'Mission leap' in Libya

By Dale McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Friday, April 1 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Mission creep" is generally defined as the incremental process by which a project expands well beyond its original aims. Something like mission creep seems to be taking place with the U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya.

Initially, the mission was to enforce a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from their leader Moammar Gadhafi's murderous reprisals. But that soon morphed into airstrikes in support of the ragtag rebels that enabled them to take several coastal towns on route to the capital of Tripoli.

The clearest indication of that shift in emphasis was the Obama administration's decision to deploy AC-130s and A-10s to Libya, planes not intended to sweep other aircraft from the sky but for close air support of ground operations.

And now the administration has dispatched teams of CIA operatives, and the British have likewise dispatched special-forces units and MI6 agents, to make contact with rebel leaders, assess their capabilities and direct allied airstrikes.

All of this is pursuant to a finding signed several weeks ago -- presumably when President Barack Obama was publicly expressing skepticism about intervention in Libya -- that allows the CIA to conduct covert operations in Libya.

The rebels are disorganized, untrained and lightly armed with weapons, mainly assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades that they've looted from government stores. The White House conceded that "all types of assistance" are under consideration, and that would indicate that arming the rebels is probably the next step, although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he prefers that some others than the United States do it.

Once the rebels are properly armed, the logical next step would be to train them in the use of their new weapons, and from there it's a small step to advising their commanders on operations.

The administration has repeatedly insisted that there will be no regular U.S. forces sent to Libya, most forcefully this week by Gates, who said not as long as "I'm in this job."

Although no government has publicly stated it, the implicit goal of the NATO intervention, with the support of the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League, is to force Gadhafi to leave, preferably willingly, by force if necessary. The mission has crept some distance from a purely humanitarian project.

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