The American general heading up Operation Odyssey Dawn told reporters this afternoon that despite launching 12 more Tomahawk missiles and flying about 60 sorties over Libya today—over half of which were flown by European jets—“no one who is part of this coalition is on the ground … . No American boots [are] on the ground.”
Gen. Carter F. Ham, who heads up the American AFRICOM command and briefed reporters by video conference from his headquarters in Germany—a country sitting this one out—said that aircraft from France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, and the U.K. are currently involved in operations, and that Canadian and Belgian forces have also arrived in the region.
Ham said that since the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn over the weekend, no Libyan aircraft have been detected in operation, and “no emissions from long range air defense radars” have been picked up.
Libyan forces “now possess little will or capability to conduct offensive ops near Benghazi” due to the opening barrage fired from American and British ships and submarines, Ham said, adding that as the coalition extends the no-fly zone westward, it is “likely we will encounter the regime’s mobile air defense” which will then be attacked as well. Asked if he is concerned that the no-fly zone will lead to more operations in support of rebel forces, followed by the landing of ground forces to keep the peace, Ham told the Pentagon briefing room that “I don’t worry too much about mission creep … . The mission here is very clear, frankly: to establish no-fly zone, to protect civilians, to get regime ground forces out of Benghazi.”
While this initial mission may be clear, the outlook for what happens next is anything but. The general repeatedly said that the mission is to protect civilians, and not to support rebel forces. But if the rebels are civilians—and the vast majority of them are—then every attack by pro-regime forces against the opposition is actually an attack against civilians. Still, the general said that heavily armed Libyan opposition forces are not covered under the protect civilians clause: "There are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and heavy weapons. Those parts of the opposition are no longer covered under that ‘protect civilians' clause"
He reiterated that “we do not provide close air support for the opposition forces, we protect civilians.” But then came the confusion: “Some in the opposition may be civilians … if they were attacked ... we would protect them from attack.”
This makes the mission for the air crews over Libya pretty complicated. When they see civilians threatened, Ham said, “they have to take action.” But where it’s unclear whether the people on the ground are civilians or armed opposition forces, “the aircrews are instructed to be very cautious.”
How cautious, and how much leeway these aircrews are given to make their own decisions in such a confusing environment, remains to be seen.