Ever since March 19--when American and European forces began enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya, the coalition's military strategy for protecting Libyan civilians has evolved in stages. First there were airstrikes on Muammar Qaddafi's air-defense systems and ground forces. Then the U.K., Italy, and France decided to dispatch military advisors to Libya while the U.S.sent non-lethal aid to the rebel and approved drone strikes. Now, according to The New York Times, NATO will begin targeting Libyan government institutions like palaces, headquarters, and communications centers.

The new tactic explains why coalition warplanes pounded Qaddafi's residential compound--which included administrative offices and a military command post, pictured above--and a state television facility in Tripoli yesterday. NATO officials told the Times that the alliance is relying on cell phone and radio intercepts to determine where the government's hidden command posts are.

Why the new approach? NATO gives one reason, but there are competing theories:

  • Protect Civilians: In NATO's telling, the shift in strategy is in the service of its U.N. mandate in Libya. The airstrikes, the Times writes, are intended to hinder the regime's "ability to harm civilians by eliminating, link by link, the command, communications and supply chains required for sustaining military operations."
  • Break Libyan Fear: In an appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday, Senator John McCain advocated taking out Libyan state television because "when the Libyan people see Gadhafi on television it scares them." Shortly after Qaddafi's compound was attacked yesterday, state television showed the ruler receiving local leaders while sitting in a tent, with a television displaying the day's date.
  • Supplement Faltering Air Campaign: The Libyan conflict appears to be devolving into a political and military stalemate, fueling frustration encapsulated in recent headlines like "An Alliance Without a Strategy" and "Finish the Job." Reuters, quoting analysts, explains that the coalition may be broadening its strikes because "an initial air campaign has run out of clear, purely military targets that are easy to hit without endangering civilians" and because Western governments feel they need to "maintain support for the effort by showing they are making a difference."
  • Target Qaddafi: Libyan officials characterized yesterday's bombing of Qaddafi's compound as an assassination attempt, and Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform tells Reuters the officials may not be far off. "NATO's official mandate doesn't involve removing Gaddafi from power," Valasek explains, "so the commanders would deny it and say they are going after communications posts and such, but to me it does smell that they are going after Gaddafi personally." Pentagon officials tried to dismiss the assassination theory by pointing out that the bombing was carried out by F-16 jets from Norway--a nation, as the Times puts it, "hardly associated with assassination attempts against foreign leaders."