Conflict & Justice

NATO sees its role in Libya coming to an end


A Libyan rebel wounded during the battle for the control of the Brega flashes a victory sign as he is rushed into the emergency room at the general hospital in Ajdabiya, on July 17, 2011.


Gianluigi Guercia

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The Libyan rebels’ advance into Tripoli and the prospect of Muammar Gaddafi's regime finally collapsing presents NATO with a dilemma: how to support the incoming regime and prevent further turmoil without setting down a heavy Western footprint in yet another Islamic country.

In the short term, the North Atlantic military alliance says its five-month air campaign will continue against the remnants of Gaddafi’s forces. Once peace is established, however, NATO aims to take a back seat to the United Nations or international “contact group” comprising Western and Arab nations.

“NATO is not going to take a leading role. NATO can help, but there are other organizations that are better suited for that,” said alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “We don’t envisage putting troops on the ground.”

The suddenness of the rebel advance on the capital over the weekend caught much of the international community by surprise and has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity.

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A series of high-level international meetings involving the United Nations, European Union, Arab League and other major players are expected in the next few days to cobble together a package of urgent support to the new Libyan authorities and avoid a power vacuum.

Western leaders are stressing however that the Libyans themselves have to take the lead role in defining the steps to a post-Gaddafi future.

“Transition must come peacefully. It must come now. And it must be led and defined by the Libyan people,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement Monday.

Although diplomats are loath to make the comparisons, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan loom large over Western decisions for post-Gaddafi Libya and Western capitals are facing a delicate balancing act.

Libya is awash with weapons, its heavily tribal society has no tradition of democracy and there is serious potential for a chaotic situation to spiral out the control of the inexperienced rebel leaders. Leaders are painfully aware, however, that a heavy-handed international intervention to help maintain order risks undermining the credibility of the Transitional National Council and alienating wider Arab opinion.

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“One of the lessons of the Arab Spring is that it is very, very important for movements such as this to be home grown and for there to be local ownership and credibility,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Western governments I think have learned at their cost to be very cautious in how they stretch out their hand.”

The European Union quickly stated that it stands ready to step up support in a range of areas, from emergency medical supplies and aid to Tripoli to rebuilding the economy, training a new Libyan police force and judiciary and helping organize elections. EU spokesman Michael Mann stressed however that “at this stage” the EU was not envisaging any military role to help maintain order.

As pockets of pro-Gaddafi forces held out against the rebel takeover of the capital, NATO insisted its campaign of air strikes was still ongoing. There was no sign of celebration at alliance headquarters, rather quiet satisfaction that rebel success vindicated the alliance’s decision back in March to intervene against Gaddafi’s troops.

“This is a campaign and a campaign takes patience, it’s a cumulative effort,” Lungescu, the NATO spokeswoman said in an interview. “We destroyed 4,000 legitimate military targets, including hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launches … this led to a reduction of the regime’s ability to attack its own people, we saw the results of that last night. They crumbled.”

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The NATO mission has frequently come in for criticism. Germany refused to back its launch. Russia and China complained it went beyond its United Nations-mandated task of protecting civilians. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates griped that the European-led NATO air mission lacked punch as it failed to produce the expected quick victory against Gaddafi’s supposedly weak and demoralized troops.

However the intervention of NATO warplanes in March was key to stopping Gaddafi’s counterattack against the uprising in the east of the country and laid the foundation for the rebel’s eventual advance into Tripoli.

“The key players here were the rebels but NATO played a very important role in keeping Gaddafi’s henchmen at bay,” said Stelzenmueller. “It’s beyond question that there would have been a massacre if NATO had not reacted initially very quickly. The alliance did play a great role in the attrition of Gaddafi’s forces.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated.