Retired Gen. Keane: Small Number of Military Ground Forces Needed in Libya for Targeted Air Strikes

BY Daniel Sagalyn  March 23, 2011 at 5:00 PM EDT

The retired Army general who was a major advocate of the Iraq troop surge in 2007 says some U.S. ground forces may be needed to help counter troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi who are killing civilians in the Libya conflict. The Obama administration has adamantly insisted no ground troops would be involved in Libya.

Gen. Jack Keane told the PBS NewsHour that a small number of U.S. forces specially trained to call in air strikes should be deployed on Libyan territory to help the rebels fighters repel Gadhafi’s forces.

Keane is close to Gen. David Petraeus, the former Centcom and Iraq commander now commanding allied forces in Afghanistan. He was the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

“Yes, we established a no-fly zone by destroying Gadhafi’s air defense and forces, but Gadhafi’s decisive forces are his ground forces, particularly his two armored brigades” Keane said in a telephone interview. “As such, this should be our focus” in order to protect the population as called for by United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

Keane said Gadhafi has two kinds of forces: “Those outside the cities that are not engaging the rebels. They are easy to destroy, they there are out in the open. But those forces engaging the population or rebels, that is a challenge because of the proximity to friendlies and the danger of civilian casualties.”

Keane said this type of “challenge is something we deal with routinely. We call this mission Close Air Support (CAS)” which involves using trained pilots, precision guided munitions, and a small number of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) that can “deliver the ordnance on the target.”

Keane said the U.S. did this in 2001 during the coalition invasion of Afghanistan. “When we put Special Forces on the ground with the Northern Alliance, we devastated the Taliban.” These types of forces can “laser designate for the bombs” meaning that the soldiers shine lasers on targets that the bombs would lock on to, and hone in on.

Or, Keane added, sometimes the JTACs “guide the bomb itself. Not just pointing out the location, but they take control of the bomb and direct and guide it to its target.” Keane said “we do it every day with the Taliban. We’ve done this for years in Iraq.”

Keane noted that the French and British have military forces capable of conducting this mission and that the U.S. did not have to be the country to provide them. President Obama has said no U.S. ground forces would be involved in the Libya operation.

Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, chief of staff of the Joint Task Force that is conducting the military operations in Libya, did not answer reporters’ questions at Wednesday’s operational briefing about whether special forces were needed to call in air strikes. On the PBS NewsHour Tuesday night, Ali Suleiman Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to Washington who defected from the Gadhafi regime a few weeks ago, said that special forces that came in quickly and then left Libyan soil may be negotiable.

Keane said “the problem is if we don’t provide this capability, Gadhafi’s ground forces will advantage themselves by staying closer to the population and kill them at will.”

Keane also said the U.S. should destroy not only Gadhafi’s military forces that were committed and “in contact” but also the “entire military capability,” including those forces in garrison and uncommitted, and the logistical infrastructure. “We don’t just destroy the point of the spear, but the whole spear,” Keane said. The regime relies on these military forces and “if we take that out of the way, the rebels can take Tripoli” Keane said.

However, other former military officers disagree with the wisdom of putting special forces on the ground.

“The 2001 case of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan is not the same,” Retired Col. Kalev Sepp wrote in an email to the PBS NewsHour. Sepp, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School and is a former Army Special Forces officer, points out that the Northern Alliance, which the U.S. partnered with in ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan “was relatively organized around warlords, who commanded sizable combat forces and controlled large portions of the country.”

Sepp noted that “the fighting [in Afghanistan] had stalemated for years. The employment of U.S air power, guided by U.S. Special Forces who were aided by CIA officers, simply tipped the balance in favor of the anti-Taliban forces. In Libya, the insurgents are nowhere nearly as well organized, experienced, equipped, etc., as the ‘Northern Alliance’ was in 2001.”

Sepp wrote that “according to U.S. Army Special Forces doctrine, it would take six months to raise a competent guerrilla/insurgent force.”

Sepp also cautions that it will be hard to figure out whom to partner with in Libya. “We would have to choose among the many insurgent groups (mobs at this point), in terms of whom to support. What if one of the groups changes sides and kills their American advisers, or takes them hostage? Inevitably, our Special Forces would inadvertently kill civilians in their guided airstrikes – what then? Will we pick the right insurgent leader to take over Libya? Or will we choose the wrong man? Think of Karzai.”

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