WASHINGTON—U.S. military planners say they believe a post-Gadhafi Libya may require an international force to keep the peace, but the Obama administration has made clear to its allies that they shouldn’t expect American troops to participate.
With rebel fighters backed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization air power apparently on the verge of toppling Col. Moammar Gadhafi, talks are under way about winding down the NATO mission and putting international efforts under a United Nations umbrella, U.S. officials said.
“I don’t see much of a role for the U.S. military in postconflict Libya,” said a senior U.S. military official.
The U.S. and its allies want to avoid any appearance that NATO would be responsible for Libya should Col. Gadhafi’s regime fall. And they want any postconflict stabilization presence to be backed by the Transitional National Council, which represents opposition groups fighting to overthrow the colonel.
The Obama administration hopes the rebel council will be able to provide sufficient security in Tripoli and other areas, but military officials believe a peacekeeping presence may be unavoidable, depending on how the security situation evolves in the coming days and weeks.
Already engaged in two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. believes the U.N. or another multinational coalition could take the lead in any post-Gadhafi stabilization efforts, said senior U.S. military officials and a senior Western diplomat working closely with the Americans.
From the start of the conflict in Libya, President Barack Obama has ruled out putting American troops on Libyan soil, and he pressured European allies to spearhead attacks from the air. Since leading the initial strikes against Col. Gadhafi’s loyalists, the U.S. has largely played a back-seat role, providing intelligence, unmanned aircraft and other logistical support for an air campaign dominated by the French, British and other NATO members.
After a weekend of fast-moving events in Libya, Obama administration officials stressed on Monday that the president still intends to keep the U.S. military role at a minimum. “We aren’t going to put boots on the ground,” an Obama administration official said.
A Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. will continue to fly surveillance and refueling missions in the days ahead.
A senior U.S. military officer said “a multinational coalition led by someone else” may well be “prudent.”
Washington’s reluctance to play an on-the-ground military role reflects domestic concerns about high war costs and a weak economy, as well as U.S. worries that the security situation could deteriorate, drawing an already-stretched American military into another protracted conflict.
Obama administration officials say post-Gadhafi planning is picking up pace and, other than saying they have no intention to participate in a peacekeeping force, they have made no final decisions about the way forward. “It is time to start thinking about next steps,” said another senior U.S. defense official.
Mr. Obama has recognized the rebel council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya, and officials want the group to lead any stabilization effort. “This is a Libya-led operation; they will be calling the shots,” a senior Obama administration official said of the rebel leaders. “We’re obviously in close contact with them at various levels on an ongoing basis, but this is their mission.”
The rebel council has so far resisted the idea of an international stabilization force, and officials say one might not be needed depending on how the conflict plays out.
Despite U.S. rejection of an overt military presence inside Libya, officials said the U.S. would support any stabilization effort by supplying equipment, as well as by rushing aid to the transitional Libyan authorities.
The U.S. military would like to establish a security-assistance presence in a new Libya. This could include military-liaison officers, as well as American trainers who would work with Libyan security forces, officials said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Libyan rebels still have to address outstanding legal issues before the Obama administration will release billions of dollars in frozen Gadhafi regime assets to the fledgling government, a Treasury official said Monday.
“All property and interests in property of the Gadhafi regime and others sanctioned by Treasury remain blocked, and all transactions involving the Gadhafi regime and persons who are included on the [Specially Designated Nationals] List continue to be prohibited,” the official said.
“We will continue to consult with the TNC and our international partners on the most effective and appropriate method of making additional significant financial assistance available to the TNC,” the official said.
The Treasury Department has frozen $37 billion in Libyan assets since February.
—Jeffrey Sparshott and Nathan Hodge contributed to this article.