BRUSSELS (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other NATO defense ministers plan to take up the issue of training Libyan security forces as that country battles insurgents flowing into the south from Mali.
Senior U.S. defense officials said Monday that the discussions are in the early stages, and come on the heels of requests from Libyan leaders for help from NATO, the U.S. and other nations.
Hagel and the other defense ministers will also discuss the transition in Afghanistan, as the U.S. and NATO prepare to withdraw combat troops at the end of 2014. He arrived in Brussels on Monday.
The officials suggested that while there has been pressure for the U.S. and NATO to decide the size of forces that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, that announcement may not come during this week’s two-day meeting.
The situation in Libya has become an escalating concern, as international leaders worry al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb may be trying to establish a safe haven in Libya. A largely French force ousted them from Mali in recent months.
The more detailed discussions about security aid from the alliance follow President Barack Obama’s meeting with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen last Friday. Obama broadly indicated that the U.S. would support efforts by NATO to aid the Libyans, but offered no details.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly ahead of the meeting. They said the U.S. has been talking with the Libyans about the security training aid but are still considering what the specifics would be.
French officials believe some jihadists may have fled Mali along traditional drug and other contraband trafficking routes through Niger and into Libya.
The issue of NATO training aid was broached late last month during a news conference with the NATO secretary-general and Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. But it was not clear then that this would be a major topic at the ministers’ meeting this week.
“NATO will give us technical advice in terms of training. So we will have technical support. And we will be helped in training if we need to,” said Zeidan after last month’s meeting.
The NATO leader was cautious, saying that Zeidan’s request will be discussed by the North Atlantic Council. He said it will involve a review of how NATO can provide training activities as well as technical advice.
He stressed that it “is not about deploying NATO troops to Libya.” And U.S. defense officials said Monday that the training could take place outside of Libya.
They said NATO’s experience training Afghan and Iraq security forces provides the expertise to do something similar with Libya.
On Afghanistan, there has been much debate about the size of the force after 2014. U.S. military commanders have talked about the need to keep as many as 20,000 NATO troops there, but that number is substantially higher than the one preferred by the Obama White House.
Gen. James Mattis, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, told senators he personally recommended the U.S. leave 13,600 troops in Afghanistan. He said he assumed the NATO allies would probably contribute “around 50 percent” of the U.S. total, which would be roughly 6,500.
“We have to send a message of commitment,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
U.S. and NATO leaders said during a NATO meeting in February that they may keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan, but did not say how many would be American.
The military has also been pressuring the administration to announce how many troops would remain there, largely to reassure the Afghans of NATO’s commitment.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in early April that he was in no hurry to come up with a number, saying the U.S. should wait until summer or later and assess the strength of Afghan government forces.
But retired Gen. John Allen, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called on the White House Friday to announce a troop number decision.
He said Afghans need certainty on how many U.S. troops will stay behind before they will choose whether to side with the Afghan government or the Taliban.
The defense officials said the ministers are looking to develop a plan that would evaluate how many troops are needed to assist the Afghans, where in the country they would be placed and what level of military unit — smaller companies or larger battalions and brigades — they would advise.
The ministers are also expected to have their first session dedicated to cybersecurity, focusing more on how to beef up NATO networks and encourage nations to better secure their computer systems.