The United States has begun moving warships and aircraft closer to Libya and called on its NATO allies to provide more effective assistance to the Libyan opposition. Is the U.S. preparing to open a third front, in addition to the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Experts are discussing the possibility of a full-scale military operation and precision missile strikes. "Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. If Washington truly plans to use force, her statement should not be taken as anything more than protocol.
There are many reasons why the Untied States could opt for military intervention.
Libyan rebels have already accused the West of hypocrisy. They say it only pays lip service to human rights but has not done anything to stop genocide in their country. In other words, there are anti-American sentiments in Libya, which is obviously bad for Washington.
Moreover, some rebels are under the influence of Al-Qaeda, which could seize control of part of the country, while Gaddafi retains control over the rest. This is the worst-case scenario that the United States and its allies want to prevent.
Another problem is the Libyan army. In the late 1970s, Muammar Gaddafi started downgrading the army's role in the country's defenses, complementing it with the elite units of the Jamahiriya Security Organization, People's Militia and Armed People on Duty, as well as the Islamic Legion, which eventually developed into a strong corps of foreign mercenaries.
It is unclear who these various elements answer to, and worse still, there is a huge amount of unguarded weapons, including aircraft, which could wind up in the hands of terrorists.
And lastly, U.S. President Barack Obama must do something to restore his prestige. He seemed caught off-guard by the unrest in Egypt, and has appeared out of step ever since.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) poses an even more vexing problem. Until recently, only a handful of people in the West and Russia knew about the Al-Qaeda affiliate. But AQIM has been terrorizing North African countries and their southern neighbors, from Sudan to West Sahara, for years. In 2010, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger established a joint military committee and an intelligence center to combat the organization. Libya, Morocco and Chad were expected to join them.
If Al-Qaeda assumes control of half of Libya, part of the rebel forces and discarded military equipment, this would dramatically shift the balance of power in the region, threatening U.S. counterterrorism efforts in that part of the Muslim world.
The United States also has a problem with military bases in the region. Of the 80,000 U.S. troops deployed in Arab countries, 50,000 are stationed in Iraq. Nearly all other U.S. outposts in the region are located south of Iran, with the central command in Qatar, airfields in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a large military base in Kuwait, the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters and the Air Force command in Bahrain, seven bases in Oman, and units in Yemen and Djibouti.
But Washington has next to nothing in North Africa. It has no bases there and can use airfields and seaports in Egypt only by prior agreement and in Morocco in case of emergency. Mali and Algeria are firmly opposed to foreign troops conducting military operations on their territory.
Therefore, a military operation in Libya is the only chance for the Untied States to deploy troops in the region.
But can the United States wage a successful war on three fronts simultaneously: in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? Moreover, the Republican majority in Congress has called for expanding the operation in Afghanistan. Over the past few months, the Pentagon and the National Security Council have been discussing plans to send special operation forces to Pakistan to shore up the war effort against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Obama needs at least a small military success to his name, but unfortunately, the United States and Pakistan signed an agreement according to which U.S. troops may not be deployed in Pakistan. There are American troops there, of course, but everyone pretends otherwise.
In other words, it is unlikely that Obama will convince Pakistan to revise this agreement, and so he may redirect the U.S. war effort to North Africa instead.
Libyan oil and refugees are a much greater cause for concern to Europeans than remote Afghanistan, and therefore the United States has a better chance of securing its allies' support for a large-scale military operation in Libya.
It is not clear what Western forces would do in an uncontrollable country after the overthrow of Gaddafi. But if the United States limits its involvement to air strikes, it may be unable to secure a foothold for future operations against AQIM.
Events in the Arab world are moving fast and unpredictably, which means that Washington will be going in almost blindfolded in any case.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.