Questions raised about U.S. role and goals in Libya

A U.S. F16 plane takes-off from the Aviano air base in Italy en route to Libya.
A U.S. F16 plane takes-off from the Aviano air base in Italy en route to Libya. (Afp/getty Images)
By Karen DeYoung and Peter Finn
Monday, March 21, 2011; 4:06 PM

The prominent role played by the United States in carrying out and commanding the initial coalition attacks on Libya appeared to extend far beyond President Obama's description of a narrow mission in which U.S. forces would play only a supporting part.

Senior U.S. military officials continued Sunday to describe the U.S. involvement as "limited" in extent and duration. They emphasized plans to relinquish command and control responsibilities to coalition partners within days. They repeated Obama's pledge that no U.S. ground troops would be deployed.

But administration officials and military leaders came under a barrage of questions - raised by members of Congress, outside experts and reporters - about the parameters of U.S. participation and the operation's goals, especially if Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi does not capitulate.

"There have been lots of options which have been discussed, but I think it's very uncertain how this ends," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged on CBS's "Face the Nation.''

Mullen, who appeared on five television talk shows, was pressed repeatedly to define the mission and its objectives. "I think circumstances will drive where this goes in the future," he said on CNN's "State of the Union.''

Could it end with Gaddafi remaining in power? "That's certainly, potentially, one outcome," Mullen said on NBC's "Meet the Press," using language he repeated in other interviews. "I wouldn't go so far as to say we're not going to have airplanes over Libya in three or four days."

In a briefing for reporters traveling with Obama in South America, National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon said that command would be transferred, possibly to NATO, in "days, not weeks," and described the goal of the first phase of the mission as "crystal clear."

"The focus right now was on a direct threat to citizens" of Libya, he said, "in response to requests" from Arab governments and under last week's U.N. resolution authorizing member states to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians. The result of the first phase has been establishment of a no-fly zone that Pentagon officials said now extended from Tripoli in the west to Benghazi in the east, and, as Donilon said, to "prevent what could have been a catastrophe in Benghazi" as Gaddafi's military forces began a major attack on the city Saturday.

Donilon said that the United States had brought its "unique capabilities" at the outset of the operation to "simultaneously in a single evening . . . go after" Libya's air defenses and capabilities, allowing French and British planes to then establish a no-fly zone over Libya.

"This is a limited-in-scope-duration-and-task operation," Donilon said of the U.S. role. U.S. forces will quickly move into the background, he said, providing jamming of Libyan government communications, surveillance and intelligence, and refueling for coalition aircraft.

Donilon and Mullen said that while the short-term goal was to remove the threat to Libyan civilians, other efforts would bring about Gaddafi's increasing international isolation, including previously adopted economic sanctions, an arms embargo, and a travel ban on members of his family and government, and help persuade his remaining supporters in Libya to abandon him.

But they stressed that while Obama has called for Gaddafi to step down, unseating him is not an objective of the military operation.

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