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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.