Global General

Endgame unknown for US mission in Libya: experts

Updated: 2011-03-29 14:06
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WASHINGTON - As US forces enter their second week of providing air support for Libyan rebels, the US endgame in the embattled North African nation remains vague, experts said.

Indeed, how the mission will end remains unknowable at this stage, experts said, and critics fault US President Barack Obama for not providing an outline of what comes next.

Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) panel in Washington Monday, Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, surmised that the current mission could result in three possible outcomes: Rebels could maintain their momentum and ultimately march on Tripoli, Libya's capital; a stalemate could ensue; or Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi could come out the winner.

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The latter scenario, however, was the least likely, he said, which means the United States will have to start preparing for other possibilities.

If a stalemate occurs, "then the question becomes how much do we want to escalate," he said.

The US mission in Libya comes on the heels of reports that Gaddafi was launching attacks against civilian protestors, and is aimed at enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which calls on Gaddafi to withdraw his forces from towns held by rebels. The resolution also calls for the establishment of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Gaddafi's attacks.

The no-fly mission takes place while unrest sweeps through the Arab world, toppling governments in Tunisia and Egypt along the way. Turmoil in Libya erupted not long after Egyptians clogged Cairo's Tahrir Square and ended the decades-long rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Recent days have seen Libyan rebels advance. With the help of international air strikes, rebel fighters took two key port towns and re-gained ground that had been previously lost to Gaddafi's army.

Some analysts, however, argued that the United States has left a number of blanks where the answers should already have been filled in.

In addition to the UN resolution, Obama has also called for an end to the government of Gaddafi, but simply imposing a no-fly zone may not bring about that outcome, some experts said.

Indeed, critics blasted the Obama administration for what they say has been an ad-hoc plan for the war ravaged the North African country. While the de facto goal is to get rid of Gaddafi, Obama has emphasized that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed.

Others noted the US president has thus far failed to outline a course of action to deal with the power vacuum that would be left if Gaddafi were ousted or stepped down.

"Maybe it would be a good thing to get a UN resolution established that when Gaddafi departs there will be a national referendum in Libya to determine some of the basic issues of how they are going to be governed,"  said former US Deputy Secretary of Defense and AEI scholar Paul Wolfowitz at the panel.

It also remains unknown what role Washington will play in the region as a whole, as turmoil continues to spread throughout the Arab world and Obama has not laid out any comprehensive strategy, panel experts noted.

Critics also blame the White House for focusing too narrowly on Libya, a relatively minor player in Arab world geopolitics and one that does not represent a core US interest.

Other observers question what criteria the Obama administration is using to determine when to intervene militarily in foreign nations.