Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates testifies during a hearing before… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — The Pentagon said it would soon withdraw jet fighters and ground-attack planes from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led air campaign in Libya, a move that U.S. lawmakers warned could make the airstrikes less effective in preventing Moammar Kadafi's forces from attacking opposition-held areas.
But the U.S. is keeping combat aircraft, including AC-130s and A-10 ground-attack planes, on standby in case the operation's Canadian commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, requests U.S. help, said Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday. He said the U.S. was not ruling out sending American warplanes back over Libya if NATO proved unable to halt Kadafi's advancing forces.
The Obama administration has planned since the air campaign began nearly two weeks ago for U.S. forces to shift to a support role, with warplanes from European allies assuming the bulk of the combat sorties. But with Kadafi's troops regaining the offensive against beleaguered rebels, questions have deepened as to whether NATO can handle the mission without U.S. firepower.
"Your timing is exquisite," a sarcastic Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at an Armed Services Committee hearing. "At a time when the Kadafi forces have literally, tragically, routed the anti-Kadafi forces, that's when we announced that the United States was abdicating its leadership role and is removing some of the most valuable assets that could be used to great effect."
Gates replied that "it remains to be seen" whether NATO would prove incapable of handling the combat mission without U.S. participation and of sustaining the number of strike sorties against Kadafi's forces.
Gates and Mullen were testifying at daylong hearings on Libya during which lawmakers from both parties complained that the White House had failed to set clear goals for the air operation and could be facing a protracted stalemate if Kadafi is able to hold on to power.
Gates acknowledged that a stalemate was a possible outcome, and he said under questioning that the U.S. "has no contingency plan" other than "keeping the pressure on" if Kadafi continues to consolidate his position.
In his strongest language since the U.S. deployed warplanes to protect Libyan civilians, Gates ruled out sending any U.S. military ground forces to Libya "as long as I'm in this job" — a viewpoint that he said President Obama shared.
A U.S. official confirmed Thursday that Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to coordinate with and help the rebels. CIA operatives have been on the ground for weeks, gathering intelligence and providing nonlethal aid to the rebels.
Gates acknowledged that the administration was still considering whether to provide arms to the rebels, but he argued that training and other forms of assistance were most important in fending off Kadafi's forces.
"What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command and control and some organization," Gates said. "That's not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I'm concerned, somebody else can do that."
But, in a sign of the hurdles the opposition force faces without outside assistance, Mullen estimated that the rebel forces have only 1,000 fighters with formal military training, the rest being untrained civilians. He said Kadafi's supporters outnumbered them tenfold in tanks, artillery and heavy weapons.
Mullen said the NATO-led air campaign had been hampered in recent days because of bad weather, reducing the coalition's ability to carry out airstrikes. He also said there were tensions among the 28 members of NATO and other governments involved in the air campaign over whether to escalate the military effort to drive Kadafi from power.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in Stockholm, suggested that there was no agreement within NATO on whether to arm the rebels, despite statements by U.S. and British officials that the United Nations resolution authorizing international intervention allows such action.