Moammar Gadhafi is dead. NATO officially ended its mission in Libya on Monday. But international concern about — and perhaps involvement in — Libya is far from over.
The Libyan National Transitional Council, a de facto government that was created early this year by anti-Gadhafi forces, is weak and will need backing from democratic nations. More immediately, however, the authority needs help finding and securing the myriad weapons cached by Col. Gadhafi and his supporters.
The deposed leader had an impressive stockpile of weapons, including 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles, which are unaccounted for. These missiles could down civilian air planes. Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups would love to get their hands on such devices.
With this in mind, Sen. Susan Collins has called for an international program of weapons inspections to track down Libyan weapons and try to keep them out of the hands of terrorist groups. To be effective, such work must begin quickly, before the stockpile is dispersed.
Sen. Collins envisions a small contingent of U.S. special forces troops, along with forces from other countries, to protect a contingent of inspectors while they are in Libya. The assignment would have to fall under the auspices of an international body, such as NATO, and be led by a Libyan, the senator said.
“Time is of the essence to keep these dangerous weapons of choice from terrorists,” Sens. Collins and Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month. “The close proximity of sources to fighters for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula increases the risk that these weapons will fall quickly into the wrong hands.”
Both senators are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In addition to the missing weapons, Sen. Collins said during a recent meeting at the Bangor Daily News that she was very worried about the ability of the National Transition Council to maintain control in Libya.
The senator recently returned from a trip to Turkey and Jordan, where she met with Mahmoud Jibril, acting prime minister of the council in Libya. Sen. Collins recalled she asked Mr. Jibril how he planned to deal with multiple militia groups that are vying for control in Libya since the death of Muammar Gadhafi.
“I was shocked by his response,” she said. “He said he was going to resign because he couldn’t get control.”
One of these militia groups is led by an Islamic extremist, and eastern parts of the country have had ties with al-Qaida, Collins said. If the wrong group were to take over, national security could be at risk, she said.
Further committing the United States to involvement in Libya is a tricky matter. Many senators, including Sen. Collins, say the president violated the War Powers Act by sending U.S. troops there. Debate over securing weapons and bolstering a government to bring stability to Libya must not devolve into a rehash of that argument.
Sen. Collins makes a strong case for limited military and civilian work in Libya. If such involvement is to happen, it must be soon, while it still can make a difference.