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April 21st, 2011
04:30 PM ET

Can Libya's lethal stalemate be broken?

Moni Basu
CNN

(CNN) - A desperate call for more help sounds from Libya almost every day. Libyans are disappointed, feeling let down by NATO, said one resident of Misrata, the western city under a vicious siege from Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

As blood flows on the battlefields that are Libya's towns and cities, the optimism that surfaced at the start of the conflict is but a memory. The military campaign in Libya was expected to be quick and precise, using sophisticated aerial military technology optimized to reduce casualties.

But it became apparent that Gadhafi was not going to fall quickly in the footsteps of his neighbors Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. He was not going to be the third data point, as it were, in the trend line of the Arab Spring.

Now it seems the war could drag on for weeks, months or, by some troubling estimates, perhaps even years as NATO squabbles over strategy and Gadhafi camouflages his forces within civilian populations and, according to reports, is using banned weapons such as cluster bombs.

It can be perceived as a snub of Western military might. And the question now is whether any sort of political victory can be weaned from a seemingly struggling military campaign.

How long before calm comes to Libya? Will Gadhafi go? And how will Western powers, facing potential military embarrassment, respond?

"They are trying to avoid losing," said military strategy scholar Michael Keane, a fellow of National Security at the Pacific Council on International Policy. "But we're not trying to win because we're not sure what that means."

Not sure because from the very beginning, U.S. President Barack Obama and his European counterparts have made it expressly clear that the Libyan campaign is not about regime change.

The airstrikes began in mid-March under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, and NATO has been cautious to operate under that threshold, even when three of its members - Britain, France and Italy - decided this week to send military advisers to Benghazi.

The choice to act in Libya came when it appeared the opposition effort - previously implausible in a nation that has known only the iron grip of Gadhafi for more than 40 long years - faced a series of setbacks that made massacre seem imminent in Benghazi.

Some now believe that had Western powers intervened earlier, when the rebels were high on momentum in their march westward, the situation might be different.

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