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Has NATO Hit A Wall In Libya?

President Obama and the leaders of Britain and France published a joint letter Friday saying that as long as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi remains in power, NATO and its partners must maintain their operations.

With Libyan rebels and Gadhafi's forces locked in a stalemate, though, there's concern the NATO operation may be insufficient to protect civilians — let alone force the dictator from power.

This week, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a switch, said the alliance needs more strike aircraft to better protect civilians from shelling by their own ruler. NATO foreign ministers meeting in Berlin were asked to contribute additional planes to strike Libyan military targets.

Capt. Brynjar Stordal is with the Norwegian squadron now flying bombing missions against Gadhafi's forces. Norwegian F-16 fighter jets take off for Libya under the NATO banner from Souda air base on the Greek island of Crete.

Stordal says the mission is strongly supported by the Norwegian public and his colleagues.

"Speaking for, I think, all or close to all of the 120 Norwegians here, I think the mission is a right one," he says. "I've hardly seen any mission that we've had that's been this clear."

But what's not as clear is how to achieve that mission. Gadhafi's military and paramilitary forces have adapted. They are no longer easy targets driving heavy armor openly down flat desert roadways in eastern Libya. They are concealing heavier weaponry in built-up, urban areas near civilians. And they are increasingly dressing in civilian garb and driving pickup trucks, SUVs and other nonmilitary vehicles to try to evade airstrikes.

No Endgame?

NATO airstrikes have stopped Gadhafi's artillery and rocket assaults on civilians in Benghazi and Ajdabiya. But for NATO, that may have been the easy part.

"The problem now for them is what next?" says Dan Plesch, director of the London Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy. "And that, of course, was the question posed to them by critics of the operation before it began."

"I don't think that NATO has a particular endgame," he adds. "Either they hope that Gadhafi and his regime will implode with further defections or that there may be some victory for the resistance."

But a rebel victory seems a long way off. With anti-Gadhafi rebels still outgunned and militarily inept, Plesch wonders how NATO will achieve its goal of protecting civilians and ousting the dictator — short of putting troops on the ground, which alliance members have repeatedly ruled out. The military facts on the ground all say stalemate.

Looking For Support

Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis, finds it strange NATO is in the same military predicament as it was a few years ago in Afghanistan, when commanders pleaded for more NATO air support.

"The secretary-general of NATO at the time [said] if you counted up the number of support helicopters in NATO, it was something like 400 or 500 and they couldn't even find a dozen," Tusa says. "Bearing in mind a lot of countries being asked to participate in Libya aren't necessarily involved in operations in Afghanistan, you would think there would be strike aircraft basically at beck and call."

Meanwhile, a Libyan resident of Misrata told Reuters on Friday that government forces again battered civilians in the western city with rocket artillery and tank fire. The witness said a government helicopter — in defiance of the NATO-enforced no-fly zone — circled the city for hours, likely serving as a spotter for Gadhafi's artillery.

NATO air protection, the witness reported, was nowhere to be seen.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.