So when a rebel officer on the front line called in one recent morning in need of help, Brig. Gen. Abdulsalam al-Hasi had little choice. He walked down the corridor and asked the American and European advisers in his command center to request a NATO airstrike — and then prayed for quick action.
“Sometimes they are late, very late,” said Hasi, shaking his head.
The episode highlights an inescapable dilemma facing the rebel military. After more than three months of stalemate, the rebels’ quest to remove Gaddafi from power depends almost entirely on a NATO force that they do not control and that insists its mandate is restricted to protecting civilians. Rebel commanders can only ask NATO for help, then wait and hope.
A few weeks ago, there was virtually no coordination between the rebels and NATO. The situation has since improved, rebel commanders acknowledge.
But top rebel military officials say the still low level of coordination and lack of resources means they are being left out of key decision-making in a war they launched.
“We’re talking to them through their switchboard,” Hasi said. “There’s no direct line. It’s like ordering room service.”
The rebel officers complain that NATO has not posted a liaison officer in the command center. Hasi and his team do not speak to the AWACS controllers to coordinate airstrikes, and they get little feedback from their NATO counterparts.
“We have no contact with anyone except those people that are next door,” Hasi said. “We need more contact with NATO. We need more of everything.”
But even as he complained, Hasi was wary of criticizing NATO too much. He knew the rebels’ hopes of overthrowing Gaddafi, who has been in power for 41 years, hinged on attacks by the alliance’s forces.
“Mostly, they are doing good. They are improving,” he said.
Confines of a mandate
NATO officials say their decision to keep the rebels at arm’s length was deliberate.
“For us, it’s all about not wanting to contravene or jeopardize the U.N. mandate that we’re following,” said a NATO official in the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, speaking under NATO ground rules that he not be named. The U.N. resolution authorizing military action in Libya speaks only of protecting civilians from attacks by Gaddafi’s forces, he said.
“We cannot be [the rebels’] air power,” the official said. “This was a popular public uprising, and it has to unfold that way, in a natural way. It’s not for us to do any more in terms of support.”
The grumblings from top Libyan rebel military officials come as NATO intensifies its air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces to break the stalemate. Battle lines are shifting rapidly and expanding to areas in the mountainous western region. France and Britain have sent attack helicopters to launch more precise strikes against Libyan government forces.