Allied strikes halt Qaddafi forces. But what is success in Libya?
The initial coalition air attacks have halted the pro-Qaddafi forces' march on Benghazi, a US general says, but the goals and parameters of the Libya intervention are still unclear.
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Establishing a larger no-fly zone to “ensure that we have freedom of air movement” is what Ham called the first step toward keeping the regime from attacking civilians. Until that happens, he said, the allied effort to influence activities on the ground “remains somewhat limited.”Skip to next paragraph
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Ham warned that as the no-fly zone is extended westward, “I think it’s likely that we may encounter some of the regime’s mobile air-defense systems. And where we encounter them, we’ll attack them.”
Yet just how to protect civilians by air when Libyan troops are in and among the population is a complex proposition for US forces. Indeed, using air power in close combat situations – what Hamm called “the identification and distinction of forces in very close quarters” – is “a very, very difficult situation for us,” he said.
So, too, is the question of what the endgame looks like for the Pentagon. For now, Qaddafi is not a target for US forces, Ham said. “I don’t know much about the location of the Libyan leader,” he added, “nor have we expended any military effort in that regard.”
It’s possible that Qaddafi could remain in power in the wake of the UN-sanctioned operation, and still be considered successful. “I do see a situation where that could be the case,” Hamm said. “I could see accomplishing the military mission and the current leader remains the current leader,” he added. “Is that ideal?”
To that question, Ham did not offer an answer.
Particularly unclear under the UN mandate is to what extent opposition rebel groups can be considered civilians – and to what extent allied forces will go to protect them. “We protect civilians,” Hamm said. “We do not have a mission to protect the opposition.”
But Ham acknowledged that “some would argue that some within the opposition may be civilians, and if they were attacked by regime forces then we would be obliged to protect them in the case of attack.” He said that such questions contribute to a “very problematic situation because it’s no longer clear who makes up the opposition.”
What is clear, Hamm said, is that without a change in the UN mandate, “We have no mission to support opposition forces if they should engage in offensive operations.”
Yet the debate nonetheless “gets into some very specific parsing of this question,” Hamm said. “Because, again, who exactly is this opposition?”
These complex questions – as yet unanswered – result “in situations that brief much better at a headquarters,” Hamm added, “than they do in the cockpit of an airplane.”