Ministers admitted yesterday that they have no idea how long the military operation against Colonel Gaddafi could take.
Asked for an estimate, Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey said: ‘How long is a piece of string? We don’t know how long this is going to go on.
‘We don’t know if this is going to result in a stalemate. We don’t know if his capabilities are going to be degraded quickly. Ask me again in a week.’
The comments come as a defiant Muammar Gaddafi made a speech on Libyan state television last night in which he claimed said he was ready for entrenched conflict, saying; ‘In the short term, we’ll beat them, in the long term, we’ll beat them.’
The Libyan leader was said to have delivered the message to supporters at his residential compound near the capital Tripoli which was hit by an allied cruise missile on Sunday.
He denounced the ‘unjust’ action against his country and called those taking action against Libya as ‘crazed fascists’.
And as Tory MPs expressed fears that the war could last for 30 years, Foreign Secretary William Hague added to fears of an expensive and open-ended commitment, saying that it was impossible to put a deadline on British involvement.
Mr Hague said: ‘It’s too early to speculate. It depends what happens one way or another.
‘I don’t think you can put a deadline or a time objective to that.
‘We need to do those things as long as it is necessary, and that will depend on how people react in Libya, the reaction of the Gaddafi regime, on so many factors.’
In a major speech last night, he added: ‘We will continue to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 until there is a complete and genuine ceasefire and an end to attacks on civilians.’
Liberal Democrat Mr Harvey went further than any minister yet in admitting that ground forces may be needed.
The UN resolution rules out an ‘invasion’ and an ‘occupying force’ but not ground force assistance to protect civilian lives.
‘I don’t think we would at this stage rule anything in or rule anything out,’ Mr Harvey said.
‘It’s something that the twists and turns of the next few days and weeks will determine, what any individual country puts into this fray.
‘I think it’s a question of interpretation where the deployment of ground troops becomes the landing of an occupying force and I just don’t think it’s productive to speculate on that, but I cannot foresee it on any significant scale.’
The uncertainty over the length of the war comes after mixed messages from the Government over whether Colonel Gaddafi himself was a legitimate target.
On Monday, Downing Street was forced to publicly contradict claims by the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards that the dictator could not be legally killed in a military strike.
Chancellor George Osborne sought to reassure the public that the cost of the war would not spiral out of control, saying it would be ‘in the tens of millions not the hundreds of millions of pounds’.
He said it would be paid for from the Treasury’s reserve, rather than the main defence budget.
The Government expects the air campaign, featuring RAF Typhoon and Tornado jets plus Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the submarine Triumph, to cost around £3million a day, though the Daily Mail has calculated that the first three days cost nearly £6million each.
But costs and the length of the deployment will soar if either of those scenarios prompts a need for ground troops.
Other members of the military coalition have already decided not to stick with the mission for ever.
Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre last night announced that his country would put a time limit on its military involvement.
‘We have made our planes available for three months,’ he said.
Intelligence chiefs and diplomats are preparing a series of options papers for David Cameron spelling out what might happen next.
The scenarios they are examining include the possibility of a military stalemate between Gaddafi’s forces and the opposition, where the rebels lack the firepower to seize the capital Tripoli.
They are also looking at the prospect that Libya will split in two, with a de facto separation between the Gaddafi-controlled West and the rebel-occupied East.
Tory MP Rory Stewart, a former diplomat who was deputy governor of an Iraqi province after the war there, warned that Britain could be sucked into a three-decade long imbroglio in the Middle East.
‘Don’t get sucked into Libya. I think the no-fly zone is the correct thing to do but this is a 20-to 30-year marathon with a very complicated region.’
Tory MP John Baron, one of only 13 MPs to vote against the war during a Commons debate on Monday night, also warned that the commitment could be open-ended.
‘What is the exit strategy?’ he asked.
‘We risk being drawn into an ill-defined mission whilst civilian casualties rise.
‘If there is a stalemate on the ground, are we simply going to walk away? These are questions that are not being answered at the moment, and I think they should be.’
Lord Browne, the former chairman of oil giant BP, which did deals with Gaddafi’s regime, predicted that the conflict would drag on.
He said: ‘I have a sense that everything I have seen of him [Gaddafi] is that he is someone who will stick around to the last possible moment.’
Plans for Nato takeover of mission ‘are in chaos’
Attempts to get Nato to take charge of the military mission in Libya were in chaos last night.
With America determined to surrender command of the no-fly zone, world leaders were on the verge of creating a cumbersome two-tier structure to answer the question: Who is running the war?
David Cameron had called for Nato in Brussels to assume command from the U.S. general co-ordinating the air strikes.
But after a day of bitter exchanges between Nato ambassadors, it became clear that some countries, such as Germany and Turkey, will not give the green light for Nato to take over.
Instead, officials were last night racing to create an international committee to oversee the military action, while the nuts and bolts of the command and control would be operated by Nato officers.
The coalition of the willing will bring together Britain, France, the U.S., Canada and other hawkish members of Nato, leaving the refuseniks on the sidelines.
Mr Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague were last night fighting to persuade Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to join the grouping.
Nato is launching an operation to enforce an international arms embargo on Libya and has completed plans ‘if needed’ to take charge of the operation to enforce the no-fly zone declared by the United Nations Security Council last week, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
However Nato ambassadors have so far failed to agree whether the alliance should take over when the United States relinquishes command in the next few days.
Mr Cameron discussed the need for Nato to play a ‘key role’ in the military action in Libya with U.S. President Barack Obama last night. In a telephone call this evening with Mr Obama, Downing Street said the two leaders had agreed ‘that these arrangements now needed to be finalised’.
Diplomatic sources described yesterday’s meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels as a moment of ‘theatre’.
One envoy said: ‘The meeting became a little bit emotional.’
Turkey opposed a Nato mission, in part because the country’s prime minister Tayyip Erdogan felt snubbed because he was not invited to a summit on the military action in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last weekend.
Mr Sarkozy, whose armed forces have only recently rejoined Nato, had pushed for a separate command structure parallel to Nato.
His foreign minister Alain Juppe said:
‘This is therefore not a Nato operation.’
The compromise deal being thrashed out is expected to see an awkward hybrid of Nato infrastructure and a political front.
A senior No 10 source said last night: ‘We are getting close but we are not yet over the line.’
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