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US Commander Sees Libya Stalemate

US General Carter Ham (file photo)
US General Carter Ham (file photo)

The chief of U.S. military operations in Africa says the situation in Libya is moving toward a stalemate that would leave Moammar Gadhafi in power for an unknown period of time. General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, spoke Thursday to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.

General Ham faced tough questioning from some members of the committee, particularly Republicans, who disagree with President Barack Obama’s decision not to use the military to directly oust Gadhafi.

The committee’s senior Republican, Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 election to President Obama, was particularly tough. He said the United States lost an opportunity to remove the Libyan leader when it sought an international coalition and took three weeks to put it together. Senators are normally deferential to senior military officers like General Ham, but Senator McCain, a former Navy officer himself, asked the general some pointed questions.

McCain: Would you say that the situation on the ground is a stalemate, or an emerging stalemate?
Ham: Senator, I would agree with that at present on the ground."

McCain pressed further on the implications of a stalemate.

McCain: Gadhafi remaining in power, which is the result of a stalemate, is in the United States national security interest.
Ham: Sir, it’s clear that the United States position is…
McCain: Is it or not? I’d like an answer to the question.
Ham: Sir, I don’t know that…
McCain: Is it in the United States national security interest to see Gadhafi remain in power, which is the result of a stalemate? That’s a pretty straightforward question, general.
Ham: Sir, it is clear that the United States has said it is in the United States' interest for Mr. Gadhafi to no longer be in power."

General Ham acknowledged that leaving Mr. Gadhafi in power is not what he called "the preferred situation", but he disagreed with Senator McCain when he said that possibility is more likely now than it was last week, when the United States was leading the military effort rather than NATO.

The general also explained that while the removal of the Libyan leader a U.S. goal, it is not part of the military mission. U.S. officials say they are using diplomacy and economic pressure, combined with the limited U.S. and NATO military role, to try to get Gadhafi out of power.

Under a UN Security Council resolution, the military mission is limited to enforcing an arms embargo and a no-fly zone, and protecting civilians. In that regard, General Ham expressed regret that the operation failed to protect civilians in the town of Misurata, 200 kilometers east of Tripoli. Gadhafi forces have been shelling the town, causing numerous civilian casualties.

"The regime has a significantly degraded ability to continue to attack civilians, but if I may, with the notable exception of Misurata. And that is a particular challenge and one that I will frankly bear responsibility for as long as I live, for that particular situation," Ham said.

As the U.S. Africa Command commander, General Ham is interested in the Libya operation, and will have some role in dealing with its aftermath. But for the moment his role is secondary because NATO has taken over command of the operation, with U.S. air and naval forces mainly involved in support functions.