Libya: the briefing of Africom commander

The complete transcript is included below.

COL. LAPAN: All right, sir. We’ll get a little more volume on this, and then we’re ready to go. Good morning, all. We’re pleased to be joined today by General Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command via satellite from his headquarters — oh, oh he’s back — from his headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

General Ham assumed command of U.S. AFRICOM on the 9th of March. He is also, as you know, commanding U.S. military support for international enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect the Libyan people.

And with that, General, I’ll turn it over to you.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: Thanks very much, Dave, I’d like to begin today by expressing my heartfelt appreciation for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coastguardsmen from our own nation, as well as many others, who have performed with such great skill, competence, and bravery since military operations began in Libya.

And a special word, if I might, of thanks to their families whose love and support gives every one of us who wears a uniform the strength to carry on.

Over the past 24 hours, coalition forces have continued operations to implement the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. U.S. and British forces launched 12 tomahawk land attack missiles targeting regime command and control facilities, a scud surface-to-surface missile facility, and a reattack of an air defense site which had previously been attacked.
Coalition air forces from France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, and the United Kingdom flew missions to sustain the no-fly zone over Benghazi to protect civilians from attack by regime ground forces and to conduct further reconnaissance. Coalition naval vessels sustained their maritime patrols in support of the UN Security Council Resolution direction to prevent the illegal shipments of arms to and from Libya.

I assess that our actions to date are generally achieving the intended objectives. We have not observed Libyan military aircraft operating since the beginning of coalition military operations. Libyan naval vessels have returned to or have remained in port.

Since the initial strikes, we have detected no emissions from regime long-range air defense radars.

Air attacks have succeeded in stopping regime ground forces from advancing to Benghazi and we are now seeing ground forces moving southward from Benghazi. We will, of course, watch these ground force movements closely. And through a variety of reports, we know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations.

I would note the commitment of all in the coalition to conduct our operations with precision, with very high concern for civilian casualties, and with positive control of all of our forces.

Our actions today are focused on extending the no fly zone southward, then westward from Benghazi. With the growing capabilities of the coalition, I anticipate the no fly zone will soon extend to Brega, Misratah, then to Tripoli. That’s about a thousand kilometers, so it’s a pretty wide area.

In addition to the forces I mentioned previously, we welcome Canadian and Belgian forces as they conduct operations today in the area. And I would note the presence of the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle and the Italian carrier Garibaldi add significant capability in the region.

Finally, we are developing the process by which we transition the lead for military operations to a designated headquarters. This is a very complex task under the best of conditions, so my goal is to not cause disruption to the ongoing operation while we effect the headquarters transition.

I would now welcome your questions.


Q: General Ham, this is Bob Burns from AP. To what extent is the U.S. military communicating with rebel force leaders in order to coordinate action on the ground? You mentioned the Benghazi area and Misratah as well. And also, what do you know about the whereabouts of Qadhafi and the extent to which he’s still in control of his forces?

GEN. HAM: I don’t know much about the location of the Libyan leader, nor have we expended any military effort in that regard. We have expended considerable effort to degrade the Libyan regime’s military command-and-control capability and I think we’ve had some fairly significant effect in that regard.

Our mandate — again, our mission — is to protect the civilians from attack by the regime ground forces. Our mission is not to support any opposition forces. So while we have reports from people who are reported to be in the opposition, there is no official communication or formal communication with those in this so-called opposition that are opposing the regime’s ground forces.

Q: General, Tom Bowman with NPR. You talked about the no-fly zone moving toward Misratah. The reports today that Libyan soldiers are shooting civilians in Misratah and I’m wondering along those lines, do you fear mission creep here? U.N. resolution specified Benghazi, but might this, you know, move on to other cities as well? And also, as a ground guy like yourself, talk about the difficulty of protecting civilians by air when the Libyan troops are in among the population.

GEN. HAM: The first step toward countering the regime from attacking civilians, whether it’s in Misratah or anyplace else, is to ensure that we have freedom of air movement. So the first step is necessarily ensuring that we are able to extend the no-fly zone and operate our aircraft with a low level of risk. So as we extend the no-fly zone westward, I think it is likely that we may encounter some of these regime’s mobile air defense systems. And where we encounter those, we will certainly attack them.

The larger point of how do you apply air power, particularly in very close combat, is a very, very difficult situation for us. And the identification and the distinction of forces in very close quarters is a particular challenge for us.

