Libya Command Dispute Roils Allied Campaign Against Qaddafi

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Moscow, This command-and-control business is complicated, and we havent done something like this kind of on-the-fly before. Photographer: Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images

Norway and Italy said their participation in air operations over Libya depends on settling who will command the mission, as members of the coalition split over what role to assign to NATO.

The U.K. and Italy want the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to take over the leadership of military operations in Libya, a step resisted by France and other members of the alliance, including Turkey. The U.S., which is now running the missions, says it will turn over the command role in days.

“This command-and-control business is complicated, and we haven’t done something like this kind of on-the-fly before,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Moscow today. “It’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.”

The air assault on Libya, which began with French jets attacking Libyan tanks on the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Benghazi, is in its fourth day. Attacks have included at least 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. and U.K. destroyers and submarines, global positioning system-guided bombs dropped from U.S. B-2 stealth bombers flying from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II bombs dropped from AV-8B Harrier jump jets flying from the USS Kearsarge off Libya’s coast.

‘Matter of Days’

President Barack Obama, speaking in Santiago, Chile, yesterday said the U.S. would hand off its leadership role “in a matter of days, not a matter of weeks.”

Obama talked today with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and the three leaders agreed that NATO should have a “key role” in command of the air campaign, Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters traveling with Obama in South America.

The discussions about the command structure are continuing, Rhodes said, adding that the action in Libya “is not strictly a NATO operation.”

The alliance today agreed to use force to enforce the UN arms embargo against Libya and to put assets on standby to police the no-fly zone “if needed,” Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement in Brussels.

NATO’s Role

Italy has called for NATO to take over, citing concern over the “multiplying centers of command.” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said yesterday Italy will “reflect” on the use of its seven bases and may take back control of them unless NATO assumes leadership.

Sarkozy, one of the most vocal proponents of the no-fly zone, said full command by NATO risked prejudicing non-NATO Arab forces. Germany and Turkey, two major NATO members, have opposed putting the alliance in charge.

Turkey may be a key in the debate. Obama and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone yesterday and “reaffirmed their support” for the UN mandate, the U.S. said in a statement. Still, the Turkish leader was non-committal about the future support of the operation.

Erdogan said Turkey is “aware of command and control capabilities of NATO but declined to discuss what more Turkey may do on Libya,” Rhodes said.

NATO must have “an important role to play in terms of its unique capabilities in command and control,” he said.

Beyond the Alliance

The coalition arrayed against Libya includes non-NATO countries and “not every single NATO ally is going to be participating in the enforcement of the no-fly zone.”

The lack of a defined structure prompted Norway to keep its fighter planes grounded on the island of Crete until the chain of command is clear, said Eskil Grendahl Sivertsen, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense.

“We have now deployed six fighter jets, which are in Crete,” Grendahl Sivertsen said by phone. “They are ready to be put into action as soon as the command-and-control structure is in place.”

A British military spokesman said the operation is running smoothly even without certainty over the future command structure.

“Clearly there is a lot of discussion going on at NATO at the political and diplomatic level,” Major General John Lorimer told reporters in London today. “You can’t just hand over and walk out the door.”

Joint operations at the Gioia del Colle airbase, near Bari in southern Italy, are “working very well,” Lorimer said.

Optimism on Agreement

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressed optimism that NATO eventually will take overall command of the Libyan mission.

“The discussions we’ve been having with NATO indicate that will be the way forward,” Ashton told the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee in Brussels. “NATO is doing its planning now. I don’t know when that will be.”

Steve Field, a spokesman for Cameron, said coalition members are “making progress” on settling control of the operation.

NATO’s requirement for consensus among its members is a roadblock in the Libya case because at least a few members don’t support the action, said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to the alliance who is now managing director for the Center for Transatlantic Relations in Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Non-Lethal Measures

“At best, NATO will be able to agree on some non-lethal supporting measures, rather than broader measures to support the coalition effort,” Volker said in an e-mail response to questions.

Still, those steps may be useful to “lay a basis for further NATO solidarity down the road as the issue evolves.”

Gates told reporters traveling with him to Russia on March 20 that there are a couple of ways the coalition command and control could be arranged. One would involve British and French leadership, another would be “the use of the NATO machinery,” he said.

“I think we just have to work out the command and control that is most accommodating to all of the members of the coalition,” Gates said. “So the question is if there is a way we can work out NATO’s command-and-control machinery without it being a NATO mission and without a NATO flag and so on.”

Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron have declared that their political objective is to force Muammar Qaddafi from power after more than four decades. The UN March 17 Security Council resolution calls for a cease-fire and authorizes air and sea forces to protect civilians, not topple the regime.

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