There is no clear set of conditions in Libya that will trigger an end to the combat mission, but the operation should continue so long as serious fighting and threats to the population continue, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
That suggests that Moammar Gadhafi does not have to be killed or captured before NATO forces go home, although the former rebels who mounted a successful campaign in March to oust Gadhafi are still hunting the former dictator's hiding place.
Speaking to reporters at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Panetta said the ministers agree that the decision will depend on whether forces loyal to Gadhafi are still able to attack civilians and whether the opposition forces are able to provide security for the country as it moves to democracy.
There are obvious divisions within NATO over when and how to end the Libyan mission _ particularly with Gadhafi still at large and pockets of his supporters still holding onto strongholds in Sirte and Bani Walid.
Military commanders have said they believe the military mission _ now in its seventh month _ is largely complete, and could begin wrapping up soon. But the public message from Panetta and other leaders suggests that NATO help could continue for some time.
Panetta even suggested that NATO help could continue past the time that fighting concludes, if Libya's new civilian leaders request it.
"If there's a request and if there are needs that can be met, I think that all of us in NATO, I think, would have to give that serious consideration, as to what kind of assistance, what kind of advice, what kind of training we can provide," Panetta said.
Panetta did not rule out additional extensions to the military operation, which is set to end in late December.
Panetta laid out four general areas that commanders will review as they assess the mission _ such as the ongoing violence in Sirte and how much control Gadhafi appears to have over his loyalists, but did not specify what those situations must look like in order to end the NATO assault.
In fact, NATO's top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, said there will be no designated set of conditions that will signal the end of the operation.
"We're not trying to establish a discreet set of specific metrics in each case," Stavridis said. "It's rather a sense of the situation."
He said commanders would present some of their views to Panetta during his stop in Naples, Italy, later Thursday and Friday. Ultimately the decision on when to end the mission will rest with the alliance.
Despite the ongoing divisions over the future of the operation, NATO ministers spoke optimistically about how well it has gone and that it is close to over.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen asserted that "It is clear that the end is in sight. Qadhafi's forces are fighting for a lost cause. The threat to civilians is fading away. The recent positive developments in Libya are irreversible."
Fogh Rasmussen also left the door open for an extended mission in Libya, saying the civilian population must be protected until "no threat exists."
Questions remain, however, about what exact conditions must be met before the mission can end. Just eight NATO members are participating in the military campaign in Libya, underscoring the divisions between the nations over the mission. A number of other, non-NATO nations have been involved in the fight.
The NATO meetings centered on the military operations in Libya and the 10-year-old Afghanistan war, where the U.S. is beginning to withdraw troops despite recent spikes in dramatic attacks by the Taliban. U.S. and NATO forces are working to transfer security control to the Afghan forces, with an eye toward the end of the foreign combat mission there in December 2014.