The mantra, from President Obama on down, is that ground forces are totally ruled out for Libya. After all, the United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing the war explicitly rules out any “occupation” forces. But leave it to the top military officer of NATO, which takes over the war on Wednesday, to add an asterisk to that ban.
During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island asked Adm. James Stavridis about NATO putting forces into “post-Gadhafi” Libya to make sure the country doesn’t fall apart. Stavridis said he “wouldn’t say NATO’s considering it yet.” But because of NATO’s history of putting peacekeepers in the Balkans — as pictured above — “the possibility of a stabilization regime exists.”
So welcome to a new possible “endgame” for Libya. Western troops patrolling Libya’s cities during a a shaky transition after Moammar Gadhafi’s regime has fallen, however that’s supposed to happen. Thousands of NATO troops patrolled Bosnia and Kosovo’s tense streets for years. And Iraq and Afghanistan taught the U.S. and NATO very dearly that fierce insurgent conflict can follow the end of a brutal regime. In fact, it’s the moments after the regime falls that can be the most dangerous of all — especially if well-intentioned foreign troops become an object of local resentment.
In fact, Stavridis told Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma that he saw “flickers of intelligence” indicating “al-Qaeda [and] Hezbollah” have fighters amongst the Libyan rebels. The Supreme Allied Commander of NATO noted that the leadership of the rebels are “responsible men and women struggling against Col. Gadhafi” and couldn’t say if the terrorist element in the opposition is “significant.” But the U.S. knows precious little about who the Libyan rebels are.
The new prospect of NATO force on the ground in Libya seemed to alarm Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who got Stavridis to say that there’s “no discussion of the insertion of ground troops” in NATO circles. (And “to my knowledge” there aren’t troops there now, he said.) But Stavridis told Reed that the memory of the long NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans is “in everyone’s mind.”
President Obama boasted about the rapidity with which the U.S. and its allies got involved in Libya. Some defense wonks, like Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, criticized Obama’s team for not exhibiting diligent planning before Operation Odyssey Dawn began. Obama didn’t signal an endgame in his Monday speech, just vowing not to use any ground forces to get there.
That was exactly what President Clinton promised in Bosnia — right before sending 20,000 U.S. soldiers to enforce the 1995 Balkans peace deal. Because of the U.S.’ commitments to NATO and NATO’s commitments to enforcing the peace accord, U.S. peacekeepers ended up staying there for a decade. That history may be weighing on officers in Europe, but the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be so troubled.
Update, 12:08 p.m.: Stavridis argued that it’s “premature” to talk about an exit strategy for Libya. And as a way of underscoring NATO’s resolve, he reminded senators that nearly 12 years after NATO’s Kosovo air war, there are still 5000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, including 700 Americans.
Update, 12:33 p.m.: Got a question about the difference between Stavridis’ two jobs — chief of U.S. European Command and NATO military leader — as it applies to Libya? Check out a blog post Stavridis wrote about it on Monday.
Update, 2:25 p.m.: I asked Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, about sending ground troops during a post-Gadhafi phase. Any such “international peacekeeping force” would have to occur “through the United Nations, as well as the structures we’re setting up in NATO,” and would require an “assessment of what the security needs are in post-Gadhafi Libya,” he said. But as for a U.S. contribution, “I would rule it out for the time being. … the U.S. has no plans, we’re not doing any planning to have any boots on the ground in any fashion.”
Photo: National Guard