BRUSSELS — Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi doesn't need to be captured or killed for NATO forces to end their mission in Libya, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday.
Rather, because NATO intervened in Libya to protect civilians, the alliance could end the mission if it determines that the transitional government can fulfill that function, Rasmussen told reporters gathered here for a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
"The termination of the operation is not dependent on Col. Gadhafi," Rasmussen said. "Actually, he is not the target of our operation. The decisive factor will be the protection of the civilian population."
But just whom NATO is protecting civilians from is unclear as some Libyan tribes and factions — such as Gadhafi loyalists — reportedly feel threatened by the new government, which they worry will carry out retaliatory attacks. With the whereabouts of Gadhafi and his son and onetime heir apparent, Seif al Islam, still unknown, Rasmussen declined to say when the NATO mission would end. The ministers were scheduled to discuss the Libya operation Thursday.
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Earlier Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that in light of the shrinking U.S. defense budget, NATO members must contribute more to international missions and prevent domestic budget pressures from "hollowing out" their militaries.
Making his first speech on NATO since becoming the Pentagon chief three months ago, Panetta was far less scathing than his predecessor, Robert Gates, who told NATO in June that its future was "dim, if not dismal." Still, Panetta echoed many of the same concerns.
Panetta praised the NATO effort in Libya but said that the mission also exposed shortfalls in its capabilities, such as its shortage of unmanned drone aircraft, tankers, munitions and targeting specialists. He said that there was a danger that NATO wouldn't be able to address those shortcomings because of budget cuts in member nations.
"There are legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden," Panetta told an audience at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
"It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations," he said.
The United States, he told the alliance, will maintain its military capabilities even as it cuts $450 billion from the defense budget over 10 years. He urged member nations to communicate with one another about their capabilities and not deplete the alliance of resources "in the dark."
"I am convinced that we do not have to choose between fiscal security and national security," Panetta said. "But achieving that goal will test the very future of leadership throughout NATO."
Panetta's comments were the latest in ongoing tensions between the United States and NATO about whether the alliance, a product of the Cold War, is contributing enough to international security for missions like the war in Afghanistan, the growing threat of cyber war, terrorism and nuclear security.
During his term as defense chief, Gates often chided NATO for relying too heavily on U.S. resources. In what seemed to be an effort to repair relations, Panetta praised NATO for protecting civilians and weakening Gadhafi's military strength.
He said that the United States led the Libyan effort by grounding Gadhafi's air force, but he noted that France and the United Kingdom flew one-third of all air sorties and struck 40 percent of targets. He also singled out Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria and Canada for their contributions in Libya.
But, noting NATO's shortcomings, he said that the alliance lacks sufficient unmanned surveillance drones — which are becoming a central element of U.S. military operations — and trainers for security forces in Afghanistan. He urged NATO ministers to support a proposal to jointly purchase Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles at what he called "a true bargain."
Rasmussen said that he and another NATO members agreed about the alliance's shortcomings and that they all "in principle" supported multinational cooperation but lacked consensus on how to fund it.
Later at the NATO meeting, the United States announced that it plans to base four missile-defense-capable naval ships off of Spain's coast as part of an effort to protect Europe against a potential Iranian nuclear threat. The cruisers will be stationed at a U.S. military installation in Rota, Spain.
"This announcement should send a very strong signal that the United States is still continuing to invest in this alliance, and that we are committed to our defense relationship with Europe even as we face growing budget constraints at home," Panetta said in making the announcement. "This is too important not to continue to invest in this partnership."
Rasmussen said that the ships would be fully operational by 2018.
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