Libya: U.S. officials still saying ‘No boots on the ground’ post-Gadhafi. Do you believe them?

WASHINGTON – Do you believe there will be no American troops sent to Libya in the post-Moammar Gadhafi clean up?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is not even considering it, he told Stars and Stripes during a roundtable interview in his office Friday, and the Pentagon backed him on Monday. That is, unless the United Nations and NATO change their mission and the president changes his mind.

UPDATED: 12:04 P.M.

But isn’t that what the U.S. military has trained, recruited, equipped and doctrined itself to be for the last decade? Doesn't it field thousands of advise-and-assist (don’t call them "combat") troops?

The U.S. has always promised "no boots on the ground" for Libya, but some have speculated that if the rebels could topple Gadhafi, the U.S. and NATO surely would move down from the skies and help disarm and organize the rebels, before equipping them and training them as professionalized security forces, just like they’ve been doing around the world since Sept. 11.

After rebels walked into Tripoli on Sunday, President Barack Obama said in his statement the U.S would continue to protect the Libyan people.

“We will continue to work with our allies and partners in the international community to protect the people of Libya, and to support a peaceful transition to democracy,” he said.

For now, that U.S. protection remains limited to the NATO humanitarian mission, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Monday, in a crowded Monday morning press gaggle.

Could that change?

“At this point there is still no indication that that will change: There will not be U.S. boots on the ground,” said Defense Department spokesman Col. David Lapan in his office.

At this point. And if the U.N. or NATO change the mission?

“It won’t change our position. If there is going to be some type of transitional mission that involves any kind of foreign troops, there wouldn’t be U.S. ground troops,” he said.

That order is a presidential decision, though, so Obama always could change his mind?

“Yeah, anything’s possible,” Lapan conceded, but the Pentagon has no indication anything’s changed.

Why is there there is no talk of involving U.S. Marines or soldiers in the democracy-building effort already underway, like they have done so intimately across Iraq and Afghanistan for years?

The U.S. now has plenty of experience trying to build Middle Eastern security forces and civic institutions, especially within a violent counterinsurgency military campaign that started after U.S. forces invaded the country, wiped out the governing structure, and – per Colin Powell's famous "Pottery Barn” rule of "you break it, you own it" – now owned that country’s security.

(The U.S. is now negotiating with Baghdad on how many of the 46,000 “advise and assist” troops to keep in Iraq after Dec. 31, Pentagon and Iraqi officials have said.)

Here’s what Panetta said, Friday:

STARS AND STRIPES: Are you considering the possibility of American boots on the ground, post-Gadhafi, in Libya, of any kind?

PANETTA: No, not at all. You know, obviously one of the things we have to look at is what a post-Gadhafi governance would look like. And I think this really – this lies more in the diplomatic arena than in the military arena – which is, how do you put together the opposition forces? How do you develop that council so that it represents all of the tribes within Libya and gives them an opportunity to kind of shape that future governance?  That’s going to be a huge diplomatic responsibility that’ll fall not only on our State Department but obviously on the other governments in NATO that are involved. That’s going to be the challenge. 

The diplomats seem to agree. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and former State Department policy and planning director, tweeted Monday morning: “I'll take anyone's bet: there will be NO U.S. military troops on the ground in Libya. Not going to happen.


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