be able to appeal to Islamist militants to carry out terror attacks on Europe and America on his behalf. (© Daily Telegraph, London)