Q&A: Next Steps For NATO In Libya

A map of the locations of coalition forces in the Libya conflict.

Coalition Forces

The allied bombing campaign launched last Saturday in Libya has been led by U.S. forces, with significant support coming from the British and the French, along with several other partners.

But now it appears NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is an alliance between the U.S., Canada and 26 European nations — will be in charge.

"We have agreed, along with our NATO allies, to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.

NATO won't take control of the entire mission immediately. A complete transition is expected to take several days.

"Until NATO takes over the entire mission, you're also going to see U.S. warplanes – F-15s and F-16s – also taking part in this," NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman said on Morning Edition Friday.

But the decision to put NATO in charge may be a boon politically to the Obama administration, which has not wanted to be seen as acting unilaterally.

To understand what this change in leadership means, NPR spoke with Stephen Flanagan, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is a Washington-based think tank. Flanagan previously held senior positions both on the National Security Council and at the State Department.

How did this change in leadership come about?

Flanagan: It appears that an agreement was brokered late yesterday. They are basically saying that NATO has agreed to take over command and control of the entire operation.

On Tuesday, there was an agreement that NATO would oversee the arms embargo. Then there was the issue of taking over the no-fly zone last night. There will be a few days of implementation of that.

But it looks like there was an agreement that NATO would take over other areas, including protection of civilians and civilian areas. That was surprising because the Turks were anxious about that issue. I suspect the Turks will push to say you can only target people going after civilians directly.

Will NATO be able to coordinate all the countries involved?

Utilizing NATO command-and-control arrangements makes eminent sense. The NATO command structure has a proven track record in organizing such complex multinational operations.

This will be NATO-led mission with consultation of all partners. Qatar and the Omanis have already put forces forward. I don't see any reason why NATO, as it has with Afghanistan, can't fold partners into its planning.

Why does this change matter?

I think it matters in terms of operational coherence. There was definitely some coordination already. Everything I hear is that the U.S., French and British militaries have been working hand-in-glove and there's been a great deal of comfort in having U.S. commanders in the lead.

But this will provide some coherence. They'll share data on what they're all finding.

The other thing is that there is now multinational political oversight. The Turks and the Germans, who have been anxious about doing this, can say now that they have some political oversight, that this is not a rogue operation.

Does this help the Obama administration?

It helps because it grants the mission greater legitimacy. It's a coherent and effective organization, NATO, taking control of this. While the U.S. will still be a major part of this, it doesn't have the Made in the U.S.A. face on this.

It seems like a few days ago, there was concern that making this a NATO operation would make it seem like a Western war against a Muslim state.

That's still a concern, but there's the question of whether you can give this a broader veneer of support. A lot of these countries, including the Arab countries, recognize that NATO has a record, as well as the ability to draw on the unique capabilities of the United States. There's some political check on exercise of this power, the U.S. military power.

I think this provides a helpful framework that can be reassuring. It shows we're not acting alone; it's not the U.S. trying to save every country. We're not doing this alone, this is not open ended. We're working with the international community to develop a plan to transition to a broader coalition of countries.

There have been reports that British ground troops are operating in Libya. Do you expect to see ground troops used by the coalition?

The one thing you don't have is forward air controllers. Certainly a number of the militaries have special forces, or special-force-like units, that can be inserted into the territory. Obviously, it could be a little bit risky. But given that we don't have an organized military force that we are supporting, you might want some forces on the ground to get the precision military striking that all these countries want.

What happens next? How long do you expect this operation to last?

The way the whole operation now is set up, it has to result in capitulation of the [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi regime. The notion is that with just enough pressure this ragtag group will somehow be able to maintain control of the east, but I think it's going to be difficult to have an overt equipping of these forces in Libya.

If the bombing campaign goes on for another week or so and there's not a real diminution of Libyan attacks, people are going to begin to say how much of our national military treasure are we going to spend here.

There will be pressure to have some kind of result.

Exactly. [French Foreign Minister Alain] Juppe is saying it might take weeks. I think they're hoping that Gadhafi will be looking for an exit strategy.



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