NATO in Libya: why the alliance is staying

NATO ministers decide to continue the mission in Libya amid concerns that Muammar Qaddafi is still at large and the new leadership council needs continuing help with security.

Virginia Mayo/AP
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters on Thursday in Brussels. NATO has agreed to extend its mission in Libya.

The word from NATO defense ministers Thursday that the Alliance is not ready end its Libya campaign reflects a two-fold objective: It encourages the new Libyan leadership to continue moving forward in the country’s political transition, and it dashes any hopes of remaining loyalists to Muammar Qaddafi that international oversight is about to end.

“We’re seeing a balancing in NATO’s message to Libya that tells the transitional leaders there won’t be any undue meddling in their affairs, while also letting the loyalists know that [NATO] is not pulling out,” says Fred Wehrey, a Libya expert at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. “They’re trying to wean the new leaders and encourage them to walk on their own, while letting the holdouts know that nothing has changed that would encourage them to rally.”

NATO Defense ministers met in Brussels Thursday, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said afterward that a consensus formed around four conditions to be met before the mission could end:

  • An end to the armed resistance from loyalists in holdouts like Sirte, Colonel Qaddafi’s birthplace, and Bani Walid.
  • Successfully terminating the ability of remaining Qaddafi forces to attack civilians.
  • Assuring Qaddafi’s inability to command forces.
  • Certainty about the new leadership’s ability to secure the country.

The NATO ministers met even as the fugitive Qaddafi issued another audio message in which he encouraged Libyans “to go out into the squares and the streets in all the cities in their millions” to rise up against the Transitional National Council, the country’s interim government.

“How did it get its legitimacy?” Qaddafi asks of the council in the poor-quality tape. “Did the Libyan people elect them?”

NATO has extended its Libya mission several times as Qaddafi’s resistance has proven to be stronger than many anticipated. But RAND’s Mr. Wehrey says six months – the duration of the NATO mission so far – is also not a long time for an opposition to organize and assume a country’s security, especially when it is following on the heels of an authoritarian regime in power for decades.

“I’ve been a bit surprised at how long the holdouts have endured,” he says. “But you also have to remember that the new leadership is reorganizing the country politically and working to get services going again, all these things while trying to establish security. These things take time.”

The TNC had set a calendar for a political transition that would culminate in elections before mid-2012, but the transitional leaders have suspended that timetable until the military campaign against Sirte is decided.

TNC forces attempted to enter the city Thursday, but were repelled by sniper fire.

Perhaps the biggest test for the new leadership will be crafting a political transition that encompasses all of Libya’s disparate factions, including Islamists and Berbers, analysts say.

But that task is on hold in the uncertainty of the loyalists’ resistance – an uncertainty NATO is trying address with its commitment to maintaining its Libya mission.

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