ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday he expected NATO operations over Libya to continue while fighting persists, but that the alliance would be discussing the issue this week.
Forces loyal to Libya’s interim government have control of most of the country but fighting continues in pockets still held by supporters of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi, including the city of Sirte.
Asked whether NATO could end offensive operations even though fighting continues in some areas and Gaddafi has not been found, Panetta told reporters in Cairo that he wanted to consult with fellow NATO defense ministers.
But he added: “As long as there’s fighting that’s continuing in Libya, I suspect that the NATO mission would continue.”
The question of how and when to end NATO operations in Libya is a tricky one for the allies. They would like the interim government to enhance its legitimacy by establishing control over areas of the country where fighting continues.
NATO renewed the mission in September for 90 days but agreed to review conditions every 30 days to see whether operations could be ended. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “general consensus is that we’re not there yet because of the continued fighting and resistance of pro-Gaddafi forces.”
Panetta said the fighting in Sirte, as well as not knowing Gaddafi’s whereabouts, left a question mark over how to end NATO’s air operation and allow the interim administration to move on to other issues.
“I think the fighting has to end, that they can’t continue to have the level of fighting that they’re still having there and ... be able to turn to the kind of governance issues that they’re going to have to confront in order to establish stability,” he said.
“Having said that,” Panetta added, “it is moving in the right direction. A lot of progress has been made. NATO is committed to maintaining its position for the next 90 days and I don’t know of any changes in that.”
Panetta made his remarks after a day of meetings with Egypt’s military rulers and just before leaving for Brussels for a gathering of NATO defense ministers to discuss lessons learned from the military operation in Libya as well as how to proceed to ensure a stable Afghanistan in the future.
A senior U.S. defense official said one of the lessons learned was the shortage of some critical military capabilities within NATO, including a shortage of tanker aircraft, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and specialized staffs to turn intelligence data into targeting lists.
Panetta said the NATO ministers would also discuss the increasingly tight defense budgets they are facing and how best to work together to ensure the limitations do not affect their overall mission.
“It’s very important now as we face those budget constraints to try to develop approaches that allow us to share capabilities and allow us to share technologies and allow us to work together closely in order to ensure that NATO can fulfill its role of providing security,” Panetta said.