With the capture of Muammer Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound, it is apparent that his forces are melting away. Barring a dramatic turn of events, Nato’s operation against the Libyan regime will soon draw to a close. There are still many questions unanswered about the situation on the ground – not least whether the rebels can form a unified and stable government. The moment has come, however, when Nato members must start contemplating the lessons of this mission.
On some counts, they have been successful. Nato is close to achieving its goal of overwhelming Col Gaddafi without incurring many civilian casualties. It has done so without flagrantly breaching the UN resolution that confined military action to protecting civilians. But there are two big worries about the way Nato has operated – and these must be addressed.
The first regards the role of the US. At the start of this operation, Washington gave significant military backing in helping to destroy Libyan military assets. But it quickly shifted to offering more limited support. In part, this was because the Obama administration did not wish to embroil the US in another Middle Eastern war. But Washington’s action demonstrates how it wants European states to bear more of the security burden in their own back yard. The US – faced by huge fiscal pressures and the growing security challenge from China – will understandably not fund and lead every Nato operation as it once did.
The second lesson is that once the US sat back, the Europeans struggled to maintain the mission on their own. As a result, it was seriously under-resourced. Some powers – Germany and Poland – refused to participate. Others were willing but not capable. As Robert Gates said in his last speech as US defence secretary in June, Nato’s air operations centre was designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day. It struggled to launch 150. Eleven weeks into the operation, many European allies ran short of munitions, requiring the US to make up the difference.
European members of Nato must now ponder how they can better co-ordinate their defence procurement policies, where there has long been excessive duplication. They must ponder, too, how far they can responsibly go on cutting defence budgets. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary general, wants next summer’s alliance summit to forge new agreements for pooling and sharing national defence assets. The Libyan conflict has demonstrated why Europe must urgently heed this challenge.
Get alerts on Nato when a new story is published