September 13, 2012

U.S. officials: Lengthy stay, additional U.S. forces possible in Libya

The Pottery Barn rule may apply to Libya after all. 

U.S. defense officials on Wednesday told the E-Ring that the rapid reaction teams of roughly 50 Marines sent to Libya within hours of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi could be the beginning of a much longer-term presence. 

One senior military official said those forces could be there for "as long as needed -- days, weeks, even months," and may indeed be a precursor to an even larger U.S. military presence to come. 

"The Department of Defense is ready to respond with additional military measures, as directed by the president," said a senior administration official, speaking to reporters on a conference call later Wednesday.

But already one thing is clear: the White House decision to send additional Marines to Libya within hours of the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens highlights President Obama's decision last year not to send ground troops in the first place, before or after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime.

"In some sense, what you're seeing today is the consequence of that decision," said Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  

Colin Powell's famous warning before the U.S. invaded Iraq dictated -- "you break it, you own it" -- was his prediction that if the U.S. toppled a country's government, it was responsible for providing security at the very least to the population in the conflict's aftermath.

In Libya, however, the Obama administration took great caution to avoid the Pottery Barn rule. Through NATO-led air operations wholly dependent on U.S. intelligence and drone capabilities the U.S. did not send ground troops. Instead, allied forces found and toppled al-Qaddafi from the skies above. 

Unlike in Iraq, when the regime fell there were no American G.I.‘s on the ground to whom went the responsibility of patrolling street corners, manning security checkpoints and enforcing nighttime curfews. In short, there were no U.S. troops for pro-al-Qaddafi insurgents or anti-Western terrorists to kill. 

That legacy figures at varying degrees into the administration's reticence to involve the U.S. military in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, or other pro-democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa region.

In Libya, at least, that could change.

"We're working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats," Obama said, in a Rose Garden statement. "I've also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world.  And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people."

"The goal," explained a U.S. defense official, "is to short up security around our installations." That is the role of the Marine Corps' Fast Anti-Terrorism Reaction Teams, or FAST teams, at least initially.

Sending the Marines now is the right decision for immediate force protection, Bensahel argued, but it doesn't necessary mean the administration was wrong to keep ground troops out of Libya until now. The groups conducting or provoking violence in Libya, she said, are relatively small. 

"It's very very difficult to say how could you prevent this from happening. I think the unfortunate truth of what happened yesterday... is some amount of these attacks are going to be inevitable."

Bensahel argued it would require foreign troops across the entire country to ensure there was no unwatched space for them to exist, or hide in between attacks on embassies or other sites. "We would have had to deploy tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops throughout the country to do that successfully," she claimed. 

Even if the U.S. left smaller troop numbers just to protect key buildings, cities or regions, they would be left at risk of likely attacks.

"You were looking at either a very large ground commitment or you accept some amount of risk," she said, neither of which is good. Either way, despite the week's events, it's too early to know if Obama was right. 

"It may yet turn out to be the right strategic call, we just don't know yet."

More than U.S. troops, what many feel Libya needs is its own capable security forces.

"Eventually what is really needed is Libyan security institutions, a strong Libyan police force and Libya army," said Laura Dean, who was in Libya in July as an elections observer for the Carter Center. 

Dean was in the much calmer west, near the Tunisia border, and Tripoli.  The level of competence of security forces or militias depends on where you are, she said. 
"Each militia has its own character, and where I was they were quite trusted, doing the day-to-day [security], patrolling the toll road."

So, security was not a countrywide problem. 

"With few exceptions, we didn't feel there was a danger," she said of the West. "There was much more palpable tension in Benghazi." There, polling stations were torched around the time of the elections. 

But Dean said she was so encouraged just two months ago from meeting so many Libyan people working toward the elections and democracy that the news of the consulate attack hit hard.

"Very surprised... I think because when I was there there were foreigners that were detained, but not -- the fact that it was so sudden and they were killed so violently, yes it was incredibly shocking and upsetting."