NATO officials say they are close to ending their nearly seven-month-long bombing campaign in Libya, designed to prevent forces loyal to former leader Moammar Gadhafi from attacking civilians. The operation made it possible for the Libyan NTC fighters to take control of the country, but it also revealed some significant military and political challenges for the alliance.
NATO aircraft flew 26,000 missions over Libya, including 9,600 bombing runs. Alliance ships have evacuated civilians and enforced a blockade on military equipment bound for the pro-Gadhafi forces.
The operation has had some problems, but it has been an effective effort launched on short notice. The top NATO military commander, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, is pleased with that.
"I'd say the first lesson learned from Libya is that NATO works, that we can quickly with real alacrity and real strategic effect marshal force and bring it to bear in support, in this case, of United Nations Security Council resolutions," said Stavridis.
But Stavridis also acknowledges that the Libya operation revealed some shortcomings.
"Top of my list is targeting, the ability to fuse intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and produce coherent, precision targeting that does not cause collateral damage. We did a reasonable job on that but I think we could do better," added Stavridis.
Libya also revealed some political gaps in the NATO alliance. While all 28 member nations endorsed the operation, only eight participated.
And for Nick Witney, former head of the European Union's defense agency, that is disturbing.
"Few of the allies were actually prepared to participate in what, at least in opening phases, the saving of Benghazi, was surely one of the simplest geostrategic, moral, political decisions that one would have to take about whether to join an intervention or not," said Witney.
Witney's colleague at the European Council on Foreign Relations, former British defense official Daniel Korski, says that poses a very fundamental question about the future of the NATO alliance.
"What is NATO? Is it an alliance where we all fight together against common threats? Or is it an alliance where smaller mini-coalitions within the alliance are able to do whatever they want while people stand back," Korski asked.
But while Admiral Stavridis is eager for the alliance to close its capability gaps, he is not worried about its political unity.
"I don't think there was an existential threat posed by Libya, but in fact, the alliance stepped up, undertook this. I think that's a good example of the alliance being willing to take on missions that are beyond existential," Stavridis noted. "I think NATO has a role to play in the world, kind of a role for good, and I think we'll continue to do that."
The admiral is optimistic even though Europe's economic crisis is making it harder to fund defense spending to close the capability gaps, and people in many countries are reluctant to support foreign military operations after years of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya.