The ground troops option–and the Balkan experience

The ground troops option–and the Balkan experience

Spencer Ackerman is worried that the door is swinging open to ground troops in Libya, in the form of a Balkans-style stabilization force:

During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island asked Adm. James Stavridis about NATO putting forces into “post-Gadhafi” Libya to make sure the country doesn’t fall apart. Stavridis said he “wouldn’t say NATO’s considering it yet.” But because of NATO’s history of putting peacekeepers in the Balkans, “the possibility of a stabilization regime exists.”

So welcome to a new possible “endgame” for Libya. Western troops patrolling Libya’s cities during a a shaky transition after Moammar Gadhafi’s regime has fallen, however that’s supposed to happen. Thousands of NATO troops patrolled Bosnia and Kosovo’s tense streets for years. And Iraq and Afghanistan taught the U.S. and NATO very dearly that fierce insurgent conflict can follow the end of a brutal regime.

In fact, Stavridis told Sen. James Inhofe that he saw “flickers of intelligence” indicating “al-Qaeda [and] Hezbollah” have fighters amongst the Libyan rebels. The Supreme Allied Commander of NATO noted that the leadership of the rebels are “responsible men and women struggling against Col. Gadhafi” and couldn’t say if the terrorist element in the opposition is “significant.” But the U.S. knows precious little about who the Libyan rebels are.

The new prospect of NATO force on the ground in Libya seemed to alarm Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who got Stavridis to say that there’s “no discussion of the insertion of ground troops” in NATO circles. (And “to my knowledge” there aren’t troops there now, he said.) But Stavridis told Reed that the memory of the long NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans is “in everyone’s mind.”

There’s no doubt that some kind of international force will be a live option if and when the regime leaves or the fighting grinds to a halt. I have no doubt that planners in Western capitals and in NATO are now working through options.  I’ve written recently about the various forms that a Libya stabilization force might take.

Ackerman clearly sees the Balkans experience as a precedent to be avoided. But it’s worth noting that the NATO ground forces in both Bosnia and Kosovo succeeded in enforcing the peace with few if any combat casualties. In those cases, the fears of an insurgency turned out to be illusory. The broader political situation in both countries remains troubled, but NATO troops helped ensure a decade of peace during which refugees returned and infrastructure was rebuilt. Meanwhile, international troop levels have been steadily reduced. Indeed, only a token NATO presence remains in Bosnia. If an international force for Libya can do as well, we should consider ourselves lucky.