We’ve been very precise in our instructions to the air crews about what they may and may not do, and we are very, very conscious in — obviously, in limiting civilian casualties. So it is always this balance that we as commanders try to apply, and ultimately, these very well trained, very well disciplined air crews — in this case, from many nations — that apply when they have observation on regime ground forces attacking civilians.

Where we can, and where we can safely without risk to other civilians and causing collateral damage, we have a capability to engage in those kinds of missions. Right now, over Misratah the first effort, though, is to establish the no-fly zone, and that process is under way. And until we do that, our ability to influence activities on the ground remain somewhat limited.

Q: Mission creep, do you worry about that?

GEN. HAM: I’m sorry, could you say again, please?

Q: Mission creep, do you worry about that?

GEN. HAM: No, I don’t worry too much about mission creep. The military mission here is pretty clear — it is very clear, frankly, and what is expected of us to do: to establish this no-fly zone; to protect civilians; to cause the — you know, to get the withdrawal of regime ground forces out of Benghazi. And so I don’t — I don’t have a sense at all that there is mission creep.

What we are looking forward to is the transition from a U.S.-led effort to the designated headquarters. But again, I’m not concerned at this point about mission creep. I think our mission is clear and we’re moving forward. And as I say, I think we are so far achieving our military objectives consistent with our mission.

COL. LAPAN: Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you, General. Spencer Ackerman, with Wired. As you go after the regime’s ground forces, to what degree can it really be said that you’re not providing close air support for the opposition, even if you’re not being in contact with them?

GEN. HAM: We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces. We protect civilians. Some — I suspect some would argue that some within the opposition may be civilians. And if they are attacked by regime forces, then we would be obliged, if we possess the capability, to try to protect them from attack. But we have no mission and no intent to provide close air support to the opposition.

Q: Can I just follow on that, General Ham? Elisabeth Bumiller, from The New York Times. You said there was no official communication, or formal communication, with the rebels. Can you say there are no Americans on the ground, period, with the rebels — or on the ground, period, Americans of any kind?

GEN. HAM: It’s been very clear to me, and I think anyone who has heard the president or the secretary of Defense speak to this: you know, no American boots on the ground.

There are no American boots on the ground from this coalition. You know, I think there are — frankly, I think there are some American citizens who were in Libya who chose not to leave, but no one who’s — no one who’s a part of this coalition is on the ground. I don’t know how to be more clear than that: No military boots on the ground.

Q: General, hi, it’s David Cloud with the LA Times.

I know you said that you’re not providing close air support to the opposition. But if the opposition were to leave Benghazi, were to — were to resume essentially offensive military operations and were to get into a clash with Libyan forces, what role, if any, would coalition aircraft or coalition forces play in supporting that?

GEN. HAM: Yeah, I — I mean, it’s — now, I’m not real comfortable going down the path of hypothetical questions. I would just tie us back down to our — to our mission. The mission is to protect civilians. If civilians are attacked, we have an obligation under Security Council resolution and the mission that’s been given to me to protect those civilians. We have no mission to support opposition forces if they should engage in offensive operations. And so that’s — I guess I would just leave it at that. We protect civilians. We do not have a mission to support the opposition.

Q: Don’t you define, even now, rebel forces who are in Benghazi as civilians, in effect? I mean, if there were attacks on men holding guns who are rebel forces, would you not protect them?

GEN. HAM: It gets a little bit into some very specific parsing of this question because, again, who exactly is this opposition? It’s clear to me simply from watching the reports from many of the organizations that are represented in that room that many in the opposition truly are civilians, and they are trying to protect their homes, their families, their businesses. And in doing that, some of them have taken up arms, but they are — but they’re — but they’re basically civilians trying to protect their civilian lives, businesses and families.

There are also — again, having seen reports from many of the organizations in that room, there are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and that have — and that have heavy weapons. To me, that says that, you know, they — those entities and those parts of the opposition are — I would argue, are no longer covered under that protect-civilian clause. So it’s a — it’s not a clear distinction, because we’re not talking about a regular military force. It’s a very problematic situation.

What we try to do and what we are charged with doing is when there are threats to the civilian populous, we are obliged under the mission and under the Security Council resolution to try to protect them. Again, you know, sometimes this — these are situations that brief much better at a headquarters than they do in the cockpit of an aircraft.

What we have — instructions that we have given to our crews, to include down to the kneeboard information that they have, is to be very judicious in their application of force. Where they — where they see a clear situation where civilians are threatened, then they are authorized to, and they have in the past taken action to protect those civilians. If it’s a situation where it’s unclear that it is civilians who may be being attacked, then those aircrews are under instruction to be very cautious and not apply military force, again, unless they are convinced that doing so would be consistent with the mission to protect civilians.

