Regime change, removing Moammar Gaddafi and his family from power in Tripoli, is not the military mission of the United States, NATO and their other coalition partners. But, ironically, getting rid of the Libyan dictator would seem to be the only quick way to end what now appears to be a stalemate between the forces of the opposition and Gaddafi loyalists.
It’s time to be frank: The fastest way to end the fighting is to remove Gaddafi.
Gen. Carter F. Ham, the former U.S. commander of coalition Libyan operations, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he would not recommend regime change be added to the military mission there.
“It would make the investment and extent of American involvement much more uncertain than it is today,” said Ham, who heads Africa Command. Adding regime change to the mission would also probably end support for Libyan operations from the U.N. Security Council, some NATO countries and the Arab League, he said.
However, in response to questions, Ham said, “[Gaddafi’s] removal by any means would end this relatively quickly.”
Ham frankly assessed as “a low likelihood” the opposition being able to get to Tripoli and replace Gaddafi by force. But he agreed with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (D-S.C.) that the most likely scenario for success is that Gaddafi’s inner circle would force his departure, rather than the opposition forces gaining a military victory.
His testimony reflected statements made two weeks ago by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. A former CIA director and longtime intelligence analyst, Gates suggested scenarios for ending Gaddafi’s reign that included: “a member of his own family kills him or one of his inner circle kills him, or the military fractures, or the opposition, with the degradation of Gaddafi’s military, rises up again and is successful.”
French forces may have set the pattern, aiding in the arrest of the errant Ivory Coast president, Laurent Gbagbo, in his bunker in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, winner of the recent election, took Gbagbo into custody, and news reports said Gbagbo’s forces had announced they would give up their weapons and end the fighting.
Ham said that while he was commander there was no attempt to go after the Libyan dictator individually. “We made no effort at tracking him personally or attacking him,” Ham said. But he did say attacks on Tripoli were directed at regime command-and-control targets, some of which are in Gaddafi’s home compound. He described Libya’s 32nd Brigade as a “very specific target for us.” It is commanded by Gaddafi’s youngest son, Khamis, and considered “the regime’s inner protective force,” according to Ham.
Asked by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) what would be needed if the mission were expanded to include getting rid of Gaddafi, Ham responded that it would require a “pretty significant” increase in intelligence collection just to track him. He is “a difficult target . . . because this is a very practiced individual in terms of concealing movements,” the general said, and the human intelligence involved would probably require agents on the ground in Libya.
Ham also said it would require military forces “able to act on very, very short notice to intelligence” if Gaddafi were located. Sending in a team to grab Gaddafi was an option that would be “the most precise and the less likely to have civilian casualties or additional collateral damage, but very, very difficult to execute.”
Earlier, Ham had referred to the difficulty in finding Gaddafi in 1986 when, after a Libyan bombing of a German nightclub that killed U.S. servicemen, the Reagan administration went after him. U.S. planes bombed Gaddafi’s home compound, killing one of his children, but Gaddafi was not hit.
The hearing raised several other issues worth considering.
Ham confirmed reports that as many as 20,000 shoulder-fired, antiaircraft rockets had been in Libyan military warehouses before the uprising began in February. “Many of those we know are now not accounted for, and that’s going to be a concern for some period of time,” he said, because some may have been taken to other countries.
One published source of the missing-rockets story was Idriss Deby, the president of Chad, who is friendly to Gaddafi. He told the African weekly Jeune Afrique in late March that some were in the hands of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, the North African terrorist group that supports Osama bin Laden. Itno did not know how many of the rockets were missing but told the publication he was “100 percent sure” of his assertion.
The missing rockets are not a great threat to U.S. and NATO aircraft now flying over Libya, because they operate generally at altitudes higher than the effective range of the missing shoulder-fired antiaircraft systems. The longer-term threat, according to Ham, is “if these systems were to be controlled by violent extremist organizations.”
He said intelligence assets are trying to track where those systems may have been taken and how they’re stored and under whose control. In collaboration with regional partners, the United States would “try to take action to get them out of extremist hands,” he said.
In response to Graham’s question as to why the coalition has not yet destroyed Libyan television broadcast facilities that Gaddafi had been using effectively to send out his own propaganda message, Ham said a strike would involve unacceptable civilian casualties.