USIP’s Paul Hughes, senior program officer with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, discusses the No Fly Zone and NATO mission in Libya.

March 28, 2011

USIP’s Paul Hughes, senior program officer with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, discusses the No Fly Zone and NATO mission in Libya. For more on the U.N. in Libya, read USIP expert Abi Williams' Q+A.

How significant is the decision by NATO to take over the No Fly Zone and the broader Libya mission?

The decision by NATO to assume control of all operations required to implement UNSCR 1973 brings the alliance into active tactical combat operations intended to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack. This protection mandate obligates NATO to act impartially towards the activities of both the Libyan government and rebel forces. In addition to the NFZ, the alliance will also conduct those necessary naval activities to enforce the U.N.’s arms embargo.

This decision appears to remove the United States from the role as “lead actor;” however, many technical functions for both the NFZ and the naval arms embargo operation require the active involvement of the U.S. military. Our NATO partners lack the capability or capacity to provide aerial refueling, long-range reconnaissance, command and control, combat search and rescue, and other capabilities that are unique strengths of the U.S. military. Additionally, we must remember that the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO is always an American officer (currently Admiral James Stavridis) and will be ultimately responsible for the success or failure of Operation Unified Protector.

Despite the determination of NATO to limit its operations to only support in the narrowest sense UNSCR 1973, combat operations (despite how one may define them) assume a life of their own. Both belligerents are not obligated to coordinate their operations with NATO although analysis suggests that current coalition air operations (conducted by three NATO members – the U.S., UK, and France) are actively supporting the rebels’ operations.

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The mission in the Balkans went on for 78 days. Could this mission extend for weeks or months?

Historically, every NFZ operation ended when a ground force was introduced and conducted decisive operations against its opponent. In Kosovo NATO conducted a bombing campaign in what is generally recognized as the world’s first “humanitarian war” but concrete results were not achieved until the Kosovo Liberation Army, in conjunction with Serbia’s coincidental loss of Russian support, conducted ground operations to seize, hold, and protect its people and land. The NFZs of Iraq covered by Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch ended with the 2003 ground invasion of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Kosovo was eventually settled through a negotiated settlement; Iraq was settled through regime change.

The Libyan NFZ operation will continue until a political settlement is reached and that will likely require extensive successful ground operations by either the Libyan government or the rebels in order to bring about such an outcome.

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When the President speaks tonight, what will the military be hoping to hear?

The U.S. military leadership will likely want to hear the president state the anticipated goal of the operation and the U.S. level of involvement. Stretched by the recent Iraq War and the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the military knows too well how much has been asked of it. Despite its high level of operational tempo, the military will do what is asked of it.

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