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With Rebels In Retreat, What Are U.S. Options?

Libyan rebels carry rocket-propelled grenades as they take position at the west gate of the eastern city of Ajdabiya on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Air attacks on Libya began nearly two weeks ago with what seemed to be a simple goal: protecting civilians and preventing the rebel-held city of Benghazi from being overrun.

Those attacks have evolved into something more. The U.S. has used powerful, low-flying attack planes to target forces inside Libyan cities.

There is also serious talk about taking another step: arming the rebels who are opposing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

President Obama says it's being considered. "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in," he told NBC. "We're still making an assessment, partly about what Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing."

What Gadhafi's forces are doing is pushing the rebels back with mortar and artillery fire. Before escalating — and arming the rebels — the Obama administration hopes other measures might halt that momentum.

First step: airstrikes.

Increasing Firepower

In the past few days, the Americans brought in more firepower for that job — two warplanes specially designed to target Libyan troops hiding among civilians in cities. One is the A-10 Warthog; the other is the AC-130 gunship. Both are armed with cannons and Gatling guns.

"They can be very precise in very small quarters," says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who designed the air campaign for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

NATO strikes are also targeting Libyan army fuel depots and ammunition dumps.

Obama told NBC these airstrikes could determine the coalition's future course in Libya.

"Do we start getting to a stage where Gadhafi's forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups? But we're not taking anything off the table at this point," he said.

To Arm Or Not To Arm

But if airstrikes are not enough, arming the rebels is the next option — giving them some type of anti-tank weapon or rocket-propelled grenades.

"If their defeat is to be prevented, it's inevitable that they get weapons from somewhere else," says Frank Anderson, president of the Middle East Policy Council, a nonpartisan think tank. In the 1980s, he worked with the CIA, training Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets.

But here's an important detail to keep in mind: Sending in weapons also means sending in someone to train the rebels to use the weapons.

"You don't need specialists. What you need is someone who can teach very simple tactical behaviors," Anderson says. "It doesn't take a long time."

Those trainers wouldn't have to come from the United States.

Still, if the Obama administration is looking for a quick and painless way to shift the balance of power on the ground, arming the rebels may not do it.

"I don't think there's really a quick fix to the shortcomings of the rebels," says Andrew Exum, a defense analyst who has advised the Pentagon. "The bottom line is the rebels are few in number; they're poorly organized; they do not have a trained cadre of fighters. And if anything's holding them back, it probably has to do more with the inability to effectively fire and maneuver than weaponry."

Coordinated Strikes

There's one more option: coordinating airstrikes with the rebels. Anderson, the former CIA operative, says that's what led to the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

"You had [a] Special Forces staff sergeant or a young lieutenant or a CIA operative with a GPS and a radio embedded with the friendly forces, and they were able to call down precision airstrikes," he says.

At this point, U.S. officials say they're not coordinating airstrikes with the rebels and they're only discussing arming them.

Either option means a major escalation: coalition forces or operatives on the ground helping the rebels.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

There's a lot of news out of Libya today. The country's foreign minister has defected to Britain. We'll hear more about that in a moment.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Deb Amos has that story.

MONTAGNE: And she's confirmed that CIA teams are in Libya to train opposition fighters. But first, were going to talk to NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about the CIA's operation in Libya and the Obama administration's debate over whether to arm the rebels there.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Let's start with the CIA. What can you tell us?

BOWMAN: Well, Linda, The New York Times reports that CIA operatives are already on the ground in Libya and NPR has confirmed that. And also, President Obama has signed what's called a Finding, that's essentially a legal step necessary before the CIA can carry out secret operations. And officially, there is no comment from the White House on any of this.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what about the debate on arming the rebels?

BOWMAN: Well, the president spoke about that the other day and said it was being considered. Here he is on NBC. Let's listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not ruling it out but I'm also not ruling it in. We're still making an assessment, partly about what Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing.

BOWMAN: What Gadhafi's forces are doing is pushing back the rebels with mortar and artillery fire. Before arming the rebels and escalating the conflict, the Obama administration hopes other measures might halt Gadhafi's momentum. First step: Air strikes.

In the last few days, the Americans brought in more firepower for that job; two warplanes specially designed to target Libyan troops hiding among civilians in cities. One is the A-10 Warthog and the other is the AC-130 gunship. Both are armed with cannons and Gatling guns.

Lieutenant General DAVE DEPUTULA (Retired, Air Force): They can be very precise in very small quarters.

BOWMAN: Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deputula designed the air campaign for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He says NATO strikes are also targeting Libyan army fuel depots and ammunition dumps.

President Obama told NBC these air strikes could determine the coalition's future course in Libya.

President OBAMA: Do we start getting to a stage where Gadhafi's forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups? But we're not taking anything off the table at this point.

BOWMAN: But if air strikes are not enough, arming the rebels is the next option. Give them some type of anti-tank weapon or rocket-propelled grenades.

Mr. FRANK ANDERSON (President, Middle East Policy Council): If their defeat is to be prevented, it's inevitable that they get weapons from somewhere else.

BOWMAN: That's Frank Anderson, president of the Middle East Policy Council, a non-partisan think tank. Back in the 1980s, he worked with the CIA training Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets.

But here's an important detail to keep in mind: Sending in weapons also means sending in someone to train the rebels to use those weapons.

Mr. ANDERSON: You don't need specialists. What you need is someone who can teach very simple tactical behaviors. It doesn't take a long time.

BOWMAN: Those trainers wouldn't have to come from the United States.

Still, if the Obama administration is looking for a quick and painless way to shift the balance of power on the ground, arming the rebels may not do it.

Mr. ANDREW EXUM (Fellow, Center for a New American Security): I don't think there's really a quick fix to the shortcomings of the rebels.

BOWMAN: That's Andrew Exum, a defense analyst who has advised the Pentagon.

Mr. EXUM: The bottom line is the rebels are few in number. They're poorly organized. They do not have a trained cadre of fighters. And if anything is holding them back it probably has to do more with the inability to effectively fire and maneuver than weaponry.

BOWMAN: There's one more option: Coordinating air strikes with the rebels. Frank Anderson, the former CIA operative, says that's what led to the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Mr. ANDERSON: You had Special Forces staff sergeant, or young lieutenant, or a CIA operative with a GPS and a radio, embedded with the friendly forces and they were able to call down precision air strikes on the enemy.

WERTHEIMER: We're talking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Tom, that former CIA operative you spoke with talked about CIA personnel targeting of air strikes. Is that a possibility?

BOWMAN: Yes, Linda. And the way they do this is by having operatives on the ground calling in GPS coordinates to a pilot, or using a laser to point at a target for a pilot to attack. And what this all means, now, is that the U.S. is clearly on the side of the rebels. There'll no longer be able to say the coalition is only there to protect civilians.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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