19 Apr 2011

British military to advise Libyan rebels: where does it end?

As the British Government announces it’s sending British military advisors to Afghanistan, Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson asks whether the EU could end up fighting on foreign soil for the first time?

This morning the British Foreign Secretary William Hague set about tweeting that meaningful steps were being pursued in order to bolster support for the rebels in Libya – through bolstering support for the UN resolution to protect civilians via “all means necessary”.

Those words are critical. Because just a short time after the Prime Minister was insisting that resolution did not and would not, mean boots on the ground – boots on the ground in the form of British military advisors is precisely what has been announced.

Libya: a rebel fighter mans a Grad rocket launcher in the front line along the western entrance of Ajdabiyah

So we move from air attacks … to providing flak jackets and mobile phones … to supplying communications equipment … to soldiers on the ground acting as advisors to the rebels about whom we still know very little. Mission creep? Some conclude that it is. Foreign Office and UN lawyers will say it is not because of that catch-all phrase “all means necessary”.

Read more: Libya war – strike against Gaddafi special report.

History of course tells us that many wars – Vietnam to name but one – began with the positioning of military advisors on the ground with a view merely to sharpening up the forces supported by the government back home.

And this is not the only sense in which foreign soldiers could find themselves on the ground upon Libyan soil.

Let it be said Baroness Amos is only the latest in a long line of people saying this is not imminent – but, at least technically, the EU is now just one step away from fighting on foreign soil for the first time.

Of course they will not put it in those terms. In fact they won’t put much. But we know that plans are well advanced for EU soldiers to enter Libya, as in “boots on the ground” to protect aid going into and out of Misrata. Few would bet that under present circumstances those troops would not come under fire, either from government forces seeking to stop aid entering the beleaguered city, or from rebel forces intent upon drawing foreign soldiers into a shooting war for their own purposes.

So far little is being released by way of information beyond that. The possible force will though, have its command centre in Rome and be led by an Italian Rear Admiral Claudio Gaudiosi. Of course the Italians have the best knowledge of Libya due to recent colonial history Рof course others might say that makes them a peculiarly insensitive choice of country for the job. Though how far this will be either an Italian or Italian-dominated force is yet to be revealed.