Claire Rosemberg, AFP
Last updated: 21 October, 2011

What next for NATO after Libya mission?

NATO is winding downs its mission in Libya after a seven-month campaign that saw the United States hand the helm to Europe for the first time in the history of the alliance.

Though Washington lashed the Europeans for over-reliance on US military might to stay the course of the campaign, analysts believe the Libya example will underpin a continuing NATO role on the European theatre.

The campaign placed under the NATO umbrella on March 31 “shows a decisive intervention can tip a local military balance and that you can do that without being sucked into the aftermath, as in Afghanistan”, Nick Witney, former head of the European Defence Agency and now an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

“It is a new model, a more realistic one,” he added. “A great success, a triumph to the political courage of (British Prime Minister David) Cameron and (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy.”

“The price is, we’ll never get another one of these through the United Nations in the foreseeable future. NATO exceeded the UN mandate, from save Benghazi to get Kadhafi,” he added.

NATO by its own count has conducted 26,156 flights, including 9,634 strike sorties, since taking over the mission from Paris and London on March 31 under a UN mandate to protect civilians at threat from Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.

After Kadhafi’s death Thursday and the fall of his last bastions, NATO ambassadors in Brussels were discussing how to wind up the campaign.

“I will be recommending conclusion of this mission to the North Atlantic Council of NATO in a few hours,” Admiral James Stavridis, commander of US European Command, said on Facebook.

“An extraordinary 24 hours in Libya,” he added. “A good day for NATO. A great day for the people of Libya.”

With nations involved concerned “to halt the operation in orderly fashion”, as one diplomat put it, the 28-member alliance may maintain some naval and air capacity over the next two weeks “to ensure capability for intervention should the situation require”.

In a statement hailing the end of Kadhafi’s “rule of fear”, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance would terminate the mission in coordination with the UN and Libya’s National Transitional Council.

Failing Operation Unified Protector, “there would have been thousands and thousands more killed”, said Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa of Italy, one of only eight European nations that took part in the campaign.

But only weeks into the campaign Europe’s austerity-hit armies began to feel the pinch, running out of munitions and personnel, forced to rely on US hardware — drones, refuelling planes and intelligence — decisive to the strikes.

NATO officials privately express satisfaction over the fact there was little collateral damage, thanks to extremely strict rules of engagement, and say the low-cost military operation that banned boots on the ground has been “rich in lessons”.

One of the lessons, said analyst Jan Techau, was that NATO showed in Libya that it could become a more flexible and pragmatic alliance, with nations opting out, as Germany and Poland chose to do.

“Libya is the kind of limited intervention we’ll see more of in the future,” said Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank. “The alliance has reached great flexibility and that is the future.”

“People trust NATO not to run into an adventure. It’s a legitimising instrument.”

But with Washington increasingly looking to secure its strategic interests in Asia and turning away from NATO, European nations will need to beef up military spending to keep the machine running.

“I am not sure NATO is viable,” said George Joffe of Cambridge University and an analyst at The Global Policy Institute.

“If it is not an American community, it should be European, but are the Europeans ready to effectively organize it into a reliable force?”