NATO has agreed to take over command and control of the military operation in Libya—including enforcing the no-fly zone over the country and taking all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian areas, senior administration officials said on Thursday. NATO is expected to have full operational details in place within the next few days.
Speaking on Thursday evening from the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said all 28 members of NATO had authorized the transfer of command and control, and that as long as Muammar el-Qaddafi remained a threat to his people that the allies would need to stay "vigilant."
A senior administration official told reporters in a conference call that NATO is now responsible for the command and control of the no-fly zone. "The actual handover, because you’re dealing with a whole bunch of national militaries that need to be brought together within the NATO structure will take a few days, but the fundamental decision has been taken," he said.
“The other fundamental decision that has been taken is that now NATO will take over the other part [of the mission] which is the protection of civilians. That decision was made," the official said. "There is now a consensus by [all] members of the alliance that NATO should include in its mission and under its command and control not just the no-fly zone but also the need to protect civilians.”
The remaining operational steps that will be needed for NATO to take over complete control will be taken over the weekend. “So, within a matter of days, NATO will have taken over command and control of the entire operation,” the official said.
The consensus was reached after a four-way telephone call between Clinton and the foreign ministers of Turkey, France, and the United Kingdom, the final step in what the official called a “hard diplomatic battle.”
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon earlier Thursday that the U.S. military is working to transition the lead of Operation Odyssey Dawn to the coalition "as early as this weekend." But he acknowledged that the process is complicated and challenging. "That is really, really hard work," he said. "I think it's pretty phenomenal how far we've come thus far, and the pros that are out there are still working through the final details."
The senior administration official said that NATO is working to gather “as many partners as we can find.” The United Arab Emirates announced that it will join the coalition and Qatar has already deployed military aircraft to help enforce the no-fly zone.
One administration official told National Journal earlier that U.S. forces were already ramping down offensive operations and moving to lend intelligence support to allies.
The question now appears to be who will do what within the coalition. Ultimately, this decision will be one made by the military commanders, the first administration official told reporters.
Earlier, White House press secretary Jay Carney expressed confidence that the transfer would happen soon, as President Obama promised.
"We are still operating under that timeline—that it will be days, not weeks—or less than a week at the moment, and we have been in consultation with our allies and partners on the issue of making that transition. I am confident that it will happen relatively soon," Carney told reporters.
He added that U.S. planes would not be involved in the enforcement of the no-fly zone established over Libya.
"That’s my understanding, that in terms of maintaining and enforcing the no-fly zone, the United States will not be participating in that way. We will be in the support-and-assist role."
Rebecca Kaplan, Megan Scully, and Michael Catalini contributed