WASHINGTON — The military force unleashed on Libya by the United States and its partners upset several African nations despite the international community's widespread fears that Moammar Gadhafi might use force against his own people, the top U.S. commander for the continent told Congress on Tuesday.
Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, described the mixed reaction from the African Union to the airstrikes and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, and his imperative to explain the need for swift action to perturbed nations. His comments came as the U.S. military drastically slashed the number of air and naval forces committed to the operation, now under NATO control.
"I think frankly as we proceed I'm going to have the responsibility, as I engage with our African partners, to have a very frank discussion about what U.S. Africa Command's role was and why we did what we did and just be as truthful and forthright as I can," Ham told the House Armed Services Committee.
He added: "There is an impact and there will be an impact in the region."
The fighting in Libya entered its third week with no end in sight and growing frustration throughout the region. The head of the African Union, Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, expressed his support for Gadhafi and demanded an end to foreign interference into what he called an internal Libyan problem. The overmatched Libyan rebels criticized NATO with Abdel-Fattah Younis, chief of staff for the rebel military and Gadhafi's former interior minister, insisting NATO forces "don't do anything" even though they have a U.N. mandate to act.
"Although this humanitarian intervention is motivated by a noble impulse, there is a strong possibility of a strategic stalemate emerging in Libya," said Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives. "I fear we may find ourselves committed to an open-ended obligation through our participation in NATO operations, and that poses real opportunity costs, given the volatility of other unstable, more strategically important countries in the region."
Diplomatically, the Obama administration's envoy to the Libyan opposition was in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi for talks with those leading the revolt against Gadhafi, according to the State Department.
The envoy, Chris Stevens, is meeting with members of Libya's Transitional National Council to get a better idea of who they are, what they want and what their needs and capabilities are, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. His visit could pave the way for U.S. recognition of the council as Libya's legitimate government, although no decision is imminent, Toner said.
Stevens was the No. 2 at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli until the mission was shuttered in February amid escalating violence. He will be discussing humanitarian and possible financial assistance to the opposition, Toner said.
Three countries, including NATO allies France and Italy, along with Qatar, have recognized the transitional council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, but the United States has yet to follow suit. The U.S. has also not made a decision whether to arm the rebels.
Militarily, the U.S. forces engaged in the operation have been greatly reduced since the first airstrikes on March 19.
Only three Navy warships and a supply ship remain for the operation, compared with the 11 ships there when the intervention began, two defense officials said Tuesday. The officials spoke on condition of d i because they were not authorized to release the data.
The warships are the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce, both amphibious warfare ships and the destroyer USS Barry.
Among those no longer participating in the Libya mission are two submarines, the destroyer USS Stout and the Mount Whitney, which had served as a floating command post for the American admiral who was the on-scene commander until NATO took control Thursday.
There are 90 U.S. airplanes still assigned to the Libya mission. A week ago, there were 170, including 70 strike planes, officials said at the time.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, asked whether special operations forces will be used in Libya for training the opposition forces or other missions, said President Barack Obama has been clear that there will be no boots on the ground.
"The no military boots on the ground is very clear, and I don't think it needs elaborating," he said.
Special operations forces, however, have been used in other countries under the authority of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday the service has been spending about $4 million a day to keep 50 fighter jets and nearly 40 support aircraft in the Libya conflict, including the cost of munitions.
Secretary Michael Donley told reporters that the Air Force has spent $75 million as of Tuesday morning on the war. He said the U.S. decision to end its combat strike role in the conflict will cut costs, but he could not say by how much.
He said the Air Force has spent close to $50 million on the relief effort for the Japan earthquake, including $40 million to evacuate between 5,000-6,000 U.S. personnel. The total U.S. costs for the Libya air campaign as of March 28 were $550 million, not counting normal deployment spending. (AP)