"...Any bets as to when we'll finally admit there are American boots on the ground in Libya? We're guessing by week's end, barring some sort of preemptive leak."
Turns out, we were off by a few days> As you might have heard, that information was disclosed late this afternoon, to The New York Times:
The Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels battling Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials. While President Obama has insisted that no American military ground troops participate in the Libyan campaign, small groups of C.I.A. operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks as part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help bleed Colonel Qaddafi’s military, the officials said.
The Times also reports that British operatives and special forces are also on the ground, gathering intelligence and directing air strikes by RAF fighters. So, between the CIA and British contingents, there are plenty of qualified personnel to provide control for Air Force A-10s and AC-130s that joined the battle earlier this week. Unfortunately, the spooks are playing catch-up.
The Commander of U.S. Africa Command (who was running the operation before NATO took control today) admitted earlier this week that his staff "didn't have great data" to plan and launch the operation. In an e-mail, General Carter Ham admitted that "we haven't focused much on Libya in recent years."
More disturbing, the Times also reports that some of our spooks in the ground were previously assigned to the CIA station in Tripoli. In other words, the operatives who've had difficulty in generating actionable intelligence on Qadhafi and his military are the local experts (emphasis ours). Actually, many of the CIA agents controlling our aircraft are paramilitary operatives, who probably entered Libya after the fighting began. But it's painfully evident that Libya also represents an intelligence failure, not on the scale of WMD in Iraq, but a failure nontheless.
Meanwhile, the tactical situation on the ground continues to erode. Forces loyal to Qadhafi are continuing their advance, pushing the rebels back towards Benghazi. Various media outlets have reported that insurgent recruits are entering combat with only minimal training. One rebel, interviewed by Fox News, admitted that he was carrying an AK-47 for the first time. Even against Qadhafi's incompetent military, the insurgents have virtually no chance. Chris McGreal of the U.K. Guardian did an excellent job of describing the rag-tag faction that is battling the dictator's army. If President Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron are betting on these guys, they might want to reconsider.
With the war going badly, Mr. Obama and his allies are facing pivotal decisions. Ramp up the air war (in hopes) of stopping Qadhafi's advance, while finding some way to prop up rebel ground forces. Obviously, you can't build an army overnight, and there aren't enough SAS and CIA operatives to handle the job. Against the backdrop, the NATO alliance (led by the U.S.) must quickly weigh the option of sending in ground forces. Without them, the rebels are heading for defeat--and so is NATO.
ADDENDUM: With the alliance now running the show, we're not sure who's in charge of the air operation. But prior to the hand-off, the officer running the air war was Air Force Major General Margaret Woodward, the first woman to lead an air campaign. As Commander of 17th Air Force (based in Germany), General Woodward is in charge of the air element of U.S. Africa Command, which led our initial strikes in Libya.
General Woodward is a career airlift and tanker pilot, which means she has the right background for support and humanitarian missions. However, her qualifications for kinetic operations are a bit vague. As the air war enters a critical phase, General Woodward and her NATO colleagues must find a way to stop Qadhafi's forces--or develop plans for getting CIA personnel and British operatives out of Libya.