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Can Libya really be a 'model' for future US military action?

NATO's Libya campaign has been hailed as a model because it spread the financial and military burden and had limited aims. But some aspects of the Libya operation may be unique.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 21, 2011

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addresses personnel at the Sigonella Naval Air Station and NATO regional operations center in Sigonella, Italy, earlier this month. Panetta met with pilots and other personnel who have been in involved with operations over Libya.

Win McNamee/AP/File



US officials are heralding the NATO operation that hastened the demise of ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi, as well as the triumph of rebel forces, as “the model” for US military operations in the years to come.

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“The NATO alliance worked like it was designed to do – burden-sharing. In total, it cost us $2 billion, no American lives lost. We carried the burden a lot of other places where NATO is – the primary burden like in Afghanistan – and this was really burden-sharing,” Vice President Joe Biden told CNN. “That’s the model.”

The key for the Pentagon in an era of budget cuts and fewer troops, in other words, is likely to be low-cost operations combined with increasingly robust partnerships.

In this model, too, US military officials emphasized the limited nature of the intervention – to the point where US commanders said the operation could be considered complete well before Mr. Qaddafi was found or killed.

“The fact that he is still at large someplace is really more a matter for the Libyans than it is for anybody else,” Gen. Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command, told reporters in early October.

Indeed, in contrast to the US venture in Afghanistan, which at times included women's rights and a robust democracy in its aims, the Libyan mission outlined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was comprised of four highly specific goals:

  • Putting an end to Qaddafi’s nationwide command and control capability.
  • Ending the Qaddafi regime’s ability to attack its citizens.
  • Defeating loyalist militias in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
  • Ensuring that rebel forces will be able to keep the nation and its citizens secure.

It is that last point that may require some work in the months to come, US defense officials acknowledge. This could include Libyan security-force training, likely from a combination of forces provided by the international community.

“They do need to take additional steps to make sure that in the long term they can cover the country and maintain security,” said a senior US defense official.

This will not necessarily be part of the NATO mission. “There is the view in some quarters that NATO helped break [Libya] and now NATO owns it," says Stephen Flanagan, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don’t think that’s the view within the alliance, though there may be a view for NATO to help transform aspects of their security sector.”


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