SecDef: Still ‘no idea’ who Libyan rebels are

Even after weeks of military operations and almost a billion dollars, Gates says the U.S. and its allies have almost no idea about the makeup of the Libyan rebel alliance. Is that believable?

The international intervention in Libya doesn’t make the front pages much anymore, but it’s still on. People in the military are still paying attention, at least: A Marine in the audience at Secretary Gates’ all-hands at Camp Lejeune asked him about it on Thursday in a highly telling exchange, both for what the Marine asked and what Gates answered.

From the transcript:

Q: Good morning, sir. Corporal Edwards from 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. My question is in regards to the conflict in Libya. I read article in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph a little over a month ago, and it was an interview with one of the rebel leaders. He explicitly said that some of his fighters had fought with the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. I found this to be somewhat disheartening, since we as a country were supporting the rebels militarily and through public opinion. Who are these rebels in Libya? And how do we know that they won’t be like the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, where we’re supporting them today and then getting blown up by them tomorrow?

GATES: Well, I think that the honest answer to your question is that with the exception of some of the people at the top of the opposition or the rebels in Libya, we don’t know who they are. And I think this is one of the reasons why there has been such reluctance, at least on our part, to provide any kind of lethal assistance to the opposition.

Clearly, after the way that Gadhafi has treated his own people, as the president has said, he needs to go. But I think most of us are pretty cautious when it comes to who — who the opposition is. The truth is, my impression is that it’s extraordinarily diverse. We deal with a handful of people in Benghazi, but we forget about those who led the uprisings in cities all over Libya when this whole thing started. And who are they? And are they genuinely anti-Gadhafi? Are they tribal representatives? Are they — kind of who are they? And we have no idea who those people are, but they were the ones that led the major uprisings in Tripoli and a variety of the other cities.

There are tribal elements to this, and I don’t think we know very much about the tribes that are involved and where their loyalties lie between Gadhafi and between the opposition and so on. So I — and we have seen reports that there are some extremists that are fighting for the opposition. We see information and we hear from the opposition that they’re trying to isolate those people and get them out of the movement because they realize the risks associated with that in terms of international support. But the truth is, I think, frankly, one of the reasons that we have been as cautious as we have in terms of providing other than humanitarian support and some non-lethal assistance to the opposition is because of what we don’t know. And I think we have to keep a wary eye on it in terms of how this thing progresses.

Did you copy that? A young American service member is frustrated that the U.S. and its allies could be helping some of the same people who have attacked or killed Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan — understandably. What’s more, as the Libya intervention approaches its second month, Gates is giving the same answer American officials were giving before it began: ‘We don’t really know who these guys are.’ Still? What about the CIA and British special operators who have been on the ground all this time? What about the Libyan opposition leaders who are visiting the White House today? Seems like there have been plenty of opportunities for the international community to find out much more about the beneficiaries of its assistance.

Does anyone believe, especially after the intelligence and special-ops coup of the bin Laden raid, that Gates and NATO “have no idea” who the rebels are? Here’s a theory: American officials know exactly who the rebels are, which is the actual reason they want to provide only “non-lethal aid.” From a cold-eyed, Eisenhower administration perspective, it could be a good compromise: If the rebels overthrow Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, there’s a bad guy taken care of; the international community can swoop in and make sure the terrorist elements in the rebellion are put in check. If Qaddafi crushes a rebellion riven with al Qaeda fighters or other bad eggs, that takes care of them. Either outcome thins out the world rogue’s gallery. Although Gates was reluctant at first to go along with an intervention, his Langley roots run deep: He may have made the case inside the administration that the U.S. benefits by letting two groups of villains wear each other down for as long as possible, especially since NATO is protecting the innocent Libyans in the western cities like Benghazi.

The question is, how much longer can the government forces and the rebels go on pummeling each other?