Pentagon: Libyan rebels desperately need help, but don't look to US

Libyan opposition forces need training and organization to oust Muammar Qaddafi, but the US military shouldn't be involved, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress Thursday.

Carolyn Kaster / AP
Defense Sec. Robert Gates (l.), accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 31, 2011, before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on military operations in Libya.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Map of Libya.

Libyan rebels are disorganized, on the defensive, and in desperate need of training, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress on Thursday.

But none of that is likely to change the Pentagon’s operations or the White House’s political calculus in the weeks ahead, he added. The US military’s mission remains “much more limited” than America’s stated political objective – namely, ousting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

The US military will not provide any troops on the ground in Libya, either to aid operations or to train the rebels, Secretary Gates assured lawmakers. “Not as long as I’m in this job.”

That said, he conceded that rebels could use some help if they hope to overthrow Col. Qaddafi. “What the opposition needs is some training, some command and control, and some organization,” Gates said. “It’s pretty much a pickup ballgame at this point.”

But that training will not come from US troops, Gates stressed repeatedly in his testimony before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. NATO allies could take this role, he suggested. “Frankly, there are many countries that can do that,” he said.

In the wake of calls from some lawmakers to arm the rebels, he noted that the opposition already has “substantial numbers” of small arms, including AK-47s, thanks to raids on military depots. If the NATO coalition decides to give rebels any more sophisticated weapons, however, they would need on-the-ground training in how to use them, too.

Who are the rebels?

Right now, US intelligence officials are busy trying to figure out who, precisely, makes up the Libyan opposition. “We know a handful of the leaders – we have some biographical information,” Gates told the Senate committee. “We don’t have any information – that I’m aware of – of who led the uprising in the cities of the west,” he said, adding that these events may have been “largely spontaneous.”

But the Pentagon knows little else, Gates said. Even the term “opposition” is a misnomer, he pointed out, since it implies a unity of purpose in the groups currently battling Qaddafi's forces. In fact, the resistance “is very disparate, it is very scattered, and probably each element has its own agenda,” Gates said.

America's two goals

The United States has its own political objective, not to be confused with its "much more limited" military agenda, which focuses on supporting the NATO mission – with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and other technical capabilities. “You could have a situation in which you achieve the military goal,” Gates said, “but not achieve the political goal” of ousting Qaddafi.

Nor should the US military take up regime change, he added. “We’ve tried regime change before. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it’s taken ten years.”

Not that the US military can’t help move Qaddafi along, Gates noted. Indeed, unlike past no-fly zones in Iraq, the US military is making a concerted effort to destroy Qaddafi’s military through bombings.

“We will be continuing attacks on his military, on his military stores, on his logistics,” Gates said.

As the Libyan army cannot resupply itself, NATO partners hope to drive Qaddafi into increasingly dire straits. At some point, Qaddafi's military will “have to face the question of whether they are prepared, over time, to be destroyed by these air attacks,” Gates said, “or decide that it’s time for him to go.”

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