The Cable

Rules of engagement are murky in Libya air war

The head of U.S. Africa Command, charged with running the operation in Libya, said that the international coalition in Libya will not help the rebels' military units, only civilians targeted by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces -- assuming they can tell the difference between the two.

"We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces. We protect civilians," Gen. Carter Ham, the top military official in charge of the operation, told reporters in a conference call on Monday. The problem is, there is no official communication with the rebel forces on the ground and there is no good way to distinguish the rebel fighters engaged against the government forces from civilians fighting to protect themselves, he said.

"Many in the opposition truly are civilians...trying to protect their civilian business, lives, and families," said Ham. "There are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and heavy weapons. Those parts of the opposition are no longer covered under that ‘protect civilians' clause" of the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized military intervention.

"It's a very problematic situation," Ham admitted. "Sometimes these are situations that brief better at the headquarters than in the cockpit of an aircraft."

So how are pilots in the air supposed to tell the difference? If the opposition groups seem to be organized and fighting, the airplanes imposing the no-fly zone are instructed not to help them.

"Where they see a clear situation where civilians are threatened, they have... intervened," said Ham. "When it's unclear that it's civilians that are being attacked, the air crews are instructed to be very cautious."

"We have no authority and no mission to support the opposition forces in what they might do," he added.

What's more, the coalition forces won't attack Qaddafi's forces if they are battling rebel groups, only if they are attacking "civilians," Ham explained. If the Qaddafi forces seem to be preparing to attack civilians, they can be attacked; but if they seem to be backing away, they won't be targeted.

"What we look for, to the degree that we can, is to discern intent," said Ham. "There's no simple answer."

One thing that the coalition is clear about is that there is no mission to find or kill Qaddafi himself.

"I have no mission to attack that person, and we are not doing so. We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that," Ham said.

He acknowledged that the limited scope of the mission in Libya could result in a stalemate, which would achieve the objective of protecting civilians but allow Qaddafi to remain in power.

"I have a very discreet military mission, so I could see accomplishing the military mission and the current leader would remain the current leader," Ham said. "I don't think anyone would say that is ideal."

He said the United States was looking to transfer leadership of the mission to an international organization or structure within a few days. U.S. planes flew about half of the 60 sorties above Libyan airspace on Sunday and are expected to fly less than half of the sorties Monday.

The attack on one of Qaddafi's compounds over the weekend targeted a command and control building inside the compound, and did not represent a widening of the mission to attack Qaddafi's core military infrastructure, Ham said.

The Cable

Inside the White House-Congress meeting on Libya

President Barack Obama hosted 18 senior lawmakers at the White House on Friday afternoon to "consult" with them about the new plan to intervene in Libya, exactly 90 minutes before Obama announced that plan to the world and one day after his administration successfully pushed for authorization of military force at the United Nations.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) complained on Thursday that the administration had not properly consulted Congress before deciding to support military intervention in Libya, and called for a formal declaration of war by Congress before military action is taken. Inside the White House meeting, several lawmakers had questions about the mission but only Lugar outwardly expressed clear opposition to the intervention, one lawmaker inside the meeting told The Cable.

The other lawmakers in attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-TX), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Rep. Buck McKeon (R-NY), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).

Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough held a conference call with top Congressional staffers on Friday afternoon where he emphasized Obama's "deep respect for Congress in all of these matters," and gave a read out of the White House meeting. A recording of the call was provided to The Cable.

"The president expects the preponderance of our involvement to last a matter of days, not weeks," McDonough said.

"At the front end of this effort, the United States will contribute our unique capabilities to neutralize air defenses and military equipment that threatens civilians and civilian-populated areas to enable ongoing enforcement operations led by our partners," he said. "We will then enable and support other countries to enforce the no-fly zone...with us in a support role.... It will not be an open ended effort by the United States."

Responding to questions from the staffers, McDonough rejected Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa's claim that all military operations had been halted. McDonough said that all indications are that government attacks on civilians continue and "we have no evidence to support the assertion from the foreign minister that there's a ceasefire."

NATO, which is organizing command and control of the no-fly zone, enforcement of the arms embargo, and humanitarian assistance operations, could finished their planning as early as today, McDonough said. He also confirmed that in addition to the no-fly zone and the "no-drive zone," planning is ongoing for a "no-sail zone," which would allow greater enforcement of the arms embargo authorized by the new U.N. resolution.

In an exclusive interview with The Cable, Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama emphasized in the meeting that the United States would not shoulder the lion's share of responsibility for conducting and resourcing the mission.

"While the U.S. will provide support and leadership in terms of implementing capabilities which it's uniquely able to provide, the general operation is going to be much more Arab and European led," Berman said, adding that he called into the meeting from Los Angeles.

Berman praised the administration's action, but noted that the current plan is limited to protecting civilians and does not allow international forces to actively overthrow the Libyan government.

"There is now an international consensus that Qaddafi must go, but what does not yet exist is an international consensus on how to get Qaddafi to leave power," he said.

He said the administration is involved in a "tremendous amount of vetting" of Libyan opposition figures as it attempts to figure out which ones are safe to work with, and perhaps even provide with weapons. The White House also told lawmakers that the latest resolution eliminates confusion by more clearly allowing the arming of the opposition, Berman said.

Rogers, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Friday that the White House clearly emphasized the U.S. role would be limited.

"We are going to play a very supportive role. France and Great Britain and others are going to lead the way along with our Arab League allies; there may be four or five Arab countries participating," he said.

Rogers said that the administration had been in contact with lawmakers and had kept him up to date, but the communications had been mostly one way.

"I wouldn't call it consultation as much as laying it out," he said.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images