COL. LAPAN: Chris.

Q: General, Chris Lawrence from CNN. How did the bombing of Moammar Qadhafi’s compound tie into the mission of protecting civilians?

GEN. HAM: I think I caught a little bit — a little bit of static there, but I think the question was about attacking — the attacks on the compound last evening. Is that correct?

Q: Yes, how did — how did the attack on Qadhafi’s compound tie into the mission of protecting civilians?

GEN. HAM: Yeah, okay, good. I got you loud and clear that time. This is a large compound, maybe 5(00) or 700 meters by a thousand or more meters — a pretty big place with lots of different buildings and facilities inside of this compound.

There’s — there are some air-defense systems on the perimeter, security; there’s housing; there’s normal things, you know, mess kind of facilities; and there’s also a command-and-control facility that we — that we are certain is a command-and-control facility. We have multiple means that tell us that. And that’s the facility that was attacked.

And again, we do so with tremendous precision. We do so with — that particular target was decided upon because that — degrading that command-and-control facility would degrade the regime’s ability to control its military forces in the — in the attack of civilians.

So we think there is a very, very direct relationship in the attack on that target and the mission that we have.

Q: Sir, this is Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. We’ve heard repeatedly from Pentagon officials and military commanders that Qadhafi is not a target. Can you see a situation where he remains in power? Are you worried that will be — that it will end in a stalemate? Does that concern you?

GEN. HAM: I do see a situation where that could be the case. I have — again, it’s perhaps easier for me to address that than it is for others, because I have a very discrete military mission. And so I could see accomplishing the military mission, which has been — which has been assigned to me and the current leader would remain the current leader. Is that ideal? I don’t think anyone would say that is ideal, but I could envision that as a — as a possible situation at least for the current mission that I have.

I would reiterate, though, that I have no mission to attack that person. And we are not doing so. We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that. We think we have been very effective in degrading his ability to control his regime forces. And we think we are seeing that play out at various parts of the country.

Q: (Audio break) — changing in coming days?

GEN. HAM: Not significant change. The best news that I would pass on is that we are seeing growing contributions to the coalition going on, U.S. contributions to the coalition. Yesterday I think we had, I think, about — I think we flew about 60 sorties, about half of which, I think, were U.S. Today I think we’re in the 70 or 80 sorties, something like that. And an overwhelming percentage of those probably — certainly well over half of those are non-U.S. Again, added today, Canadians and Belgium. We are hopeful that other nations will continue to join this. And we know some that have made very firm offers. We would expect to see their forces operating, you know, in the next — in the next day or two. And certainly we’d look forward to that.

So I think that’s the biggest piece of this. And then the extension of the no-fly zone across — essentially across the coastal part of the country from — almost from boundary to boundary, will enable us to have a greater freedom of movement. And the other thing it provides is a greater ability for humanitarian assistance to be delivered in those areas of Libya, which — for which it may be required. I — while we possess certainly a very significant kinetic capability, my sense is that unless something unusual or unexpected happens, we may see a decline in the — in the frequency of attacks. We saw it certainly, you know, from the first night, the level of Tomahawk attacks to the second night with a dramatic reduction. And I think we’ll see that as well, because that’s the nature of the types of targets.

And it is also indicative of the effect that we have had with the initial targets that we don’t need to reattack so many. But we do have a capability to do that, and no one should take — should have any doubt about the remaining kinetic capability that is resident in this force nor the will to use it. We have the capability, we have the authority, and as required, we will — we possess the capability to bring overwhelming combat power to bear, as we have done in the initial stages of this, where it’s been required.

COL. LAPAN: Kevin.

Q: General, given all you’ve said that you expect to do in the coming days, it sounds like — that there will not be a handoff of U.S. leadership to other countries at anytime imminently, even though we were — we were told kind of at the beginning that it would be within days. Is it fair to say that we’re talking to the end of the week here at least the U.S. would be in the lead still?

