What is Cameron’s aim in Libya? Does he know?
As Nato takes over no-fly zone operation, Crispin Black says the Libya mission remains dangerously ambiguous
The first event in an officer cadet's first day at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (apart from boot polishing and being shouted at) is a lecture on The Principles of War.
In essence, they are a set of military Ten Commandments distilled from the great military thinkers of the past through the British Army's largely successful, and often glorious, fighting experience over 300 years. Sun Tzu, Napoleon and Clausewitz as interpreted by Tommy Atkins, Wellington and Montgomery.
The first principle, carrying the same overriding weight as the First Commandment and usually regarded as the master principle of war, is 'selection and maintenance of the aim'. Its message is timeless and austere - a single unambiguous aim is the keystone of successful military operations.
I can remember being given the lesson myself more than 30 years ago. Our platoon commander was an officer in a Scottish regiment of great renown - think Alec Guinness in Tunes of Glory.
"Why is this the first and most important principle of war?" he barked at us, having written it up on the blackboard.
Brand new officer cadets rarely open their mouths except to say "Yes Sir".
So he gave us the answer himself - I paraphrase without the army's favourite epithet. "Because if you can't get this right, nothing will go right. If you cannot work out what it is you want to do and then stick with it then you are unlikely to succeed. We also put it first because confusion about the aim of military operations is the most common mistake leaders make in war and it usually costs lives."
The first public utterance by the Chief of the Defence Staff on the first day of Operation Ellamy, the UK's codename for operations over Libya, fell straight into the trap.
Politicians and soldiers were not singing from the same hymn sheet. After the foreign and defence secretaries had hinted publicly that we might target Colonel Gaddafi personally, General Richards stated forcefully that such a thing was not permitted by UN Resolution 1973.
Only to be contradicted a few minutes later by the Downing Street spin operation. Only for a softer focused message to come out in the prime minister's subsequent statements in the Commons.
If it was a cunning plan to confuse the Libyans, in the end we were the ones who looked confused. For all the frenetic diplomatic and military activity, the basics of the military operation in Libya have not been sorted out, the implications not considered, the decisions, if any, not communicated properly.
The consistent message from the government has been that this is not another Iraq. Maybe. But despite Tony Blair's multiple lies and evasions, at least he and George Bush had selected their aim: regime change.
It's not quite clear what David Cameron wants to do with Colonel Gaddafi. Certainly Richards, personally selected by Cameron to be his top general, seems to have got the wrong end of the stick. Running a war is not like an essay crisis.
The confusion has already reduced the chances of Gaddafi's departure. His moment of maximum vulnerability was in the minutes and hours after the UN resolution was passed.
Given the extensive British intelligence presence in Libya after Gaddafi came in from the cold it seems unlikely that the allies did not have some idea of his usual haunts. But we missed the opportunity. Gaddafi went to ground and appears now to think there is all to play for.
Despite this the Prime Minister appears energised, almost enjoying it. It's certainly more fun than reducing the deficit - for him at least. What a shame that such an enthusiast for military action performed no military service himself. Just the one day at Sandhurst could have made a big difference. ·
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