Gates: U.S. participation in Libya operation being scaled back

WASHINGTON — The United States is scaling back its role in the international military operation against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and will not be sending U.S. troops into the war-stricken North African nation “as long as I’m in this job,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserted Thursday.

Gates was responding to sharp questions from members of both parties on the House Armed Services Committee who expressed deep reservations over the length, costs and objectives of the third major U.S. military engagement in the Muslim world.

“History has demonstrated that an entrenched enemy, like the Libyan regime, can be resilient to air power,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the panel chairman. “With Iraq and Afghanistan already occupying a considerable share of American resources, I sincerely hope that this is not the start of a third elongated conflict.”

Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were unable to say how long the operation would persist. But they made it clear that the United States was pulling back to a supporting role in which it would jam Gadhafi’s communications and provide in-air refueling, intelligence and other specialized aid to other members of the NATO-led coalition.

“We will in coming days significantly ramp down our commitment of other military capabilities and resources in this operation,” said Gates, who added that U.S. aircraft would no longer take “an active part” in airstrikes against regime forces fighting to crush poorly armed and organized rebels.

Repeatedly pressed by members of both parties about whether there would be American “boots on the ground,” a euphemism for U.S. troops, Gates at one point replied, “Not as long as I’m in this job.”

The pair also were repeatedly prodded on whether the Obama administration would provide training and weapons to the rebels. Both men said that no decision had been made, but they strongly indicated that it was unlikely that the United States would take on that task.

“My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States,” Gates said. “Somebody else should do that.”

He declined to address the presence inside Libya of CIA teams that U.S. officials say are maintaining contact with the rebels and gathering intelligence on Gadhafi’s forces and targets for the multinational coalition enforcing a U.N. authorized no-fly zone and protecting civilian areas.

Gates and Mullen testified just hours after the 28-nation NATO alliance assumed overall command of the operation to enforce the no-fly zone, protect civilians and provide humanitarian assistance to war-stricken areas, most of which lie in eastern Libya, where the uprising erupted last month.

U.S.-led strikes by aircraft and cruise missiles that began just under two weeks ago have “degraded” Gadhafi’s better armed, trained and more numerous forces by 20 to 25 percent, Mullen said.

But those loses, he continued, haven’t been enough “to break” Gadhafi’s fighting ability.

The coalition attacks on Gadhafi’s airpower, armored forces and heavy artillery initially allowed the rebels based in the eastern city of Benghazi to mount a disorderly offensive that took them just short of the dictator’s hometown of Sirte.

But bad weather in the past few days forced a cutback in coalition air operations, allowing regime forces to recover much of the ground they lost.

Moreover, Mullen noted, Gadhafi’s forces have been using civilian vehicles similar to those of the rebels, making it harder for coalition pilots to differentiate between the sides.