WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Washington rushes to put NATO in charge of the campaign in Libya, the U.S. military is bracing itself to work within a cumbersome command structure bound by a host of limits imposed by a fractious coalition.
Officials are looking to transfer U.S. control of the U.N.-authorized campaign to NATO by as early as next week, but many in the Pentagon are wary, remembering sometimes-fraught coalition operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Divisions over how to curb Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s efforts to crush a rebel uprising were evident on Wednesday when diplomats said NATO failed to agree on taking over command of the mission that began last week.
One U.S. military official said discussions among members of the coalition — Western countries with support from a few Arab nations — centered on the possible nature of NATO’s command structure and on the limits nations would place on their own military role.
Those limits will be based in part on differing interpretations of how much force last week’s U.N. Security Council resolution actually authorized.
“We are looking at who can accomplish what and who can contribute what, and that will be based in part on caveats (restrictions) and their resources,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Analysts say the Pentagon, which was reluctant to get involved in Libya in the first place, is anxious for a quick exit from its leadership role so it can focus on Afghanistan, where it expects heavy spring fighting.
But there was also widespread skepticism about how smoothly a transition to NATO control will go.
“Whenever we’ve tried to do this before it hasn’t been easy, and Afghanistan is a live example,” said Brian Katulis, a security expert at the Center for American Progress.
“This is going to be one of the biggest test cases of what some people call the ‘Obama doctrine’ — getting other countries to pull their weight and take a lead,” he said.
In Afghanistan, U.S. commanders of the 48-nation force battling the Taliban have grappled at times with restrictions member nations placed on their soldiers’ use of force or the size of the force that countries have deployed.
Political divisions have festered over how long Western states are prepared to stay in Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates this month warned NATO against exiting too early from the campaign.
Such tensions were also visible in NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, where alliance solidarity was strained by debates over targets and where NATO’s supreme commander, U.S. General Wesley Clark, ordered strikes resulting in civilian deaths.
The Pentagon is hoping, once NATO leadership can be agreed, that the new commander of the Libya campaign will not be an American, the U.S. official said.
It also wants to abstain from ground strikes once Gaddafi’s military power is decisively weakened, he said, although U.S. officials expect they will still have a leading role in surveillance, jamming Libyan communications and refueling.
Even if the U.S. combat role were reduced, “it is hard to imagine even the relatively sophisticated militaries of the United Kingdom and France continuing to enforce a no-fly zone without U.S. support,” said Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army officer now a fellow at the Center for New American Security.
While the nature of future coalition leadership in Libya remains unclear, it is clear it will be complicated.
One European official said that, under one NATO leadership structure being considered, tactical decisions would be made by commanders rather than committees but that member countries might be able to limit their role according to political concerns or other sensitivities.
Non-NATO countries could also take part but they would fall under the NATO command, the European official said on condition of anonymity.
Mark Quarterman, a conflict expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said some nations might put significant limits on their military role as they face financial pressures and as they differ with one another on the campaign’s ultimate goal.
U.S. officials have made clear Gaddafi’s ouster would be welcome even if it is not the explicit goal of the air strikes. Other nations’ reading of the U.N. mandate appeared to be more narrow and Turkey has already said the current air campaign had gone too far.
“This broad lack of agreement within the coalition could lead to its fracturing at an inopportune moment if the situation becomes more difficult,” Quarterman wrote.
Additional reporting by David Alexander and Mark Hosenball; Editing by John O'Callaghan and David Storey