- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

NATO succeeded in aiding the Libyan rebels in toppling Moammar Gadhafi despite early challenges in coordinating missions, and now the alliance and Libyans face an uncertain future, analysts and former officials say.

During the five-month campaign that began March 19, NATO forces have hailed more than 2,000 vessels, boarded more than 200 and turned away 10 as part of the alliance’s naval blockade of the Gadhafi regime.

NATO aircraft have flown more than 20,000 sorties - more than a third of them by aircraft tasked to strike Gadhafi forces.

And they have done so for the most part without the direct participation of U.S. combat aircraft, which withdrew after 11 days in accordance with President Obama’s determination that the United States would not lead the operation after the initial phase.

“It was an extraordinary coalition,” said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations, noting that non-NATO European nations and several Arab states also had been involved.

“The fact that the United States did not play its traditional role in this coalition of leading at the forefront and … withdrew its primary military assets early on forced other NATO members to play a greater role and indeed brought some strains into the alliance,” Mr. Danin said, referring to the protracted negotiations at the end of March between European allies about the leadership structure for the air campaign.

But U.S. forces comprising command and control, surveillance and logistics continued to be essential to the NATO operation even after the alliance finally took the lead on April 1, a defense official confirmed to The Washington Times.

Nonetheless, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley praised the alliance, saying NATO had “hung together” during a campaign that “went on for longer than anyone envisaged five months ago.”

On Monday, alliance officials pledged to continue their role, raising fears that if the security situation worsens, pressure might mount for NATO to deploy ground troops.

NATO is ready to work with the Libyan people and with the Transitional National Council,” NATO Secretary-General Andreas Fogh Rasmussen said, referring to the rebels’ interim leadership based in Paris.

“We will continue to monitor military units and key facilities, as we have since March, and when we see any threatening moves towards the Libyan people, we will act in accordance with our U.N. mandate” to protect civilians, he added.

Officials from the European Union went further in pledging support for the rebels, promising to send in an assessment team.

“The first thing we need to do is send a team in to appraise the needs of the authorities,” said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

“The sort of thing we could offer … is humanitarian assistance, support for democratization, help set up elections, institution-building and help with the economy,” Mr. Mann added.

In an email message, Mr. Mann said the EU freeze on Libyan assets will remain in force for the time being. “As soon as we judge that the time is right to help the population, we will change them,” he said.

With the rebels’ hold on Tripoli uncertain and Col. Gadhafi’s whereabouts unknown, some analysts said “Operation Unified Protector,” as the NATO offensive is dubbed, risks sucking the alliance into a quagmire.

“I’m very worried,” said Mr. Danin. “Here is a country in which the grand leader … deliberately gutted all the institutions of government … it’s a tribalized society, it’s a factionalized society. They’ve been united by what they oppose.”

Mr. Crowley emphasized, as administration officials have done, that the deployment of NATO ground troops is not in the cards, at least as far as the United States is concerned.

“This is a Libyan revolution, where it goes is up to the Libyan people,” he said.



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