3 questions US forces must answer before declaring victory in Libya

Even as fighting in Libya continues, Pentagon officials and US commanders overseeing operations on the ground are wrestling with tough questions about the future of the campaign – and what military forces still need to do before they can consider it a victory. Here are the top three:

Washington

1.Can NATO win in Libya without troops on the ground?

Anti-Qaddafi fighters drive their vehicles outside the Khamis brigade military base, which was destroyed by a NATO air strike, some 22 miles east of Bani Walid in Libya, on Sept. 7. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

On this point, the Obama administration has been adamant: No US service member boots on the ground.

European allies in the operation – many of whom also have forces in Afghanistan – have followed suit with similar assurances to their war-weary citizens.

But some US defense analysts warn that it may be difficult to cement any victory in Libya without ground troops. The Pentagon acknowledged this week that at least four US soldiers have been sent to the capitol of Tripoli to assist a State Department team in scoping out a possible US embassy there, a site that a Defense Department spokesperson said may be booby-trapped with explosives. At the same time, Pentagon officials have emphasized that these soldiers are not taking an offensive or even defensive role in the campaign.

Yet as the consolidation of rebel power progresses, a recent Amnesty International report warns that a movement to take revenge against Qaddafi loyalists appears to be spreading. “It’s not clear how long that campaign against loyalists is going to continue,” says Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “That kind of dynamic can snowball very quickly – and can extend to some sort of civil disorder and a worsening security situation for the people who live in Tripoli.”

There is no great political will, however, for either a United Nations peacekeeping force, or for sending forces from the African Union, but Dr. Bensahel says. “Without some sort of troops on the ground, the risks go up that this will not be a quick or easy transition.”

For now, the US military is most interested in securing munitions, explosives, and chemicals that could be used by terrorists to create havoc – or by criminals for material gain. While such chemicals are “not easily weaponized,” General Carter Ham, the head of US Africa Command says that the security of such material and munitions remains of “great concern.”

In the meantime, Ham says there may be more US troops sent to Tripoli to support State Department operations there, but “certainly not in any operational role.”

Will terrorists take advantage of power vacuum in Libya?

An anti-Qaddafi fighter puts up a rebel flag as they prepare to advance on the Libyan besieged town of Bani Walid after clashing with Qaddafi's gunmen on the outskirts of the city on Sept. 8. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

Defense Department officials have made no secret of their concern that Libya could become a safe-haven for terrorists – if groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb chose to move in and set up shop. That’s because, as long as they are preoccupied with fighting, the transitional rebel authority is not focusing on securing their borders, officials point out. As a result, adds a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “We’re concerned that they could take advantage of the situation there.”

Indeed, Al Qaeda has publicly expressed interest in doing just that. “I think it’s safe to say that it is one of their goals – to try to set up some sort of footprint and network internally [in Libya] to plan for the long haul,” says the official. “We’re concerned about it.”

On the bright side, the Libyan rebel authorities appear, for now, to be stiff-arming terrorist groups. “It certainly seems that they’ve gone to great lengths to disassociate themselves from any ties to terrorists,” the official adds. “Right now they know to play it safe.”

That said, Ham adds that the US military continues to carefully monitor the transition authority. “Do they really implement an effective reconciliation process? Do they control the violence,” he says. “The words are right. The challenge now will be, do the actions match the words?”

Will the military target Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi if he doesn’t surrender soon?

Anti-Qaddafi fighters drive back from the frontline in Bani Walid, Libya, on Sept. 12. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

Mr. Qaddafi certainly hasn’t relinquished power, and remains in control of some loyalist troops, though these forces continue to dwindle to a “significantly smaller number of regime loyalists,” General Ham says.

Despite some debate about whether this fact makes him a legitimate military target, the US military has no intention of trying to deliberately kill him, Ham stresses. “It seems to me that his ability to influence day-to-day activities has largely been eliminated. Probably not completely eliminated – but pretty significantly.”

But troops have no intention of sparing his life on purpose if he happens to be near a facility that US or NATO forces were planning to strike. “If we had some indication that [Qaddafi] was present at this facility, it wouldn’t have a significant impact on our decision to strike or not strike,” Ham says.

What’s more, there are opportunity costs to waging a military manhunt, Ham adds, even as Qaddafi remains at large. “My sense as a military guy is that the level of resources necessary to find and focus ... and try to target him would be considerable,” he says. “To look for an individual is a really complicated business and it would detract very significantly from the other military requirements that we are trying to meet.”