NATO can finally savor a rare clear-cut victory with the death of Moammar Gadhafi, after a decade bogged down in Afghanistan and with no end in sight for operations in Kosovo and piracy patrols off Somalia.
As NATO officials planned an end to the alliance's airstrikes in Libya within days, analysts attributed its success to the fact the bloc remained steadfast over the summer during a long and grinding stalemate and avoided the temptation to send in ground troops.
"They can say unambiguously this was a military and political success," said Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, a London military think tank. "That's why today is a good day for NATO, and NATO has not had many good days in the last several years."
The initial strikes were launched in March by a U.S.-led coalition that disabled Gadhafi's anti-aircraft defenses, established absolute air superiority and cleared the way for alliance strike jets to rule the skies over Libya. But, within a few weeks the U.S. military pulled back most of its attack aircraft, and for the first time in a major NATO operation turned the campaign over to the Europeans.
Throughout the war, the alliance kept an average of about 200 aircraft engaged in the operation. France and Britain deployed most of the strike jets and attack helicopters, with smaller contingents from NATO allies Belgium, Canada, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark; the bulk of support aircraft from the United States; and reinforcement from Arab allies, including the wealthy Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
Early in the war, the allied bombings, combined with a no-fly zone, an arms embargo and a naval blockade, prevented Gadhafi's army from retaking the eastern city of Benghazi _ where the rebellion began in February _ and the port of Misrata, which had been surrounded by the regime's troops.
The relentless airstrikes were crucial in providing breathing room for the rebels as they gathered arms and ammunition. Eventually, with the help of foreign special forces teams sent to support them, they were able to transform into a reasonably effective fighting force.
A stalemate on the battlefields between May and August sparked criticisms that NATO had gotten itself into another quagmire, with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reproached European allies for relying on American military support.
In addition to Afghanistan, NATO's current missions include the 12-year deployment to Kosovo, where fresh clashes between NATO troops and Serb protesters erupted on Thursday, and the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia _ an operation originally approved in 2008 for a just a 3-month period, but still dragging on.
But top NATO officials insisted that the Libya mission must conclude successfully, quickly and for good. Though NATO leaders had originally expected the bombing to be concluded in a matter of weeks, Gadhafi's troops proved surprisingly resilient and the operation had to be repeatedly extended.
"The conflict took much longer than expected because NATO decided from the very beginning that no ground forces would be used in Libya," said Malcolm Chalmers, a professor of defense at London's Kings College.
"This was because none of the Western powers wanted to be tied down in a long ground war as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the liberated populations did not feel they had been liberated."
When the rebels finally began moving on Tripoli in August from their base in the Nafuz mountains, NATO warplanes provided close air support for the advance obliterating any loyalist units in the way. After just a few weeks of fighting, opposition forces were able to take the capital against very little resistance.
Similar scenarios played out in most of the towns the former rebels seized, leaving only Sirte, Bani Walid and a handful of villages outside their direct control until this week.
The exact circumstances of Gadhafi's death are unclear, but a convoy fleeing Sirte was hit by NATO airstrikes, carried out by French warplanes. France's Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the 80-vehicle convoy was carrying Gadhafi and was trying to escape the city. The strikes stopped the convoy but did not destroy it, and then revolutionary fighters moved in on the vehicle carrying Gadhafi himself. Gadhafi's body was later paraded through the streets of the nearby city of Misrata.
Despite its success, the Libya campaign also revealed deep rifts within the Western military alliance. Only eight of the 28 members participated, as others stayed away _ worried about how the new mission would affect the alliance's engagement in Afghanistan, where the resurgent Taliban have mounted a series of high-profile attacks in recent months.
NATO also was sharply criticized by many governments who said the airstrikes had overstepped the U.N. resolution that authorized them, and that the alliance was pursuing regime change in Libya under the pretext of protecting civilians.
Still, analysts said that on balance the air war _ in which NATO suffer no casualties _ would have a positive effect because the Cold War alliance proved its relevance as an important factor of international security.
"After a lot of concerns at the beginning of this conflict whether we were getting ourselves into something we would not be able to complete, NATO's decision to intervene was vindicated today," Chalmers said.
Since the start of the war, NATO warplanes have flown 26,000 sorties, including over 9,600 strike missions, destroying over 1,000 tanks, vehicles, and guns as well as Gadhafi's command and control networks.
The alliance's ruling body, the North Atlantic Council will meet Friday to review the operation and set a date for its end, officials said. NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that after the latest developments on the battlefields, "that moment has now moved much closer," adding that the decision to terminate airstrikes will be made in coordination with the U.N. and Libya's interim government.
A diplomat speaking on usual condition of anonymity said this could come in the next day or two if NATO's military commanders confirm that there were no more serious threats to security.
Follow Slobodan Lekic on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich
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