The first Predator drone strike has hit Libya, the US military confirmed today. It’s not clear where it struck, but explosions were heard outside Tripoli, in addition to in the area around the besieged city of Misurata. Some missiles fired by NATO apparently hit an underground bunker near the Gadhafi compound in Tripoli, which looks to have been used for military storage.
Meanwhile, the Libyan deputy foreign minister has intimated that Gadhafi’s army would leave Misurata because of airstrikes, and allow tribes loyal to Gadhafi to fight on their behalf. According to Khaled Kaim, the tribes would talk to the rebels in Misurata first, and if that failed they would fight them, with little compunction to prevent civilian casualties, in his words (Gadhafi’s snipers have already been shooting at civilians in the city). The rebels have been encouraged by the retreat of Gadhafi forces in Misurata, particularly from buildings along Tripoli Street. There is still fierce fighting going on in Misurata, however, and the opposition views this claim of withdrawal as misinformation. In fact, the rebels claim that local tribes are fighting against Gadhafi, not with him.
Tribes in the Western mountains are definitely opposed to Gadhafi, and have firm control of that region, having defeated government forces in a rout last month. But it’s unclear whether these groups in the Western mountains have any loyalty to the opposition out of Benghazi, and what will become of the two sides in a post-Gadhafi environment. The potential for tribal warfare is certainly there.
While the use of Predator drones has concerned Gadhafi, according to sources, that doesn’t make it a good idea. In fact, drones have become a terrible symbol in the Arab world of imperial oppression; witness Pakistan, where the US has apparently abandoned a drone base after continued pressure by the government to end the attacks. The impact, not just in Libya but elsewhere, could be quite unfavorable.
My quick reaction, as a journalist who has chronicled the growing use of drones, is that this extension to the Libyan theater is a mistake. It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way.
I wrote late last year that the problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems. They Saudis asked for them last year to go after Yemenis they didn’t like; the Turks use them (looking over our shoulders) to target Kurdish extremists in Iraqi Kurdistan. And now the United States will use them to beef up a stalemated NATO campaign in Libya, on behalf of a rebel army that very well may include Islamic radicals who, under other circumstances, might themselves have been targets of Predator attack.
I will not co-sign to Ignatius’ depiction of the rebels as Islamic radicals; we have no real idea about that, which is part of the problem. But blowback has been a feature of our interventions, to be sure.