The initial air attacks against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces have “succeeded” in stopping their advancement towards the key rebel-held city of Benghazi, the US mission’s top commander said Monday.
What’s more, pro-Qaddafi ground forces that were once in the vicinity of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, “now possess little will” to continue to fight, said Gen. Carter Ham, head of US Africa Command and the US-led joint mission’s current commander, at a briefing with Pentagon reporters.
This represents some measure of psychological victory for which top Pentagon officials were hoping when the operation began: that many of Mr. Qaddafi’s forces would stop fighting or abandon their commander-in-chief. Yet Qaddafi’s troops have proven organized and determined in the past, and military officials say they are carefully monitoring developments on the ground even as operations continue.
The Pentagon is wrestling, too, with a number of tricky questions surrounding the United Nations Security Council resolution, which authorizes the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya and the use of force to protect civilians from attack by the regime. Can rebel forces be considered civilians, for example? Does protecting civilians necessarily mean removing Qaddafi from power – particularly, some add, given his propensity to retaliate against his people? And how best to protect civilians when the pro-Qaddafi troops are in urban areas and bombing them might mean harming innocent people?
Even as the US military seeks answers to these questions, they are now focused on extending the current no-fly zone southward, then westward, Ham said. To that end, the US military on Monday fired 12 Tomahawk missiles aimed at Qaddafi’s command-and-control centers. They plan to extend the no-fly zone to Misrata and then to Tripoli, creating an area that is approximately 1,000 miles wide, Gen. Ham said.
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.”
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.”