Hours ago, a convoy of 100 cars sped out of Sirte, the besieged final bastion of support for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. NATO warplanes overhead struck the massive vehicular procession twice — but did not destroy it. That job went to Libyan revolutionary fighters below, who swarmed to apprehend the quarry within the disabled convoy.
Soon after, Mohammad Shammam, the information minister of Libya’s transitional, post-Gadhafi government, told al-Jazeera that “a big fish” was captured.
And that appears to be the end of Moammar Gadhafi. Rumors are still spreading over whether Gadhafi is captured, grievously wounded in captivity, or — as al-Jazeera is confidently reporting — dead. But al-Jazeera’s Tony Birtley, al-Jazeera’s reporter in rebel-held Sirte, told the cameras, “The era of Moammar Gadhafi is over.”
No U.S. official, as of right now, is confirming a thing about Gadhafi’s death/capture. Understandably: when rebel forces finally swept into Tripoli two months ago, reports breathlessly circulated that his son Saif al-Islam was captured, only to be discredited when Saif made a defiant speech.
Accordingly, there is no clarity on when the U.S.-NATO war, now in its seventh month, actually ends. NATO defense ministers couldn’t decide on an endgame in meetings earlier this month. “Do we terminate if Sirte falls, even if there’s still limited fighting elsewhere?” a western official quoted by the Los Angeles Times asked.
Sirte has now fallen. Unless early reports are wrong — and that’s certainly possible, if not likely — then Gadhafi himself is now off the chessboard. And yet bitter experience over the last decade ought to provide major caution that insurgencies can develop and flourish even without key leaders. (Although, in fairness, it would seem to be harder for a revanchist insurgency to coalesce after its ostensible leader is neutralized.) Libya is flooded with uncontrolled weapons, ripe for the taking.
This much-tweeted photo, taken from a cellphone camera in Sirte, is apparently Gadhafi. It’s graphic. And if it’s not him, then Libyan rebels have captured the Joker.
The Libya war, never approved by Congress, is predicated on the protection of the Libyan population. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a skeptic of the war, warned Congress that the mission needed not to creep into a post-Gadhafi intervention. There’s a lot of support for that proposition in exhausted NATO capitals.
Now those two opposing propositions are facing their moment of final confrontation. When will NATO’s naval blockade end? When will NATO’s spy planes, drones and fighter jets — which conducted over 26,000 intelligence missions and launched 9,618 strikes between March 31 and October 19 — stop patrolling Libya’s skies? If an insurgency develops, can NATO avoid returning to Libya, if it ever actually leaves?