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SPIEGEL Interview with NATO Head Rasmussen: 'There Is No Military Solution to the Libya Conflict'

Even after weeks of NATO air strikes, the conflict in Libya appears no closer to being resolved. SPIEGEL spoke with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen about whether bombs can lead to democracy, the possibility of Libya becoming a failed state and Germany's reluctance to get involved.

Photo Gallery: NATO's Libya Conundrum Photos
AP

SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary General, the military leadership of the Libyan rebel government has leveled serious charges against NATO, saying the alliance has not been active enough in flying air strikes against troops loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and is thus partly responsible for the deaths of countless civilians. Is NATO failing?

Rasmussen: I can assure you that we are fully implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect the Libyan civilian population. The scope and speed of our operation remain high. During the first week of our NATO operation alone, we flew more than 1,000 sorties. We have already destroyed a third of Gadhafi's military machinery.

SPIEGEL: The foreign minister of the Libyan transitional council, Ali al-Issawi, says that the problems began after the initial coalition -- led by the US, Great Britain and France -- turned over the command to NATO. According to Issawi, NATO is obstructing and even betraying the resistance.

Rasmussen: That's not fair. To some extent, we have been hampered by bad weather, which may have created the impression that we have scaled down our campaign. But that was unavoidable, and it has long since changed again. We are currently flying at least as many air strikes now as we were before.

SPIEGEL: But not necessarily with more success. And there remains the high risk of civilian casualties. Was it not to be expected that Gadhafi would abuse civilians as human shields?

Rasmussen: Yes, you're right. He has changed his tactics. But that also points to our successes. Now that he has to hide his tanks and other heavy weapons, he can no longer use them as easily against civilians. The fact that the regime is using people as human shields also points to its unbelievable brutality. Gadhafi knows that we have to do everything, and want to do everything, to avoid civilian casualties, and he's taking advantage of that.

SPIEGEL: Some rebel leaders are encouraging you to accept this "collateral damage" and, if necessary, to bombard central neighborhoods of the embattled city of Misurata if you could decisively weaken Gadhafi's forces by doing so. Is it a question of strategy, or of morality?

Rasmussen: Some chastise us because we are supposedly too cautious, while others criticize us for doing what we are doing. It's a difficult line to walk. Our mission is to protect the civilian population. After all, we don't have any troops on Libyan soil.

SPIEGEL: Can this war be won without ground troops?

Rasmussen: The honest answer is that there is no military solution to this conflict. We need a political solution, and it's up to the Libyan people to come up with one. We can only call upon the leadership in Tripoli to put an end to its acts of violence, to grant the people their legitimate rights and to permit a peaceful transition to democracy.

SPIEGEL: What happens if Gadhafi doesn't comply with these demands? Wouldn't NATO at least have to provide for weapons parity and begin supplying tanks and missiles to the rebels?

Rasmussen: All I can say to that is this: We are responsible for the implementation of UN Resolution 1973. This resolution states that we are to participate in the implementation of the arms embargo against Libya. We will strictly adhere to the resolution. That's our mission.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, though, Resolution 1973 expressly allows for the protection of the civilian population "with all means necessary." British Defense Secretary Liam Fox has said that Gadhafi could indeed be a possible target of operations. Some international law experts agree.

Rasmussen: I will not enter into a legal dispute over questions of interpretation. We are focusing on implementing the resolution.

SPIEGEL: This isn't just a question of legal interpretation. The greatest threat to the civilian population stems from the dictatorial regime, from the despotism of Gadhafi and his clan. How can a solution be possible in Libya without Gadhafi and his clan leaving the country or being arrested?

Rasmussen: Of course the threat against the civilian population comes from the Gadhafi regime. The UN Security Council has clearly stated that the actions of the regime could constitute crimes against humanity. And Gadhafi could be tried for such crimes in the International Criminal Court.

SPIEGEL: What criteria have to be met so that you can call the NATO operation "Unified Protector" a success?

Rasmussen: If we manage to stop the violence, so that there is no longer a threat to the Libyan civilian population.

SPIEGEL: The implementation of a no-fly zone alone is extremely costly. Such zones had to be maintained for years in the Balkans and Iraq.

Rasmussen: I very much hope that we will be able to find a political solution in the near future. The worst outcome would be a military stalemate or a de facto partition of Libyan society, in which Libya would become a failed state and a breeding ground for terrorist groups -- and that so close to Europe's borders.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, it's looking like a military stalemate is a very real possibility. Libya is already de facto divided. Is peace in a divided Libya possible?

Rasmussen: In the end, it will be up to the UN to help Libya achieve a political solution to this crisis. The territorial integrity of Libya must be maintained.

SPIEGEL: Would you welcome a cease-fire? Would it have to be tied to conditions?

Rasmussen: The UN resolution calls for a cease-fire. It should be credible and verifiable. The protection of the civilian population must be guaranteed. Under no circumstances may a cease-fire cement the current situation. On the contrary, it must create the conditions for a constructive political process.

SPIEGEL: From whom do you receive the coordinates for air strikes -- from the rebels, who may not always be trustworthy, or from CIA agents on the ground?

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
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About Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, 58, has been NATO Secretary General since 2009. Prior to taking over the top post at the trans-Atlantic alliance, he led a conservative governing coalition as Danish prime minister. In 2003, he threw his support behind US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Turkey initially blocked his nomination to lead NATO because Ankara considered him to be anti-Islam. In office, Rasmussen has proven to be a flexible negotiator and recently steered the alliance toward greater cooperation with Russia.
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