Oct. 8 (Bloomberg) -- If U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wouldn’t declare the military operation in Libya over quite yet, he was already talking about it in the past tense. Panetta yesterday stopped at two military bases in Italy involved in the six-month Libya mission. Meeting with about 150 coalition troops at the Italian Naval Air Station Sigonella, he praised their role and the results.
“There were an awful lot of questions about the mission overall, and I think the critics have been proven wrong,” Panetta said.
The U.S. and its partners, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are close to wrapping up their six-month mission in Libya as National Transitional Council forces stamp out the remaining resistance of Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and search for the deposed leader.
Panetta and his counterparts in NATO ended two days of meetings in Brussels Oct. 6 relieved at the successes of the operation even as they lamented the alliance weaknesses it exposed.
“It’s clear that the end is in sight,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels two days ago. Loyalist forces in Libya “are fighting for a lost cause. The threat to civilians is fading away. The recent positive developments in Libya are irreversible,” he said.
Supporters of Qaddafi in Sirte yesterday battled forces of the interim government, backed by NATO warplanes. The alliance, joined by non-member nations including Qatar, has flown more than 25,000 missions over Libya since it took over the operation on March 30.
About 4,000 of those sorties came out of Sigonella, Panetta said as he stood on a tarmac in front of a Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk drone. The Libya operation’s intelligence units also drew on data collected by General Atomics Predator drones, “something I was very familiar with in my past job,” said Panetta, the former Central Intelligence Agency director.
NATO has begun turning to the question of what comes next in Libya and what role it might play. Rasmussen said any alliance role wouldn’t be “major.”
Panetta used the position of the U.S. as NATO’s biggest contributor to urge in public and behind closed doors that the alliance shore up its capabilities. Even after the U.S. stepped out of the lead in the Libya operation, the alliance relied heavily on American intelligence, aircraft and even ammunition to prosecute the war.
“The major theme of this session has been the need to ensure that NATO has the military capabilities that we need to successfully operate in the 21st century, even at a time of growing budget constraints,” Panetta told reporters in Brussels.
He cited the U.S. missile defense system of radar and rocket interceptors that NATO adopted last year as an example.
Panetta used the occasion of the alliance meetings to announce an agreement with Spain to station four U.S. Navy ships equipped with Aegis radar at a base on Spain’s southwestern coast, making it the fourth country to participate.
On another NATO-led mission, the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, Panetta declared “significant progress.” He and his counterparts from the 48-member coalition heard an assessment from Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan.
“General Allen’s briefing made clear that, although hard fighting lies ahead, last year’s surge of forces has created the right conditions for transition” to Afghan self-defense, Panetta said Oct. 6.
Even as the U.S. draws down, it maintains capabilities that other coalition partners depend on such as intelligence, helicopters and medical evacuation teams, particularly in the country’s north and west, Panetta said.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said he doesn’t think this year’s withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. forces will have much effect, in part because the majority will be support units.
He also expressed confidence that the U.S. and its partners in the coalition won’t abandon Afghanistan as they did in the 1990s after the Soviet Union withdrew.
Long-term cooperation agreements Afghanistan is negotiating with the U.S. and others “will be something that will convince the Afghan people that the international community will” continue its support, he told reporters at NATO headquarters.
--With assistance from Patrick Donahue in Berlin. Editors: Steven Komarow, Paul Tighe
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