With Rebels In Retreat, What Are U.S. Options? As Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces push back anti-government fighters, talk of sending in arms to the rebels has gotten more serious. But the Obama administration hopes other measures, like stepped-up airstrikes, might halt that momentum.
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With Rebels In Retreat, What Are U.S. Options?

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

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

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

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

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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: 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.

P: 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: 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.

WERTHEIMER: They can be very precise in very small quarters.

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

P: 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.

WERTHEIMER: 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.

BOWMAN: Sending in weapons also means sending in someone to train the rebels to use those weapons.

WERTHEIMER: 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: 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.

WERTHEIMER: 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.

WERTHEIMER: 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.

WERTHEIMER: 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: 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.

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