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Keane: Coalition Needs to Put Forces on Ground in Libya to Work With Rebels

March 24, 2011 at 6:14 PM EST
NATO agreed Thursday to assume part of the military operations against Libya -- enforcement of the no-fly zone -- after days of debate among its members. Jeffrey Brown assesses the progress in the Libya campaign and the upcoming NATO handoff with retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and the RAND Corporation's Frederic Wehrey.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we assess the military campaign in Libya now.

For that, we’re joined by retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. He was Army vice chief of staff when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. He now has his own consulting firm. And Frederic Wehrey is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. As an Air Force Reserve officer, he served as a military attache in Libya in 2009 and then earlier this year.

Gen. Keane, I will start with you.

What is your assessment so far of the allied military action?

GEN. JACK KEANE (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, I think they have done a remarkable job in a short period of time. Establishing a no-fly zone, I think, is something of a misnomer.

We have destroyed their air forces and we destroyed their air defenses. And the decisive force in Libya has always been his ground forces, and we’re beginning to destroy them. They have got some problems with it.

You just on the report — those forces that are committed forces, that is, they’re engaged with the rebels or are in proximity to civilians, we have to destroy those forces. To be able to do that, we must put air-ground teams with the rebels on the ground to be able to identify those targets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Air-ground teams means put people in?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Put people in. We did this against the Taliban in 2001 with special forces teams on the ground that directed the airplanes to the target. We do it every day in Afghanistan today. And we did it routinely in Iraq as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Frederic Wehrey.

What’s your assessment of the situation? And then can you get to that point specifically about putting teams in.

FREDERIC WEHREY, RAND Corporation: I would agree with that.

The airstrikes have been very effective in pummeling his ground forces, especially going after the command-and-control and logistics in places like Misrata and Ajdabiya. The key question is whether that’s enough to really turn the tide in the favor of — for the rebels.

And I do think the air-ground team option is a viable one, although we have to be cautious of faulty analogies, the Northern Alliance model, and also again putting a sort of made-in-America label on this uprising.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by the faulty analogy? Explain that. What are the — what’s the risk here? What’s different here from the earlier case?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, again, in Afghanistan, there was a fighting force, a guerrilla force that was seasoned. It had a very effective command structure that was experienced in fighting the Soviets and then the Taliban.

That is just not the case with the opposition. So, again, these — these ground teams could perhaps shift the short-term advantage to eject Gadhafi’s forces from these contested cities, but whether that really paves the way for a rebel march toward Tripoli and the downfall of Gadhafi, I think, is doubtful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, General, the administration has said from the beginning that no ground troops would be in — no U.S. ground troops would be involved. So what specifically do you think is doable? And are you talking about U.S. troops, or British, French? What do you see?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, U.S. troops would be ideal, because we have so many of them, and they’re so experienced at this.

But if that’s not in the cards, the U.K. has capability, and so do — so does France and other militaries who have a modern suite of air-force airplanes that have to perform this mission. The mission is called close air support. It’s done in proximity to ground forces who are normally fighting or in proximity to civilians to avoid friendly fire of civilians or our forces.

And that’s the reality of it. The second thing I think that needs to be done, though, to be able to pave the way for what I think everyone wants to happen — and that is the removal of Gadhafi — is, the military should be assigned the mission to defeat Gadhafi’s military.

It’s already defeated its air forces and its air defense, but to defeat its entire structure of ground forces, its command-and-control, its logistics, its committed forces, those who are in the fight, and its uncommitted forces, who are not yet in the fight.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this goes well — this goes beyond the mission as stated so far, agreed to by the U.N.

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, sure. But I think it’s something that they could agree to, if the desire is to permit the rebels to march on Tripoli, unimpeded, to force Gadhafi’s removal.

If that’s not in the cards, then this incremental approach that we’re taking just to protect the population — and we’re not able to do that until we get air-ground teams on — is the step we should stick with. But, in my mind, American prestige is clearly on the line in terms of Gadhafi.

