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Friday, Aug 26, 2011, 4:11 pm

Is Western Involvement in Libya Coming to an End, or Just Beginning?

By David Szydloski

As the Transitional National Authority (TNC) hunts down Muammar Ghaddafi, NATO and its member states have not provided concrete guidelines for when their mission there will end. But how much of this uncertainty can be blamed on the fog of war and how much on the desire of western states to develop the new Libya in their own image?

The word from Brussels is mixed. Denials of extended involvement are coupled with vague mission descriptions:

[Col. Roland Lavoie, NATO spokesman] pledged on Tuesday that since Gadhafi’s forces “give no sign to stop terrifying the population,” the air war will continue. “Pieces of artillery, radar sites” and other targets in and around Tripoli will still be targeted, Lavoie said, even waving away the non-capture of Gadhafi by saying, “I’m not sure it really does matter.” Left unsaid was when NATO’s war in Libya can actually end, even if Gadhafi’s rule is well and truly finished.

U.S. officials have made similarly murky statements. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has promised that NATO will continue to “protect civilians under the mandate of U.N. Security Counsel Resolution 1973 for as long as that protection is needed.” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has emphatically denied that there will be any American troops on the ground in a post-Ghaddafi Libya, while also indicating that there will be western involvement with the structuring of the new Libyan government. Hopefully, a clearer picture will emerge after the next round of NATO consultations to discuss the future of Operation Unified Protector.

In the meantime, the people of Libya and the Transitional National Counsel (TNC) will have little room for error in dealing with its near-term problems. The late July killing of Abdel Fatah Younis, a high-profile Ghaddafi aide who defected to the rebels, raised many concerns in the international community about how Ghaddafi’s supporters will be dealt with, lest NATO be seen as supporting the mass killings of old regime officials.

Another issue is if and how the TNC will integrate the various rebel groups, particularly Berber tribes, in a united front. There is also the potential looming security problem posed by the unchecked proliferation of weapons from raided Libyan Army bases and Ghaddafi’s own extensive stockpiles.

One expert on the ground commented that, “if Gadhafi loyalists decide to mount an Iraqi-style insurgency, they have access to a thousand times the explosives that the insurgents in Iraq had.” Any missteps by the TNC will likely be used to justify more international involvement in the country.

Western countries, including the United States, now exert a greater influence over Libyan policy than ever before, which could damage the long-term success of a democratic Libya and further reinforce the regional image of the United States as the master manipulator of Middle Eastern politics.

Thus, it is disconcerting to see the Obama administration's satisfaction with its approach to Libya. Marwan Bishara, Al-Jazeera’s chief political analyst, probably offers the best antidote to western hubris:

First and foremost Western leaders need to wipe that smug look from their faces and make sure not to gloat about doing the Arabs any favors.

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