Initial Libya Mission Complete, Successful, Gates Says

WASHINGTON, April 1, 2011 — U.S. air­craft will remain on stand­by as NATO takes over mul­ti­lat­er­al oper­a­tions in Libya and the coali­tion con­sid­ers its future role there, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates told a Sen­ate com­mit­tee yes­ter­day.
U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft are still avail­able to NATO in the next few days until the orga­ni­za­tion for­mal­ly takes con­trol of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions over Libya, Gates told the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. After that, the U.S. fight­er jets will remain on stand­by in case they are need­ed again, he said.

Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ear­li­er appeared before the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in what was a full day of tes­ti­mo­ny about the U.S. role in Libya.

Coali­tion forces had to halt air oper­a­tions over Libya due to bad weath­er for the past two days, caus­ing rebel forces to retreat from areas they’d gained since oper­a­tions began March 19, Mullen said.

Gates described the U.S. mil­i­tary mis­sion in Libya as an emer­gency prompt­ed by Libyan leader Moam­mar Gadhafi’s intent to use his mil­i­tary against civil­ians protest­ing for his ouster. With­out inter­ven­tion, he said, the sit­u­a­tion would have led to thou­sands of deaths, hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees and desta­bi­liza­tion across North Africa. “That part of our mis­sion is com­plete and suc­cess­ful,” Gates said.

More than 20 nations, includ­ing sev­er­al Arab coun­tries, are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the NATO coali­tion — some pub­licly, some not — in dif­fer­ent ways to enforce U.N. Res­o­lu­tion 1973 that allows for the no-fly zone, Mullen said. The coali­tion, he said, was able to move fast to pre­vent a dis­as­ter because of U.S. rela­tions with those Euro­pean and Mid­dle East­ern nations.

“No one mil­i­tary, no one nation, can or should take on a mis­sion like this alone,” Mullen said. “This is not only a coali­tion of the will­ing — it is a coali­tion of the able.” The coali­tion has great­ly dimin­ished Gadhafi’s mil­i­tary air capa­bil­i­ties and many of his ground assets, the chair­man said. “My under­stand­ing is that focus will not dimin­ish under NATO lead­er­ship,” he said.

The coali­tion con­tin­ues to seize Libyan assets around the world, while sign­ing on more part­ners, Mullen said. Swedish offi­cials were the lat­est, hav­ing this week agreed to send eight air­craft to the effort, he said.

The coali­tion is con­sid­er­ing whether and how to give more sup­port to rebel forces, Gates said. “A deci­sion about sup­port to the oppo­si­tion is clear­ly the next step,” he said. “I think all mem­bers of the coali­tion are think­ing about that at this point.” A major con­sid­er­a­tion for the coali­tion is that not much is known about the rebels.

“We know a hand­ful of the lead­ers,” Gates said. “But oth­er than that, we real­ly don’t know much about what I think is dis­parate, dis­ag­gre­gat­ed oppo­si­tion to Gad­hafi.”

The issue is more com­pli­cat­ed than sim­ply arm­ing the rebels. What the oppo­si­tion real­ly needs, Gates said, is orga­ni­za­tion, train­ing, and com­mand and con­trol — some­thing he said like­ly requires coali­tion forces on the ground in Libya, which Gates and Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma said they are not will­ing to do.

“There real­ly is no crit­i­cal mass to work with” among the rebels, Gates added.

Gates and Mullen reject­ed the idea that the mil­i­tary mis­sion should be broad­ened to include regime change, although they acknowl­edged that is a polit­i­cal goal.

“I very much believe that the mis­sion as cur­rent­ly stat­ed — to pre­vent a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis — is the right mis­sion at the right time,” Mullen said. “My expe­ri­ence with regime change is that it can be long and very, very inde­ter­mi­nate in its out­come.”

It may be that Gad­hafi will be forced from pow­er, pos­si­bly by an inter­nal mil­i­tary coup, Gates said. Coali­tion forces “will con­tin­ue to attack [Gadhafi’s] ground forces with no oppor­tu­ni­ty for resup­ply,” he said. “His mil­i­tary is going to face the ques­tion of whether they are pre­pared to be destroyed by air attacks, or if it’s time for him to go.”

After being repeat­ed­ly asked about broad­en­ing the scope of the mis­sion, Gates said Con­gress must also con­sid­er finan­cial real­i­ties. Con­gress has yet to pass the fis­cal 2011 bud­get and has forced the depart­ment to oper­ate under con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tions since Oct. 1. Besides oper­a­tions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates not­ed there are 19 ships and 18,000 ser­vice mem­bers deployed on a human­i­tar­i­an mis­sion in Japan.

“I acknowl­edge that I’m pre­oc­cu­pied with avoid­ing mis­sion creep” in Libya, the sec­re­tary said. “But … we are in seri­ous bud­get trou­ble with the ongo­ing CR. At a time when we are asked to do so much, this brings this issue home. I need help from the Con­gress. The Defense Depart­ment needs help from the Con­gress.”

At the same time, the sec­re­tary not­ed, there “are oth­ers who can ful­fill near­ly all of the role” in Libya, refer­ring to the coali­tion.

Asked to char­ac­ter­ize the rebel­lion in Libya, Gates reject­ed call­ing the sit­u­a­tion a civ­il war.

“I think it rep­re­sents a fair­ly broad-based upris­ing against an oppres­sive gov­ern­ment,” he said. “A civ­il war sug­gests there are two estab­lished gov­ern­ments that have some kind of struc­ture and are in con­flict for pow­er.”

The rebels’ core objec­tive seems to be “get­ting rid of the gov­ern­ment they’ve got,” the sec­re­tary said. “The prin­ci­pal chal­lenge we are all going to face is what hap­pens after Gad­hafi falls.”

The Unit­ed States and NATO “should­n’t exag­ger­ate our abil­i­ty to influ­ence that deci­sion,” Gates said, not­ing that would be bet­ter left to the Libyans and oth­ers in the region.

“There are a num­ber of pos­si­ble out­comes here, only one of which is some kind of democ­ra­cy,” he said. “My view is that the future of Libya — the U.S. ought not take respon­si­bil­i­ty for that, frankly. There are oth­er coun­tries in the region that can par­tic­i­pate in that, par­tic­u­lar­ly with non-lethal aid.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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