If he stays in power, and we have some kind of a stalemate, that’s a totally unsatisfactory outcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Wehrey, what are the risks there? Of course, this goes to the debate that started before — before the no-fly zone began. But what are risks in going even further?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, I do think we have to be sensitive to how this plays out, and that the way he is brought down is perhaps more important than bringing him down, and that this has to be due to the momentum from within the country.

Again, I think the near-term option could be ejecting his forces from these contested cities, establishing safe zones. He presides over a rump state. He’s left increasingly isolated in his strongholds around Tripoli. And a variety of pressures are brought to bear on him, political, economic, diplomatic. There are perhaps inducements made to key tribes, to members of the inner circle. And slowly, you — you constrict the regime and you bring about his removal in that manner.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gen. Keane, we just heard the news that there is an agreement from NATO to take over.

Now, what kind of — what new issues does that raise, what new command-control-type questions, and how — the kinds of things you’re calling for, how might that be impacted by NATO in charge of this?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, NATO is experienced in terms of the headquarters that they have. So, I suspect that there will be a relatively smooth transition in terms of command-and-control.

I don’t know what headquarters will be selected. I know they were thinking about the headquarters that was in Naples, which is commanded by an American. And so I think that transition would be — go relative smooth.

The issue is much larger than that, in terms of, what is our policy? What is our strategy to achieve that policy? And are we going to stick with this very limited policy of just protect the people, or are we going to push out and assist the rebels to removal Gadhafi, or at least put so much pressure on Gadhafi’s inner circle that they try to make a deal?

Gadhafi draws his strength from his military and his personal security forces. If we eliminate that military, the pressure there is enormous…

JEFFREY BROWN: But you heard in the bite earlier from Adm. Gortney talking about avoiding cities, right, avoiding bombing the cities because of the fear of collateral damage. Is there not that — is there not that risk, if you ramp things up, the way you’re talking about, that civilians, more civilians will be hurt?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, the mission that we have right now is to protect the people. That’s the mission. And I would suggest in actually expanding that mission to defeat the military. But the mission is to protect the people. And we have forces…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

But I’m saying, how do you do that?

GEN. JACK KEANE: We have forces engaged with them, and we have a process to do that. It’s in — it’s putting air-ground teams on the ground who will control the aircraft. They will direct the pilot and direct the bombs, sometimes laser-designate those bombs to the target.

Now, we have got precision bombs to do that. We also have specially trained pilots who do that and special munitions to do that kind of mission. We have it, and so do other countries. So, there is a mechanism that we could use to protect those civilians who are being impacted by those forces that are so close to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Wehrey, what’s your reaction to that, especially after you’re hearing the admiral speak earlier in that briefing with his worries about — about doing just that, about bombing in urban areas?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, again, these air-ground teams could — could result in a greater degree of precision that would avoid precisely that danger.

But again, this — this goes back to the question — I mean, that’s sort of a tactical solution. The larger issue about bringing about his downfall has to take into account that there is a base of support in Tripoli among the tribes, among his sons, key units commanded by his sons that will likely fight to the bitter end.

So, simply putting in the ground teams I don’t think removes those obstacles to his downfall. And the second point that we need to discuss is the sort of government that will follow him, and are we taking steps to create an arena for the opposition to come together, to hammer out their differences, to organize themselves for legitimate leadership to emerge, as we did at the Bonn conference in Afghanistan?

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you finally, Gen. Keane, we heard the French minister, foreign minister, say, this will last days or weeks, not months.

Does that sound possible, plausible to you, or does that depend on how the mission is defined?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, I think it has to do with what really is the end state that they desire.

If you have a stalemate and you’re trying to establish a free zone around that stalemate in the east, separated from the west, then I think our military presence will actually stay there longer. I think, if you had a policy that assisted the rebels in pushing Gadhafi out, you could do that actually much sooner, because then it would be all in, so to speak.

And I agree that we need a political strategy in terms of what comes next, and also a political strategy and some recognition of the opposition movement that already exists in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gen. Jack Keane, Frederic Wehrey, thank you both very much.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you.