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One hundred years later, air campaigns still miss the mark

The world's first aerial bombing run occurred in Libya almost 100 years ago. Since then, the United States and European countries have often used their air forces to establish 'control without occupation' with little thought for the consequences.

If you ask any European when the devastating power of the bomber was revealed, the answer would most likely be during the Second World War - the German blitz of London and the British fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden. Some might recall the Fascist bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937, during the Spanish civil war, which is immortalised in Picasso's harrowing anti-war painting.

An American might recall the vastly destructive but ultimately futile US bombing campaign against North Vietnam from 1965-68. But all these answers miss a key part of the history of aerial bombing. The bomber came of age during colonial wars in North Africa and the Middle East, and it was in these theatres that it proved its worth.

This year marks a grim centenary. On November 1, 1911, an Italian airman tossed a couple of grenades over the side of his plane at Turkish troops in the Tajura oasis, near Tripoli, at the start of the Italian invasion of Libya. The grenades caused little damage, but the principle of spreading terror from the air like an immortal Greek god was established.

Within a couple of years the Spanish were dropping high explosives on rebellious tribes in Morocco. They pioneered the inclusion of steel balls in the bomb - just like a modern-day suicide bomber - in order to shred human flesh. Since targeting was inaccurate, the deadly force had to be multiplied.

It was the British and the French who perfected the use of air power. Short of money and men to enforce the empire, Britain used bombers in Egypt, India, Afghanistan, Iran and most notoriously in Iraq. Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, was shocked at "dishonourable" reports of the Royal Air Force machine-gunning women and children in northern Iraq. But by that time the RAF had proved its worth in implementing a policy of "control without occupation".

France took air campaigns from the village to the capital, with a ferocious bombing of Damascus in 1926 that has left its mark on the city to this day. The peak of brutality was reached by the Italians in their campaign to crush opposition in Cyrenaica, now the focus of resistance against the forces of the Libyan leader, Col Muammar Qaddafi. The tribes which avoided being forced into concentration camps were driven into the desert and picked off from the air. These days it would be considered genocide.

With the exception of the protests of a few honourable officers, these crimes made little impact in the West. From the point of view of colonial governments, the joy of air power was that it deprived the "natives" of any chance of martial glory in fighting the invader. The proud followers of ancient religious orders were simply un-manned by superior technology.

Only when the casualties were Europeans, as in Guernica, did the horror of air power sink into the European consciousness.

This same process exists to this day. It is a fair bet that the main proponents of the Libyan no-fly zone, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, know little of the ignoble history of air power used against the Arabs. But the effects are etched into the minds of the people of the Middle East.

The radical political activist Noam Chomsky warned more than two weeks ago that the European powers were treading on dangerous ground if they intervened in Libya. The West has an ugly history in North Africa, he said, but the powerful forget the past. "The victims don't have that luxury. They remember what we don't like to remember."

For the Arabs there is a direct line linking those two grenades dropped on Tajura in 1911 with the remote-controlled US drones that unleash rockets on suspected - and sometimes misidentified - Taliban hideouts along the northern Pakistan border. It is the continuation of Britain's old policy of control without occupation which, as it turns out, is the guiding principle of the UN Security Council resolution authorising the no-fly zone in Libya.

The consensus that saw the approval of the UN resolution is now melting away. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League which called for a no-fly zone on March 12, has voiced his doubts, saying the air strikes have gone beyond what the UN called for. There is mounting criticism from countries which abstained in the vote, including China, Russia and India.

Some of this criticism is just cheap talk. Every military expert knows that air power involves destroying infrastructure and armies on the ground. That means that people get killed and injured in horrible ways.

The change in Mr Moussa's tone is interpreted in the West as either (generously) part of his campaign for president of Egypt or (more harshly) as the typical spinelessness of Arab leaderships. We can all agree that it would have been better if the Libyan crisis was sorted out by the Arab countries, but Egypt and Tunisia are in the midst of revolutions, and that cannot be.

Having contracted out the problem to the US and its allies, the Arab states need to find a way of influencing tactics. This requires closer Arab involvement. Fighters jets from Qatar are expected to start patrols next weekend, and logistical support is expected from Jordan and some other countries. Crucially, Arab states need to be involved in the political oversight of the coalition forces, once the command structure is sorted out.

But there is a more serious problem. The coalition has lost its moral authority by failing to hide its real goal of liquidating Col Qaddafi. The historical context makes the bombing campaign hard to swallow in any case, and the agenda of regime change has put the Arabs in an impossible position.

Col Qaddafi has few supporters, but the coalition is in danger of creating some. The Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has declared that the western intervention "brings us back to the days of occupation, colonisation and partition".

This is a shameless exaggeration. There is not going to be any French, British or Italian colonisation of Libya. But these words touch a sensitive nerve when the coalition ignores its history and believes that, just because it is acting under a humanitarian label, all its past sins are forgiven. This is a problem that will grow more acute with every day that the campaign lasts.

aphilps@thenational.ae

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