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U.K. Defense Secretary Fox: Opposition Gaining Ground in Libya

April 26, 2011 at 6:04 PM EDT
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said NATO allies have Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his forces on the defensive, and that opposition forces had gained "momentum" in recent days. Margaret Warner discusses NATO operations in Libya with Fox, who was in Washington on Tuesday for meetings with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
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MARGARET WARNER: I spoke today with Secretary Fox at the NewsHour late this afternoon after his Pentagon meetings. 

Secretary Fox, welcome. Thanks for coming in.

LIAM FOX, British defense secretary: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: You said today that Gadhafi is on the back foot. What is your evidence of that? What are you looking at?

LIAM FOX: Well, we’ve seen in recent days opposition forces making ground in Misrata, where the regime had been shelling the civilian population for some time. It’s now clear that the opposition control a large part of — if not all of — the city. Clearly, that’s a setback. We’ve also been able to hit a number of his ammunition dumps, fuel supplies. So the logistics are getting more difficult. We’ve been able to interdict petroleum products coming in by sea. That is also having an effect. So bit by bit, we’re tightening the noose around the regime’s neck.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Gadhafi’s forces are attacking the port of Misrata, trying to go after its supply lines. How concerned are you about that?

LIAM FOX: Well, we’ve been able to push them back in recent days. Obviously, that’s been made easier by the fact that the United States has made the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles available to us. That’s given us a shorter gap between the identification of targets and striking the targets, rather than the traditional airpower that we’ve been using. So that’s been an advance for us, and obviously the opposition forces themselves have gained a greater capability in recent days.

MARGARET WARNER: So you aren’t – the talk in Washington in the last week or so has been about potential stalemate. Adm. Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said that last week. You don’t see that?

LIAM FOX: I don’t see that in the last few days. You know, there’s been a bit of momentum there. We’ve seen money coming in from Kuwait – $150 million or so for the opposition forces. We’ve seen greater involvement by the Qataris, by the United Arab Emirates. So there is some political momentum there that wasn’t there before. But, you know, in all of these campaigns, we get periods of greater and lesser momentum.

MARGARET WARNER: So how can you step up the military pressure? Did anything new come out of this lengthy meeting you had with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen today?

LIAM FOX: Well, this morning was a discussion about a wide range of issues, not just Libya: obviously, Afghanistan, which remains our main effort, and the situation in Egypt; what is happening in Syria; what’s happening in Bahrain; what’s happening in the rest of the Gulf; what is happening in Yemen. Secretary Gates said to me a few weeks ago, it’s like watching the seven plagues of Egypt unfolding.

(LAUGHTER)

LIAM FOX: And as you said, we haven’t got to the locusts yet, but we’ve been seeing an unusually large number of unstable situations in the region, all of which we’re having to respond to.

MARGARET WARNER: But is there anything new that you came up with in – on Libya to increase the pressure still further?

LIAM FOX: Well, it’s not so much new as a continuation of the pressure we’ve been bringing on Gadhafi. Up until relatively recently – really, until the last few days – this, if you look at it from Gadhafi’s point of view, has been something happening at arm’s length: something happening in Misrata, something happening in Ajdabiya or out towards Benghazi.

What we’ve seen in recent days — attacks on Tripoli to increase the psychological pressure, apart from anything else, on Gadhafi, to make him realize that this is something that he is involved in. And I think that’s very important in terms of the pressure we can bring on the regime itself.

MARGARET WARNER: So that’s what the attack on his compound Sunday night and on state TV were about.

LIAM FOX: Well, what the primary aim was was to deal with the command-and-control mechanisms. Under the U.N. resolution, we’ve made it very clear that part of protecting the civilians is to degrade command-and-control mechanisms, wherever they are in Libya. And of course, when people talk about compounds, I think they have an idea that this is some little homely patch that he has. In fact, these are often dual-use areas that are used for accommodation but also used for command-and-control for the armed forces that are killing and terrorizing the population.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the British are also sending in special forces as trainers. Are they there yet? And what are they actually going to be doing with the rebel forces?

LIAM FOX: Well, they’re not trainers. They’re advisers. And they’re there to advise in very limited circumstances on organizational capability, on communications and on logistics — basically, how the opposition forces can get better use out of what they’ve already got, rather than training them. And the reason for that is that we feel that that keeps us safely within the confines of U.N. Resolution 1973.

MARGARET WARNER: So the NATO advisers aren’t doing anything to assist them in training themselves on basic discipline, basic fighting tactics and strategy – the things that at least journalists who’ve been in on the ground with them say they really lack?

LIAM FOX: We’re not there to take a side of one group in the population against the regime. Our job is to take the side of the civilians and to ensure that they are protected. And that is what the U.N. resolutions have given the international community a mandate to do. And it’s very important that we stay within that because in doing so, we maintain the wider coalition, not just NATO but the Arab countries who are such an important part, militarily and politically.

MARGARET WARNER: You said earlier in our conversation that the U.S. drones that have been added have helped a lot. Do you need the U.S. to do more militarily, to get back in on the basic operation in terms of bombing strikes?

LIAM FOX: Well, we need them to do more of the same. For example, with the drones that have been made available in recent days, that has been a big help to the NATO operation. Also, the U.S. air-to-air refuelers has been a big help. I think there’s been unfair criticism of the administration in this whole operation. The U.S. made it very clear to us that in the early part, they would be doing a lot of the heavy lifting, a lot of the bombardment. But the U.S. had still its involvement in Iraq; clearly, it’s own problems and concerns in the Gulf, Afghanistan. So we entirely understood the position of the U.S. The fact that we’re getting this additional help on the drones is extremely welcome.

MARGARET WARNER: The foreign secretary, William Hague, told your Cabinet yesterday to prepare for the long haul. Now, you are the defense secretary. What kind of time frame are you planning for? I mean, six weeks? Six months? A year or more?

LIAM FOX: Well, before I answer that question, I have to take into account that any message we sent on time scale is a message we’re also sending to the Libyan regime. And what we need to understand is that we have a mandate to protect the civilian population, and as long as the regime is killing its own population, the international community will protect them.

The answer to the question really lies in the hands of one man, and that’s Col. Gadhafi. He can end all this tomorrow by recognizing he is isolated in his country, he is unloved by his people, he’s a liability to them, he has no friends in the international community, he is ostracized by the United Nations. The best thing is to call it a day and go.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Secretary Fox, thank you very much.

LIAM FOX: Thank you.