BRUSSELS — There is no clear set of conditions in Libya that will trigger an end to the combat mission, but the operation will not be over if serious fighting and threats to the population continue, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
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 ousted leader Moammar 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.
His comments made clear that there is no definitive end to the mission, and did not rule out additional extensions to the operation, which is set to end in late December.
At the same time, NATO ministers spoke optimistically about the Libya operation, suggesting 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."
Both he and Panetta, however, said that if serious threats to the population continue, the mission will go on.
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 the campaign could continue for some time, as long as the fighting continues.
On Thursday, Panetta said military commanders will give their assessment of how much control Gadhafi has over his loyalist forces, how much progress the opposition is making on security and governance, and whether the serious fighting continues in Sirte, where Gadhafi's forces remain strong.
"It is very important that we make the right decision here," said NATO's top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis.
Before he arrived in Brussels, Panetta told reporters traveling with him that he believes fighting has to end in Libya, including the battle for Sirte, before the military mission there can end. As long as the battles between the former rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces continue, the Libyans can't begin to pull together a new government.
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 be ended. 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.
The U.S. is poised to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, and another 23,000 by next September. There are about 98,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and about another 45,000 international forces.
After the NATO meetings, Panetta is scheduled to travel to Naples, Italy, where he will receive briefings from senior commanders on the operation in Libya and will meet with U.S. troops there.
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