The debate over whether NATO's mission in Libya was a clear success for the much-maligned alliance, whether it covered up its failings and whether it exceeded its UN mandate in favor of regime change has already begun.
Libya is grateful to NATO but did the alliance cross the line?
Although it is now finally free of its now-deceased dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya still has a long way to go to recover from the nearly nine months of civil war which tore the country apart and destroyed much of its infrastructure. However, the end of NATO's mission to protect the Libyan people is much closer.
After the fall of Tripoli in August and with the focus of the ground war turning to the final bastions of regime resistance in Sirte and Bani Walid in the past month, NATO had already started winding down its air campaign against Gadhafi forces over the past few weeks. The strike on the Libyan leader's convoy, shortly before Gadhafi was cornered by forces loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC) and killed, looks to have been the last major assault by alliance jets.
A day after Gadhafi's death, NATO officials met to consider a recommendation from its commanders to end Operation Unified Protector at a special meeting in its Brussels headquarters on Friday. After considering the state of security in the country and the continuing safety of the civilian population, NATO announced that it would end the alliance's seven-month mission in Libya at the end of the month.
"We agreed that our operations are very close to completion and we have taken a preliminary decision to end Operation Unified Protector on October 31," said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen following the talks. "I'm very proud of what we have achieved, together with our partners, including many from the region," he said.
NATO would continue to monitor the situation, he added, and would maintain the capacity to respond to threats to civilians while also consulting with the NTC and United Nations.
The debate will then begin over the legacy of the NATO intervention. It is said that history belongs to the victor and the fact that Libya is now free of a despotic dictator and on the tentative path to democracy can be greatly attributed to the intervention of NATO and its Arab allies. To call the Libya mission a success while the faces of happily tearful and smiling Libyans swamp the media is easy. Whether a deeper examination produces the same conclusion remains to be seen.
US Vice President Joe Biden is one of those who is firmly in the "absolved" camp - those who pushed for action despite concerns at home and abroad. "NATO got it right," he said in the hours after the confirmation of Gadhafi's death. President Barack Obama added that NATO's success "demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."
"It was clearly a success in a sense that NATO - once again, and unlike other institutions - proved to be able to act if needed," Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp, the director of the research division at the NATO Defense College in Rome, told Deutsche Welle.
"At the same time though it has to be clear that this was not the victory of NATO but of the Libyan people," he added. "NATO assisted according to its mandate but Libyans liberated their own country."
Speed, focus and unity
That NATO managed to mobilize not only its own forces but those of Arab states like Qatar, Jordan and the UAE in such a short amount of time was a feat in itself.
France and Britain took the lead in gaining UN approval
The United Nations was told in early March that time was running out for the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and that a slaughter would occur there if there was not an international intervention. Within days of the British and French plan transforming into UN resolution 1973 on March 31, NATO was providing air and sea cover for rebel forces under the mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
Some 26,000 air sorties later and Libya was free; a figure that supports a strategic view that concerted air power can still be more effective than the deployment of large ground forces and lengthy occupations.
With NATO constantly having to poke various alliance members with sticks to get them to contribute troops, the Libya mission hinted at a new approach; one which could be based on quick planning, a small footprint and limited duration engagements. NATO showed it could provide a ready-made coalition capable of conducting a far-reaching, expeditionary operation without the need of coercing its members into contributing large ground forces.
In truth, as a public relations exercise, NATO couldn't have hoped for a better opportunity to shore up its wobbly reputation than the civil war in Libya. Its proximity to European air bases in Italy, Sicily and Cyprus made it possible to sustain the air campaign with relative ease once it was up and running. The concentration of Libyan cities on the coast also made it easier for its warships to engage from the Mediterranean.
Libya's location also provided NATO's European members - often those who are accused of not pulling their weight - to take a perceived lead and prove their worth to the alliance (when in truth, more than a quarter of all the air missions involved US planes and all the unmanned surveillance drones used were American). In addition to all this, at the time of Gadhafi's death, no NATO personnel had been killed in the duration of the mission.
"NATO set out to keep civilian casualties to a minimum and you could say that they did that, as well as completing the mission with no casualties of their own so you could say that this was a success," Daniel Keohane, a security and defense expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), told Deutsche Welle.
"There were tensions over the war aims, with some grumbling over how clearly Sarkozy and Cameron had sided with the rebels in the civil war, but as this has been declared a victory for the rebels, then the NATO leadership could claim to have had a hand in a successful outcome."
Dr. Kamp believes that the Libya mission has strengthened NATO's reputation for a number of reasons. "Firstly, NATO did not act without the support of international and regional institutions such as the UN and African Union," he said.
"Secondly, we had partners from the region and thirdly, it was not an occupation to assure access to energy but the support of the legitimate struggle of a Muslim population against bad governance."
However, not everyone believes that NATO has come out of the Libya exercise bathed in glory.
Cracks papered over
The US picked up the slack from less committed members
Despite admiration for countries like Denmark and Norway which were perceived to have gone beyond the call of duty, the view among many in the United States is that NATO has come out of the operation looking weaker, not stronger, and that the US once again had to pick up the slack from other NATO members which held back and those, like Germany and Poland, who played no part at all.
"It became obvious that NATO Europe is still not able to act autonomously without US military support - even if Libya was a comparably 'easy' target," said Kamp. "On the other hand, it needs to be assessed whether 'leading from behind' is the new role for the US in future operations and what 'from behind' means."
Far from being a welcome exercise in unity, the Libya mission once more exposed the alliance's regular shortcomings; uneven participation, inadequate supplies, communication breakdowns and counter-productive duplication of tasks in areas such as intelligence gathering.
Even in the warm glow of victory, NATO's leaders are at odds over what - if any - involvement there should be in the coming months as the NTC struggles to unite Libya's militias and form a government.
Some believe that, while they didn't necessarily break it, they do have a certain responsibility to help fix it. Others say the job is done and everyone should pull out and leave the Libyans to determine their own future.
"There were fewer robust contributions from those involved in Libya and there were some countries which stayed out of it all together so this raises big questions about NATO unity," Keohane said. "This was still a small operation in relation to the Kosovo mission – about three times as many sorties were flown there – and yet there were still divisions over contributions."
"There were also problems in regard to capabilities," he added. "France and Britain were nearing the end of their military limits so for this reason alone, they will be glad it's all over. But there could still be very big problems for NATO in future operations."
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