Assessing NATO's Mission In Libya

Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard has been overseeing operations in Libya since they began in March. He talks about the lead up to the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi's regime last month, how the mission has changed now that the Transitional National Council is in power and whether NATO has any clues as to where Gadhafi may be.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's last stronghold appears to be under siege as rebels encircled by Bani Walid and are waiting for orders from the Transitional Council to attack. Negotiations between the two sides are breaking down. NATO forces are continuing attacks on Gadhafi loyalists' positions as they have for the last six months.

I spoke earlier today with the commander of those forces, Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard. We reached him at the NATO Operation Center in Naples, Italy. General Bouchard stands by NATO's limited formal objective - to protect the Libyan civilians. He says NATO isn't even trying to find Gadhafi.

Lieutenant General CHARLES BOUCHARD: NATO is not working in the pursuit of Gadhafi. What I'm after is troops that are directly firing on civilians, their lines of communications, their supply center, and more importantly, their command and control nodes. To me, whether it's a corporal or a general that's inside that node is immaterial. What's important is that orders are being given and these orders are being executed and the end state is civilian suffering.

SIEGEL: But a NATO ally, France, has said to have broken the arms embargo by providing the rebels with arms. Qatar, not a NATO ally but a country who flew planes in the operation, also trained Libyan special forces. Why not just say at some point that the object here was to overthrow the regime of Moammar Gadhafi?

BOUCHARD: I think we're confusing the national interest with the NATO mission. Each nation has a sovereign right to conduct certain events or actions. And it is up to these sovereign nations to deal with Libya the way they wish.

SIEGEL: On the one hand, one could say NATO effectively leveled the battlefield for the Libyan levels rebels. On the other hand, it took several months to cripple the Libyan army whose heavy arms date from the Soviet era - that is they're 20 years old. Question is: Could this have all been done a lot faster?

BOUCHARD: We didn't face an enemy using old Russian equipment. We faced people that shed their uniform and became extremely difficult to find out who is who. So from this perspective, without resources on the ground, we had to be extremely careful as to how we would work this.

SIEGEL: Well, you didn't have NATO troops on the ground, but you did have friendly Libyan rebels. Weren't they conveying intelligence to you for targeting?

BOUCHARD: The people on the ground are dentists, bakers, lawyers, and doctors who have taken arms against the regime, not an organized military force trained and equipped to conduct combat operation. So when we consider that a group of civilians who took arms against the regime were able to accomplish that much in five months, I think it's quite significant.

SIEGEL: Compared to the NATO operation in Kosovo back in the 1990s, it seems that there have been rather fewer civilian casualties inflicted by NATO, very little of what military people call collateral damage or, for that matter, very few friendly fire incidents. Why is that?

BOUCHARD: Well, I think it's the restraint by the military leadership that the equipment that is being used is much more precise with much smaller yield weapons. We have been very rigorous in our selection of targets to ensure that we knew what was there. We've done several assessments into patterns of life. So we...

SIEGEL: By patterns of life, you mean what civilians do and where they would be in a given place at a given time?

BOUCHARD: Let me give you an example, if I may. Not far from (unintelligible) Zawiyah, which we saw fall about a week and a half ago now, there was a soccer game taking place and there were two SA-8 missile systems right beside them. We waited for two hours. Then once the soccer game finished and the people left the area, and we confirm that only the military equipment was left, we struck.

SIEGEL: Just one last question, General Bouchard. The Gadhafi stronghold, the town of Bani Walid, I gather, is now under siege. First, what role is NATO playing in that siege? And are there Libyan civilians - possibly civilians loyal to their hero, Gadhafi - who might be in danger in Bani Walid?

BOUCHARD: We're watching Bani Walid. We're watching the discussions in Sirte, as well. We're mindful that there are civilians that could be placed in danger. We continue to see regime operating out of hospitals, of mosques. I can tell you the population of Sirte is being kept as human shields. So we continue to see violence or a threat of violence against the population. And we will continue to act as we see fit.

SIEGEL: General Charles Bouchard of NATO, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BOUCHARD: Thank you very much. Have a good day.

SIEGEL: General Bouchard of Canada is commander of NATO operations in Libya. He spoke to us from Naples in Italy.

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