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The US announced it will begin using armed drones against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, raising further concerns about "mission creep" in Libya after a trio of European powers also decided this week to send military advisers to train the rebels. Sen. John McCain called the rebels "heroes" on a surprise visit to Benghazi today.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday evening that President Obama had approved the use of drones for strikes against Col. Qaddafi's forces and defense positions. The announcement marks the United States' return to a direct combat role in the Libyan conflict, which had ceased when the US handed control of Libya operations to NATO in early April, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Earlier this week, Britain, France, and Italy all announced they would send military officials into Libya to advise the rebel forces. That and the US decision to launch drone strikes – drones were already operating in the area, but only for surveillance, according to CNN – have many in the US and Europe concerned that their countries will eventually drift into an active role on the ground in Libya.
But Secretary Gates rejected concerns of mission creep, saying the US mission in Libya defined by Obama always left room for something like this, CNN reported. "The president has said where we have unique capabilities, he is willing to use those," Gates said Thursday. The drones, which can fly lower, will allow for more precise targeting of airstrikes and will augment NATO strikes already taking place.
"It's very difficult to identify friend from foe," Cartwright said, noting that the drones facilitate identification of individuals on the ground.
Gen. Cartwright said the drones will initially focus on targets in and around Misurata, a rebel-held city that has been under relentless siege by Qaddafi's forces. High-flying NATO planes have been unable to get close enough to carry out accurate strikes. Drones could help fill that gap – but if they are unable to slow Qaddafi's forces' attacks, the US could be put under pressure to send manned aircraft in, reports The Los Angeles Times.
The first Predator drone strikes were to begin Thursday, but were reportedly delayed due to bad weather.
The New York Times reports that the US decision to begin drone strikes reveals "gaps in NATO's ability to carry out complicated, extended combat missions without continued and significant American support." Libya's conflict has been at a relative stalemate for weeks, with NATO and the rebels unable to fully overcome Qaddafi's forces.
Interestingly, the protracted conflict is not causing a decline in public support for US involvement, according to an ABC News poll taken April 17. About 40 percent of the public opposed involvement on April 17, up three points from March 13. Public support held steady at 56 percent over that period.
But President Obama specifically has seen a drop in approval during the two-month conflict. While public approval of his handling of the situation has held nearly steady at 42 percent, the number of those who disapprove has grown by 15 points in the past month to 49 percent.
The inclusion of drone strikes into the Libyan conflict could lead to a decline in approval of Western involvement in Libya throughout the Muslim world as well, warns David Ignatius of the Washington Post:
My quick reaction, as a journalist who has chronicled the growing use of drones, is that this extension to the Libyan theater is a mistake. It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of US power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way.
I wrote late last year that the problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems. The Saudis asked for them last year to go after Yemenis they didn’t like; the Turks use them (looking over our shoulders) to target Kurdish extremists in Iraqi Kurdistan. And now the United States will use them to beef up a stalemated NATO campaign in Libya, on behalf of a rebel army that very well may include Islamic radicals who, under other circumstances, might themselves have been targets of Predator attack.
Drones have also been the subject of hot debate in Pakistan, where they are a controversial part of the United States' counterterrorism operation against militants. The Pakistani public, and increasingly its military and intelligence, are opposed to the US use of drones to attack militant strongholds in the country's northwest.