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:

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

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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.

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.”

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