WASHINGON – The military mission in Libya is largely complete and NATO's involvement could begin to wrap up as soon as this coming week after allied leaders meet in Brussels, according to the top U.S. commander for Africa.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press that American military leaders are expected to give NATO ministers their assessment of the situation during meetings late in the week.
NATO could decide to end the mission even though ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi is still at large and his forces are still entrenched in strongholds such as Sirte and Bani Walid.
NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, agreed on Sept. 21 to extend the mission over the oil-rich North African nation for another 90 days, but officials have said the decision would be reviewed periodically.
Ham said that the National Transitional Council and its forces should be in "reasonable control" of population centers before the end of the NATO mission, dubbed Unified Protector. And he said they are close to that now.
When NATO makes its decision, Ham said he believes there would be a seamless transition of control over the air and maritime operations to U.S. Africa Command. And, at least initially, some of the military surveillance coverage would remain in place.
"We don't want to go from what's there now to zero overnight," Ham said. "There will be some missions that will need to be sustained for some period of time, if for no other reason than to offer assurances to the interim government for things like border security, until such time that they are ready to do all that themselves."
U.S. intelligence and surveillance assets, such as drones, will likely stay in the region also to keep watch over weapons caches, to prevent the proliferation of weapons from Libya into neighboring countries.
But Ham said air strikes would likely end, unless specifically requested by the Libyan transitional government.
NATO took over command of the mission in March, after it was initially led by the U.S. in the early days of the bombing campaign. The mission was designed to enforce a U.N. resolution allowing the imposition of a no-fly zone and military action to protect Libyan civilians.
The aggressive bombing runs that battered Qaddafi forces, weapons, air control, and other key targets, gave the revolutionary forces the time and breathing room to organize and begin to push into regime strongholds. A key turning point came about a month ago when the fighters were able to seize the capital, Tripoli, effectively ending Qaddafi's rule.
Now, the National Transitional Council has taken over the leadership of the nation and is promising to set up its new interim government, even as it continues to fight forces still loyal to the fugitive leader.
Ham said NATO need not wait until Qaddafi is found and forced out of the country before ending the Libyan mission.
"The fact that he is still at large some place is really more a matter for the Libyans than it is for anybody else," said Ham, adding that President Barack Obama and other leaders made it clear that the object of the mission was about protecting the people, not killing Qaddafi.
The goal now, said Ham, is for the U.S. to eventually establish a normal, military-to-military relationship with Libya, including embassy staff and discussions about what security assistance the Libyans might want from America. He said he doesn't see a major U.S. role in training or other military assistance, because other Arab nations are better suited for that.
He added that the U.S. may be able to help re-establish Libya's Coast Guard and maritime domain.
Any U.S. military footprint in the country would remain small -- probably less than two dozen troops at the embassy to work as staff and perform security.