GEN. HAM: I would not put a date certain on this. Of course, the first thing that’s got to happen is the identification of what that organization is. But we are — have been from the start — planning how we would affect this transition once that follow-on headquarters is established. It’s not so simple as just having a handshake someplace and say, okay, you’re now in charge. These are very complex, technical things that have to occur, particularly in the — in the management, command and control of the air — of the air campaign to make sure that, one, we have no disruption whatsoever in the ongoing operation; two, that we put none of our aircrews at risk as we go through this transition, to whatever that follow-on headquarters would be. So there are some — there are some complex tasks that have to occur, but I would also say we are ready to begin that process immediately as soon as that follow-on headquarters is identified, and we will accomplish that transition as expeditiously as we possibly can. I do not — I do not see this being a prolonged situation, but we — but we need that identification of the headquarters, and then we’ll begin that process and move on.

What will enable that process to move forward very quickly, frankly, is the presence of a very large number of coalition members. We have representatives here at the headquarters at United States Africa Command, more importantly aboard the Mount Whitney with Admiral Locklear and his staff of the joint task force, lots of — lots of coalition members there at the — at the Joint Force Air Component Command, again, where all these various nations are flying and they all have representation and are engaged in the — in the management of the air control business. So it’s not like we’re starting from scratch when this process begins. We have a very robust coalition ongoing now, and we’ll be able to make this transition expeditiously once the — once the decision is made.

COL. LAPAN: Lalit.

Q: Yeah, thank you, General. This is Lalit Jha from Press Trust of India.

Have you got any evidence of Qadhafi regime receiving any kind of support from any other countries of the world after the passage of the U.N. resolution, maybe arms and other things?

GEN. HAM: Could someone repeat please?

COL. LAPAN: Sir, the question had to do with if you’ve seen any evidence since the passage of the UNFCR of Libya receiving support from other countries.

GEN. HAM: One more time please.

COL. LAPAN: Okay. Whether you’ve seen any evidence since the passage of the U.N. Security Council resolution of Libya receiving any support, material support, from other countries?

GEN. HAM: I — okay, I heard you loud and clear that time. I’ve seen no evidence of that. I think that the United Nations Security Council Resolution speaks for itself, the international community condemning the actions that were — that were ongoing in Libya where the regime was attacking its own citizens. It felt compelled to act. And I’ve seen no evidence of other nations supporting this current regime, no evidence that I am aware of whatsoever.

Q: Sir, Tony Capaccio with the Bloomberg News.

What support at the tactical — at the strategic level are you getting from U.S. intelligence in terms of targeting information, information on the morale of Libyan forces and the composition of the rebels?

GEN. HAM: Yeah, they — obviously I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the kind of support, other than to say that the — that the U.S. intelligence community is very active and has been tremendously supportive of United States Africa Command, of the Joint Task Force and of the coalition, and in helping us better understand the conditions under which we are operating. The free flow of information — we have representatives from many of the intelligence community here in Stuttgart, certainly afloat at the — with the joint task force, and at each of the command nodes, where that — where that is necessary.

So the intelligence support — I would say, Tony, that I am — I am very, very pleased with the level of intelligence that I have — support that I have been receiving. You know, do I want more? Sure. Every commander wants — you know, I would like to — you know, to be able to stare consistently at every part of the country and know exactly what’s going on. That’s just not practical.

But we’ve had the assets, the access and the authorities to get the information we need to support our operations to a degree that I — that has been — I would just say has been very, very supportive of our mission.

Q: (Off mic) –information that Colonel Qadhafi is poised, through the use of surrogates, to conduct attacks — terrorist attacks in Africa, Europe or even the United States, ala TWA 800 or something of that magnitude?

GEN. HAM: Yeah, I — you cut off, but I think — I think the question is that the terrorist threat that might emerge from this by use of surrogates or others, based on this activity — a very, very legitimate concern. And I think one of the things that I’m conscious of not only as the commander of this particular operation but more generally across United States Africa Command is, you know, does this present an opportunity for al-Qaida or its associated groups to seek an opportunity while there is this unsettled nature in Libya to perhaps establish and maybe in some cases reestablish a foothold in particular parts of the country from which they could train, organize or conduct attacks against America — America, Americans or American interests.

So we’re monitoring that very, very closely. And again I would go back to my previous answer to say that the linkages with the intelligence community are very sound. There is no higher priority for this command than the protection of America, Americans, and American interests from terrorist attack, and we watch that very closely.

Q: Qadhafi-directed attacks, though — any indication he’s got the intent to do that?

GEN. HAM: I have not seen anything specific to that regard, but I think we must — we must operate under the assumption that he would like to see that happen. And so we have — we must necessarily keep our guard and our vigilance very high.

COL. LAPAN: Patty.

