Washington in Fierce Debate on Arming Libyan Rebelshttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya, senior officials said on Tuesday, with some fearful that providing arms would deepen American involvement in a civil war and that some fighters may have links to Al Qaeda.
The debate has drawn in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, these officials said, and has prompted an urgent call for intelligence about a ragtag band of rebels who are waging a town-by-town battle against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, from a base in eastern Libya long suspected of supplying terrorist recruits.
“Al Qaeda in that part of the country is obviously an issue,” a senior official said.
On a day when Libyan forces counterattacked, fears about the rebels surfaced publicly on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when the military commander of NATO, Adm. James G. Stavridis, told a Senate hearing that there were “flickers” in intelligence reports about the presence of Qaeda and Hezbollah members among the anti-Qaddafi forces. No full picture of the opposition has emerged, Admiral Stavridis said. While eastern Libya was the center of Islamist protests in the late 1990s, it is unclear how many groups retain ties to Al Qaeda.
The French government, which has led the international charge against Colonel Qaddafi, has placed mounting pressure on the United States to provide greater assistance to the rebels. The question of how best to support the opposition dominated an international conference about Libya on Tuesday in London.
While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration had not yet decided whether to actually transfer arms, she reiterated that the United States had a right to do so, despite an arms embargo on Libya, because of the United Nations Security Council’s broad resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians.
In a reflection of the seriousness of the administration’s debate, Mr. Obama said Tuesday that he was keeping his options open on arming the rebels. “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in,” Mr. Obama told NBC News. “We’re still making an assessment partly about what Qaddafi’s forces are going to be doing. Keep in mind, we’ve been at this now for nine days.”
But some administration officials argue that supplying arms would further entangle the United States in a drawn-out civil war because the rebels would need to be trained to use any weapons, even relatively simple rifles and shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons. This could mean sending trainers. One official said the United States might simply let others supply the weapons.
The question of whether to arm the rebels underscores the difficult choices the United States faces as it tries to move from being the leader of the military operation to a member of a NATO-led coalition, with no clear political endgame. It also carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of which backfired. The United States has a deep, often unsuccessful, history of arming insurgencies.
Mr. Obama pledged on Monday that he would not commit American ground troops to Libya and said that the job of transforming the country into a democracy was primarily for the Libyan people and the international community. But he promised that the United States would help the rebels in this struggle.
In London, Mrs. Clinton and other Western leaders made it clear that the NATO-led operation would end only with the removal of Colonel Qaddafi, even if that was not the stated goal of the United Nations resolution.
Mrs. Clinton — who met for a second time with a senior opposition leader, Mahmoud Jibril — acknowledged that as a group, the rebels were largely a mystery. “We don’t know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know,” she said at a news conference.
In his testimony, Admiral Stavridis said, “We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces.”
The coalition members discussed other ways to help the rebels, like humanitarian aid and money, Mrs. Clinton said. Some of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan funds may be channeled to the opposition.
But a spokesman for the rebels, Mahmoud Shammam, said they would welcome arms, contending that with weaponry they would already have defeated Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. “We ask for political support more than arms,” Mr. Shammam said, “but if we have both, that would be good.”
So far, the rebels have obtained arms from defecting Qaddafi loyalists, as well as from abandoned ammunitions depots.
A European diplomat said France was adamant that the rebels be more heavily armed and was in discussions with the Obama administration about how France would bring this about. “We strongly believe that it should happen,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had had conversations with two senior administration officials about this issue. Mr. Levin said he was most concerned about how the rebels would use the weapons after a cease-fire. “Would they stop fighting if they had momentum, or would they be continuing to use those weapons?” he asked.
Gene A. Cretz, the American ambassador to Libya, said last week that he was impressed by the democratic instincts of the opposition leaders and that he did not believe that they were dominated by extremists. But he acknowledged that there was no way to know if they were “100 percent kosher, so to speak.”
Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some who had fought as insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were bound to have returned home to Libya. “The question we can’t answer is, Are they 2 percent of the opposition? Are they 20 percent? Or are they 80 percent?” he said.
Even if the administration resolves these concerns, military officials said it was unclear to them how an effort to arm the rebels would be carried out.
They said the arms most likely to be of use were relatively light and simple shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons for defense against tanks, as well as rifles like Soviet AK-47s and communications equipment. Although these weapons are not especially sophisticated, months, if not years, of on-the-ground training would still be necessary.
Even with training, anti-armor weapons and rifles would allow the rebels only to consolidate their gains and hold the territory they have, said Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.One crucial voice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has experience in the unintended consequences of arming rebels: As a C.I.A. official in the late 1980s, he funneled weapons to the Islamic fundamentalists who ousted the Soviets from Kabul. Some later became the Taliban fighting the United States in Afghanistan.