NATO commander: It is 'premature' to talk of Libya exit strategy

On the eve of the transfer of Libya command from the US to NATO, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis faced tough questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Miguel Angel Alvarez / Notimex / Newscom / File
Adm. James G. Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander, shown here in a 2009 file photo, testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. mission in Libya.

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the military alliance will take over full operations of the current campaign there, including the protection of civilians, in the next 48 hours.

On Capitol Hill, Admiral Stavridis faced tough questions about whether NATO allies are sufficiently united in their interpretation of the goals of the mission upon which they have embarked – and whether the United States has an exit strategy in Libya.

"Events at this point are so fluid," said Stavridis, that any talk of exit strategy is "frankly premature."

Senators probed the NATO commander about the possible presence of Al Qaeda elements within Libyan rebel ranks.

Some “flickers” of intelligence indicate there may be Libyan opposition members with Al Qaeda or Hezbollah affiliations, Stavridis told senators, but he doesn’t have sufficient intelligence to say whether or not Al Qaeda has a "significant" presence. This lack of clear intelligence on the Libyan opposition has been a common theme throughout testimony and in briefings from senior US military commanders. Nonetheless, Stavridis said, he sees evidence that rebel leaders are “responsible men and women” struggling to oust the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

Because the United Nations Security Council mandate does not include the ouster of Qaddafi from power, the war is expected to remain largely an air- and submarine-launched missile campaign. No NATO allies have committed to ground troops in Libya, nor were they mentioned during NATO discussions surrounding the run-up to the implementation of the no-fly zone, Stavridis told the committee.

He was pressed, too, on why Arab states in the region are not participating more significantly in enforcing the no-fly zone. “I think it’s a legitimate question,” Stavridis said. In the days to come, NATO will continue to “aggressively pursue” participation from Arab states, he said.

The more coalition partners, the less the cost to American taxpayers, senators pointed out during testimony. The United States has fired approximately 200 Tomahawk missiles at the cost of roughly $1.5 million each, Stavridis estimated. “That’s some real numbers,” said Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, adding that the government is “wrestling with cutting billions, and we’re dropping billions” in Libya.

Stavridis estimated that operations over the next several months will cost "in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Senators also pressed the NATO commander on how he would ultimately define success in Libya. “The military mission has some clear metrics," Stavridis said, including “Is the population safe?” and “Are civilians under attack?” For the no-fly zone, “the metrics are obvious. It’s no flying” of any Libyan military aircraft, he added.

But what happens next remains uncertain, Stavridis said, and the days and weeks ahead will likely be "extremely challenging” if there are continued clashes between Libyan and rebel forces, and if any civilians are injured in the process.

It remains to be seen, too, whether Qaddafi will ultimately step down.

On that point, Stavridis said he had no predictions. "It’s hard to say,” he told the committee. “I think as more and more pressure is applied,” as NATO member nations “squeeze the economy” in the form of economic sanctions, “I believe that [Qaddafi’s] support base will shrink and the tribal aspects of Libya will come into play in a way that will hopefully achieve … the departure of Qaddafi.”

Not all embattled leaders handle their struggle the same way, he said. “Sometimes they stay and they fight and they die. Sometimes they crack and they give up and leave the country.”

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