Q: Sir, Patty Culhane, Al-Jazeera English. My question is, do you have the ability to distinguish the opposition forces from the Qadhafi forces? And the reason I ask is, if the opposition forces start moving in a coordinated fashion, could they in fact be targeted as well?

GEN. HAM: The distinguishing between opposition and regime forces can be very difficult, particularly when they are in very — within — when they are in very, very close contact. Again, we think — and our experience is that many in the opposition are basically civilians trying to protect their home. But we also are clearly aware that there are some in the opposition that do — again, they have armored vehicles, they have heavy weapons. We have seen in news reporting that some have certainly some at least limited offensive capability. So this will become a particular challenge for us, should that — should that eventuality occur.

I would go back to my — to the response to an earlier question and reiterate, we have no authority and no mission to support the opposition forces and anything that they might do. What we do do is base our judgments on the actions of ground forces, though if — wherever they are, if they are attacking civilians, then we have a mission to protect those civilians. If opposition forces somehow get engaged in other operations that’s outside that mandate, then that’s outside that mandate.

Q: If opposition forces are trying to take back a city that Qadhafi holds., couldn’t you argue that they would be attacking civilians; and therefore, would they be targeted as well?

GEN. HAM: Again, I’m not crazy about asking — about answering the hypothetical questions. We would have to look at that situation as it was unfolding. We do have a mission to protect civilians. And we would have to make an assessment as that unfolded as to what our actions might be, consistent with 1973 and consistent with our mission.

COL. LAPAN: We’ve got to wrap up.


Q: This is David Martin of CBS. I am still unclear what a Libyan army unit has to do so that it won’t be attacked from the air. Does it just have to cease fire, or does it actually have to retreat out of and away from all those cities that you’re talking about establishing a no-fly zone over?

GEN. HAM: There is no intent to completely destroy the Libyan military forces. But those forces, which are attacking civilians and pose a threat and are not compliant with the — with the direction from the international community, then those forces can, have been and will be attacked.

But what we look for is to the degree that we can, to discern intent. For example, if we were to see and have seen regime ground forces in a particular area, perhaps some area just 50 kilometers or so south of Benghazi. While we could attack them, we watch them. And we see what they — what do they do. If they start moving southward away from the areas of conflict, then we will — we will maintain observation and see do they continue moving, do they get out of the way, do they not attack civilians. And if they do, if they are compliant with that, we will not attack them.

If they are not compliant — if they stop, if they take up defensive positions, if they conduct — certainly if they pose a threat to civilians, then we have — we can, we have and we will attack those forces.

So there’s no simple answer to, you know, if you’re at point A you get attacked, and you’re at point B you get attacked. The one thing that is certain — if you are threatening civilians or attacking civilians, then that falls well within the mandate and well within our mission.

Q: It is not enough if they dig into a defensive position to protect themselves and you — that doesn’t — that’s not good enough for you and you can attack them?

GEN. HAM: It depends again on where they are. There’s been — you know, the president and others have spoken about specific geographic areas from which they must remove their forces. And if they’re compliant with that or we perceive it is their intent to comply with that, then that’s all well and good. If our assessment is that they are not intending — if they are not compliant or not intending to comply with that direction, then I have full authority to direct that those forces be attacked.

COL. LAPAN: One quick follow-up, and then we’ve got to be done.

Q: Hi, General Ham. It’s Courtney Kube from NBC News. Have there been any coalition attacks on infantry elements or armor today or in the past 24 hours?

GEN. HAM: I don’t know specifically. I suspect the answer is yes just because of the nature of the conflict.

But let me take — let me take that question and I’ll ask Colonel Childress to get a specific — a specific answer to that.

COL. LAPAN: OK. I know there’s lots of interest, but we’ve gone 35 minutes. We need to get the general back to his duties.

So, sir, I’ll send it back to you for any closing remarks.

GEN. HAM: Y’all — thanks, y’all, very much. I appreciate the opportunity to do this. Again, this — what’s impressed me throughout this — the few — first few days of this campaign, the professionalism, the competence, the commitment of the military personnel from all the nations and, frankly, how quickly they came together to operate very, very effectively. It speaks, I think, to in many cases long-standing military cooperation that allows these kinds of coalitions to come together quickly.

And we all ought to be very, very proud of that — I certainly am — of the — of the — of the forces of this coalition. And I was proud to — today to be able to pass on the appreciation of the president of the United States of all those who have engaged in this mission. All of us from all of the countries involved should be justifiably proud of what our military is doing in this particular mission.

Thank you very much.

COL. LAPAN: Thank you, General.



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