Monday, Oct. 31st, seven months after it started, NATO’s operation in Libya will come to an end. It is the first time NATO has ended an operation it started. And it comes on the heels of an historic victory for the people of Libya who, with NATO’s help, transformed their country from an international pariah into a nation with the potential to become a productive partner with the West.
Seven months ago, the Libyan people were under threat and attack by the armed gangs commanded by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the strongman who had brutally ruled Libya for 42 years. Within 10 days of the U.N. Security Council voting a resolution mandating the protection of Libya’s civilians, policing of a no-flight zone, and prevention of illicit arms transfers by air and sea, NATO took command of a significant force of dozens of ships and hundreds of airplanes and commenced military operations. NATO’s success was swift — saving tens of thousands of Libyan lives, grounding Qaddhafi’s air force, and watching Libya’s coast.
This was a true alliance effort. The United States played a leading role, first by taking out Libya’s integrated air defense system, then by providing the critical enablers that allowed other NATO countries and partners to shoulder their significant share of the burden. Meanwhile the U.S. provided the vast majority of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to monitor Qaddafi’s forces and equipment threatening civilians, the targeters that turned this information into targets for NATO forces to strike, and the aerial refueling that enabled our partners to stay up long enough to locate and destroy those targets.
The crucial and irreplaceable U.S. contribution to the overall effort was to enable other allies and partners to fully participate in the operation. In all, 14 NATO members and 4 partner countries provided naval and air forces for NATO’s three missions.
Together, these 18 countries bore the heaviest brunt of the alliance effort. While U.S. planes flew a quarter of all sorties over Libya, France and Britain flew one third of all missions — most of them strikes — and the remaining participants flew roughly 40 percent. The non-U.S. NATO and coalition partners flew 75 percent of the sorties overall.
Ten years earlier, in NATO’s war in Kosovo, the United States was responsible for dropping 90 percent of all precision-guided munitions, with other allies responsible for the remaining 10 percent. In this operation, the percentages were reversed: Allies struck 90 percent of the more than 6,000 targets destroyed in Libya. And they did so with a precision that is historically unprecedented.
Importantly, this was a collective effort. France and Britain played an extraordinary part in the operation, leading the pack in providing air and naval assets and striking over 40 percent of all targets. Italy, too, made an outstanding contribution. Not only was it the fourth largest contributor to the strike mission, it was an indispensable host to hundreds of aircraft at seven airbases.
Smaller allies also punched above their weight. Denmark and Norway together destroyed as many targets as Britain; Denmark, Norway, and Belgium dropped as many bombs as France. Canada, too, was part of the strikers coalition. And Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and Romania played useful parts, enforcing the no-flight zone and arms embargo at sea. Those NATO members that didn’t contribute forces still supported the operation by staffing the command structure; not one of the 28 members balked at the challenge. Even Sweden, not a NATO member, was a crucial partner, contributing its own naval and air forces.
This wasn’t just a NATO success, let alone a Western intervention. NATO acted only after it was clear that it had broad-based regional support, including from the Transitional National Council and the Arab League, which requested the intervention. Four key Arab partners — the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Morocco — participated in the effort. And it acted on the basis of a clear U.N. mandate, which authorized taking the necessary measures to protect Libyan civilians.
As Operation Unified Protector comes to a close, the alliance and its partners can look back at an extraordinary job, well done. Most of all, they can see in the gratitude of the Libyan people that the use of limited force — precisely applied — can affect real, positive political change. And as the alliance ends its operations, NATO remains committed to Libya’s future, ready to help as needed and requested.
Every operation offers lessons to be learned. The Libya operation exposed some shortfalls in allied capabilities, and highlighted the importance of allied commitments to addressing these shortfalls. It also made clear the need for like-minded partners around the world. Moreover, the operation’s success rested on a set of unique circumstances. A brutal dictator who had decided to inflict murder and mayhem rather than step aside provided a demonstrable need for outside intervention. Strong regional support, from the opposition and the Arab League, ensured that any intervention would be welcomed. And the U.N. mandate provided a sound legal basis for action.
Demonstrable need. Regional support. A sound legal basis. These are what made intervention necessary. NATO is what made successful intervention possible.
By Ivo H. Daalder, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO and Adm. James G. Stavridis, supreme allied commander, Europe, and commander of the United States European Command.