U.S. military unclear on goal of its Libya mission

Friday, March 25, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

WASHINGTON The U.S. military is participating in a NATO mission but is unsure of its role in the war against Libya.

Senior commanders acknowledged that the U.S. military was restricted in air operations over Libya. They said the operations were meant to protect civilians rather than help oust Libyan Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

"We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces." African Command chief Gen. Carter Ham said. "We protect civilians."

In a briefing on March 21, Ham, the military commander in charge of the U.S. operation in Libya, acknowledged uncertainty as well as difficulties in the NATO mission, titled Operation Odyssey Dawn. The general said U.S. fighter-jets and warships have found it difficult to distinguish between civilians and rebel fighters.

"It's a very problematic situation," Ham said. "Sometimes these are situations that brief better at the headquarters than in the cockpit of an aircraft."

The commanders said the U.S. military, which has also sent more than 4,000 Marines to the Mediterranean Sea, has not been informed of the goal of the Libyan mission. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, differed from his European colleagues in saying that the NATO mission could end with Gadhafi still in power.

"I have no mission to attack that person [Gadhafi], and we are not doing so," Ham said. "We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that."

So far, the U.S. contingent has lost one F-15E fighter-jet in operations over Libya. The commanders said U.S. participation could slow down over the next week as France or Britain takes over the operation.

"We believe that air defense system elements are severely degraded or destroyed, and have been by these coalition forces," U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber said on March 23. "We will continue our focus on the regime's air force network that continues to pose a threat to coalition air operations enforcing the no-fly zone."

In the initial stage of the operation, the United States flew half of combat sorties over Libya as well as fired more than 160 Tomahawk cruise missiles toward Tripoli and other Gadhafi targets. The commanders said Washington has been steadily reducing its operations despite Gadhafi's offensive against the rebel movement.

"It's my judgment, however, that despite our successes to date, that Gadhafi and his forces are not yet in compliance with the United Nations Security Council resolution, due to the continued aggressive actions his forces are taking against the civilian population of Libya," Adm. Samuel Locklear, a senior commander of the U.S. contingent, said.

The commanders said the U.S. military wanted to refocus on Afghanistan and the prospect of a Taliban offensive in the spring of 2011. They said major assets have not been diverted from Afghanistan for the U.S. contingent in Libya.

"There was an examination of whether certain intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets of an actually quite limited nature might be needed to help out with the operation in Libya," Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said on March 23. "But in the end there have been no assets taken from the effort in Afghanistan and I don't foresee that happening at this point in time."

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