Two important unanswered Libya questions for U.S.

A Libyan woman reacts with her hands written on them in Arabic " I love Libya' as she joins a rally in support of the allied air campaigns against the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in Benghazi, eastern Libya, Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
AP Photo

(CBS/AP) Libya is more or less currently divided in half, with forces loyal to strongman Muammar Qaddafi controlling much of the western territory, and international military coalition-assisted rebels controlling the east.

The situation in Libya has presented a challenge to the Obama administration politically, as U.S. debt soars and the sour taste of a prolonged military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan clings to most Americans' tongues.

Part of the challenge for President Obama and his advisers is that two important questions remain unanswered: If, as promised, the U.S. hands off the lead in Libya, who will take over, and what is the endgame? Also, who exactly are the rebels who stand to inherit control of a post-Qaddafi Libya?

The international military coalition and its endgame

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged to the Associated Press Wednesday that there is no clear end to the international military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, and says no one was ever under any illusion that the assault would last just two or three weeks. He added that the U.S. could turn over control of the operation as soon as Saturday, but could not say how the coalition operation might be resolved. 

Mr. Obama, who has maintained that regime change in Libya is needed, has ruled out a land invasion to oust the Libyan leader. The Obama administration and U.S. State Department differentiate between U.S. policy -- that Qaddafi must go -- and United Nations policy expressed in resolution 1973 that calls for humanitarian aid via a no-fly zone and other military actions to protect the Libyan people in their quest for democratic reforms.  

The Arab League was the first international coalition of states to officially call for a no-fly zone over Libya, but thus far only Qatar is participating in its enforcement. Meanwhile, NATO - the most obvious choice to lead the coalition with its experience in already having led them previously and the already active participation of several of its members - is fraught with internal debate.

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While Britain and the U.S. have said they want NATO to take the lead, NATO members France, Germany and Turkey have balked at allowing that to happen.

French Foreign minister Alain Juppe told French legislators that an upcoming gathering in London of participants in the international coalition in Libya is aimed at showing that the "political piloting" of the international operation in Libya is not being handled by NATO, but by a broader group of countries. He said the African Union and the Arab League will be invited so a leadership structure can be put in place following initial command by the United States.

One of the many things complicating the role of finding a leader is the lack of a clear endgame in Libya for international forces, as Gates admitted. While the U.S. and several of its allies have all said repeatedly they want Qaddafi out of power, they insist they will not use military means to seek it.

The UN mandate for the mission allows for the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the country and the protection of civilians. However, Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber said Wednesday the coalition is now targeting Qaddafi's mechanized forces, his artillery and mobile missile sites as well as ammunition and other supplies for government troops, a clear stretching of the definition of "protecting civilians."

While those questions remain unanswered, the more topical concern of the cost to the U.S. keeps arising, especially since it is already deeply in debt, and the future role of the military involvement there remains an unanswered question.

The rebels poised to inherit a post-Qaddafi Libya

Prior to the current conflict, Qaddafi was well known for systematically imprisoning and torturing opponents, sometimes even offering bounties on their heads if they fled abroad. Thus nearly all of them remain relative unknowns to this day, even as they have an incredible multinational military force currently backing their attempt to overthrow Qaddafi.

The Libyan opposition formed a Transitional National Council with 31 members on March 5, according to its website. On March 23, the council named Mahmoud Jibril to head an interim government and appoint ministers, according to Reuters.

Jibril has a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh "in strategic planning and decision-making," and defected to the rebel cause shortly after the uprising began. He has spearheaded efforts to persuade foreign powers to recognize the council as the legitimate government, Reuters reported. On its website, the council states that prior to the current conflict, Jibril "took over the management and administration of many of the leaders training programs for senior management in Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Britain."

The website states that several of its members have not been named for security reasons, but it still lists many more, including: Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, chairman of the council and a former justice minister under Qaddafi's regime; Ali Al Issawi , the council's foreign affairs liaison and former Minister of Economy, Trade and Investment under Qaddafi; Omar Al Hariri, head of military affairs; as well as regional representatives Othman Suleiman El-Megyrahi (Batnan Area); Ashour Hamed Bourashed (Darna City); Dr. Abdelallah Moussa El-myehoub (Qouba Area); Zubiar Ahmed El-Sharif (Representative of the political prisoners); Ahmed Abduraba Al-Abaar (Benghazi City); Mr.Dr. Fathi Mohamed Baja (Benghazi City); Abdelhafed Abdelkader Ghoga (Benghazi City); and Fathi Tirbil and Dr. Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali (Representatives of youth and women).

Iman Bughaigis, a spokeswoman for the rebel force, said the tentative beginnings of an interim administration on Wednesday reflected the realization that they must organize.

"At the beginning, we thought it would just take a week or two weeks" to depose Qaddafi, she said. "Now we know it will take time. We need a government to liberate the eastern territories. It was just because there was a vacuum. We don't have political experience. We are learning as the days go by. Now there is an understanding that we need a structure."

Details from the rebels were sketchy and sometimes contradictory. A different rebel spokesperson said Jibril was appointed to lead the new body about a month ago, and that it cannot be called a government because rebels do not control the whole country. "This is a working body for an emergency period only," he said.

On Monday, Gen. Carter Ham, who heads up U.S. military command in the mission, said there were no "formal communications" with rebel groups, but on Wednesday Gates said there was some communication between U.S. officials and the rebels. Mr. Obama told CNN on Wednesday, "Our hope is that the first thing that happens once we've cleared the space is that the rebels are able to start discussing how they organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people and create a legitimate government."  

  

  • Joshua Norman

    Joshua Norman is a Senior Editor at CBSNews.com.

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