Libyan rebels at crossroads after taking Ajdabiya

Libyan rebels after taking Ajdabiya, 26 March 2011

Every conflict in history makes household names out of places which were previously obscure.

That is how we know the names of Stalingrad and Waterloo, and indeed Tobruk in Libya.

The desert town of Ajdabiya may not be destined to be mentioned in the same breath as those great battles of the past, but it may yet mark a crucial turning point in the uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The town stands at the intersection of two of the main roads in Libya - the great coastal highway that hugs the Mediterranean coast and the straight, flat desert road that runs east through Tobruk to Egypt.

It was to defend that strategic location that Col Gaddafi's commanders deployed tanks and heavy artillery there in such numbers. And it was for that reason that they defended it for several days - the hallmark of their tactics an extraordinary brutality and carelessness for civilian casualties and suffering.

Col Gaddafi's forces made Ajdabiya into a war zone, and then lost the war there.

Mandate not tested

It is fitting that the town stands at a crossroads, because so now does the rebel's military campaign. And so too does the allied air campaign that effectively supports it.

The UN mandate under which the US, France and Britain have been flying bombing missions talks about taking "all necessary measures" to protect the civilian population of Libya.

So far that mandate has not been put to any particularly difficult political, diplomatic or moral test.

A Libyan government armoured column destroyed on the road outside Benghazi last weekend by French fighter jets was plainly sent to attack the civilian population.

And in Ajdabiya they were clearly using weapons of war against civilians.

But defining what the mandate may mean in other circumstances may not be quite so straightforward.

The rebels have the simplest and clearest interpretation of what the UN mandate is meant to mean.

They say protecting the civilian population of Libya involves the systematic destruction of Muammar Gaddafi's military infrastructure, if possible down to the last rifle and pair of desert boots.

They reason that if Col Gaddafi is left with any military capacity in his hands, sooner or later he will use it. No group of citizens wishing to conduct a peaceful protest anywhere in the country would be safe.

Clearing the way

The rebels now plan to proceed with the liberation of further towns and cities in Libya including, they hope, Col Gaddafi's power base at Sirte and the substantial centres of population like Misrata.

Their vision of the campaign before them is simple. They will proceed from town to town, and will fire back if fired upon as they approach. They will expect allied air operations to punish any use of force by Gaddafi loyalists - a situation that in effect has the allies flying close air support for rebel forces. In practice, that means clearing the way for rebel troops to reoccupy towns, as happened in Ajdabiya.

Things may be particularly messy if, in a town like Sirte, the population is broadly supportive of Col Gaddafi. How would protection from the air work then, if at all?

There are plenty of people in the West who would support that view of this air campaign. Others though, may interpret the UN mandate about civilian protection to have meant attacks on Libyan government tanks and guns only when they were caught in the act of attacking civilians, or when they were poised to do so.

So agreeing what the mandate means is one problem.

Another is applying even those parts of it which are agreed.

Pinpointing targets

In Misrata, for example, there is no doubt that government forces are terrorising the civilian population. But they appear to be doing it using armoured vehicles concealed in the very heart of the city and teams of snipers positioned in high buildings.

Destroying such targets without destroying anything else and without killing or injuring civilians is possible, but difficult. And it might involve the employment of American predator drones, bringing more US equipment and manpower into play when the Obama administration is trying to make this look like less of an American operation.

We should also note that allied operations are presumably killing substantial number of Col Gaddafi's soldiers, although no-one seems to be counting how many at the moment.

It may well be argued that they are dying in the service of a brutal regime, but we don't know how many are committed volunteers and how many are coerced in some way into service.

There is one further problem too. If Western air power is speeding up this campaign and making a rebel victory much likelier, then thoughts must soon turn to what the end game might look like.

Even those powers, like France, which are clear about their desire for regime change, don't seem to have any clear vision of how it might come about if air power does not do it.

If the Gaddafi regime simply implodes under Western military pressure, then chaos would be the likeliest immediate result (the rebellion was nothing more than a spontaneous street movement for democracy six weeks ago). It is impossible to say who would end up running the country, even in the short term.

But what if once the Gaddafi administration's military infrastructure is completely destroyed, he still has armed gangs of loyalists under his control ready to fight the rebels with AK-47s, or even to attempt to split the country between east and west?

And none of that even touches on whether or not allies should arm or train the rebels - or whether the bulk of the rebel movement would support Western ideas and values once victory was won.

The countries behind the rescue of Libya - and make no mistake, Libya has been rescued - meet in London for talks next week. They have plenty to talk about.