US acknowledges missteps in handoff of Libya mission to NATO control

A senior Pentagon official has acknowledged missteps as the U.S. handed off control of the Libya mission to NATO.

As the alliance was taking over, “there were some headquarter staff issues in terms of intelligence fusion and targeting,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy said Thursday.

Flournoy said those “early bumps in the road” have been ironed out, adding the mission now is “working very smoothly.” The Pentagon official made the remarks in a wide-ranging interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.

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Libyan opposition leaders have panned NATO for failing to properly assist rebel forces ever since the allied command took over the mission from the U.S.

Rebels fighting Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces have been unable to make gains, and the war in Libya appears to be a stalemate thus far. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Friday visited the Libyan rebels' power base of Benghazi, one day after the administration announced it would send in Predator drones to attack Gadhafi's forces. 

The Obama administration has come under criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike since it began air strikes on Libya as part of an action authorized by the United Nations.

Obama took pains when the mission began to say that the U.S. would eventually take a backseat to other forces, but attacks on the U.S. involvement have continued.

Flournoy dismissed criticism from some members of Congress who have questioned whether Washington knows enough to distinguish between the rebel fighters and the Transitional National Council, the top opposition group based in the eastern portion of the nation.

“It’s a mixture of people. Many of them have had experience, you know, in government before as former ministers. A number of them are prominent leaders of civic society,” said Flournoy, who sought to provide a detailed description of anti-Gadhafi forces.

As for rebel fighters, she said, “there are a number on the military side that are actually defectors. They switched sides from the regime once it began attacking the population — they couldn't abide it.” 

Administration officials have been “very impressed” with opposition members’ ideas about fashioning a new Libyan constitution and forming “representative bodies,” said Flournoy, who is considered a dark-horse candidate to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he retires this year.

Rebels in Libya have fought for recognition from Washington, and the Transitional National Council this week formally registered to lobby the government as a foreign agent. Foreign governments are required to do this under U.S. law, and the move could help the rebels gain legitimacy in Washington.

The filing says Ali Aujali will be representing the opposition group as the council's ambassador and official representative to the United States. Aujali resigned as Libya’s ambassador to the U.S. last month after Gadhafi tried to quell the rebel uprising.

Flournoy also discussed the state of the Afghanistan war, saying the Obama administration expects more support from Pakistan.

Pakistani officials have been “uneven” in putting pressure on Taliban elements that have set up shop on their soil, Flournoy said.

U.S. officials have determined Pakistani officials “aren’t in a position” to assert “sovereignty and control over their territory,” she said.

A proposed $3 billion 2012 civilian and military aid package is designed to help change that, Flournoy added. If approved by Congress, $1.6 billion of that is slated to go to the Pakistani military and law enforcement entities, according to U.S. budget documents.

But some lawmakers want to reduce the amount Washington sends to Pakistan each year unless officials there track closer to Washington’s whims.

“Pakistan must also do more to meet pressing U.S. concerns,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman, said in March.

Islamabad should move “away from armed proxies and toward constructive and legitimate political partners,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Pakistani officials say they want “Congress to support the level of assistance that we provide to them — both civilian and military,” Flournoy said.

But first, Pakistan has to meet “certain expectations,” including “cooperation in counterterrorism, whether it’s abiding by human-rights standards, whether it’s dealing with the IMF … to make economic reforms.”

Flournoy said Washington cannot stop working with Pakistan, even though leaders there are using “tactics” the administration does not like in dealing with Taliban elements on their soil.

“We cannot walk away from this. We don’t have a choice here,” she said. “This is a country that is very important to us, that is very important to our success in the region.”


—This story was posted at 9:05 a.m. and updated at 12:36 p.m.