WASHINGTON — More than 100 days after the United States and NATO allies launched what was supposed to be a quick air campaign in Libya, Pentagon officials concede that the effort has little strategic value for the U.S., and the alliance's desired outcome there remains unclear.
Instead, with NATO unable to bring an end to the fighting, the mission has run into stiff opposition from both parties in Congress and led military officials to fret privately that even the limited U.S. role will generate more ill will in the Arab world.
What's become an open-ended conflict, military officers and experts say, illustrates ill-defined U.S. objectives, the limits of relying solely on air power and the lack of diplomatic tools to broker an end to Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime. Thousands of anti-Gadhafi rebels have been killed, and some at the Pentagon worry that the mounting deaths and reduced U.S. involvement have jeopardized what President Barack Obama called a campaign to protect Libyan civilians.
"We are losing the goodwill this was supposed to create," said one senior military officer who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.
Perhaps undercutting Obama's rationale for war, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a series of exit interviews ahead of his retirement, has begun to describe the U.S. involvement as payback to NATO nations — which depend on Libya's oil reserves — for joining American troops in fighting in Afghanistan, which was mainly a war about U.S. strategic interests.
"These allies, particularly the British and the French, and the Italians for that matter, have really been a big help to us in Afghanistan. They consider Libya a vital interest for them. Our alliance with them is a vital interest for us. So as they have helped us in Afghanistan, it seems to me that we are in a position of helping them with respect to Libya," said Gates, who opposed U.S. involvement in Libya from the beginning, last week on the PBS NewsHour.
On Wednesday, Obama vigorously defended the campaign, saying that, "We've protected thousands of people in Libya, we have not seen a single U.S. casualty, there's no risks of additional escalation, the operation is limited in time and scope."
But Obama also said that Gadhafi "needs to go" and that no political settlement is possible with him in power.
U.S. military officers say that NATO's commitment of military force doesn't match that goal.
The NATO effort is almost exclusively an air campaign, which is designed to ground Gadhafi's warplanes and strike at his weapons sites. But at times it appears that NATO has tried to topple Gadhafi, which experts said demands ground forces, a larger air campaign and a clear plan for who will lead Libya in the aftermath of the regime.
The hope was that by only using air power, NATO would reduce the costs and risk to troops. But experts say that air power only rarely leads to regime change and isn't always cheaper.
"It is very hard to create desired political outcomes merely using air power," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"There is a firm commitment to not put boots on the ground. And diplomacy with the Gadhafi government has always been unpredictable. So what are the instruments and what are the objectives?"
For the U.S., Libya wasn't a clear threat. Indeed, there were signs that Libya was helping America in the war against terrorism.
Gadhafi had expressed willingness to take back Libyan detainees released from Guantanamo Bay. In March 2004 he tipped off American intelligence officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency about a shipment of nuclear weapons components believed to have come from Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who'd worked closely with al Qaida.
An April 2008 State Department cable, obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by McClatchy, said that the Libyan government "had recently undergone 'an awakening' to the fact that there was a real problem with extremism in the east and was now making serious efforts to counter the threat."
The Obama administration said that it decided to intervene to save Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the de facto opposition capital, from an imminent threat from charging Gadhafi forces in March. NATO believed that without Gadhafi's air power, the rebels could claim control of the country within weeks — as quickly as the regimes fell in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
But instead, the rebels now control less ground than they did when the NATO intervention began. While they've made tenuous gains in the western mountains, they've lost ground between Benghazi and Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown.
There have only been sporadic rebellions in Tripoli, where Gadhafi remains in control.
The operation began with strong support from the 22-member Arab League. But outgoing leader Amr Moussa told the Guardian newspaper last week that he had second thoughts and called instead for a ceasefire and a political settlement that eased Gadhafi out of power.
"You can't have a decisive ending," Moussa told the British newspaper. "Now is the time to do whatever we can to reach a political solution. "That has to start with a genuine ceasefire under international supervision."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week passed, on a bipartisan vote, a measure allowing the operation to continue for another year — but it included a provision that barred ground troops except in very limited circumstances. The full Senate will take up the measure in July, but lawmakers from both parties don't want the mission to expand.
"The question that has not been answered is what happens after Gadhafi falls — what do we do?" said Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a Democrat who sponsored the provision.
Some believe that the fight has evolved into a battle over finances. Intelligence officials have said Gadhafi has billions in cash reserves that he's using to buy weapons, pay off mercenaries and bribe supporters.
For the U.S. and NATO, the rising costs of a prolonged conflict increasingly are causing controversy.
By Sept. 27, when NATO's authorization in Libya expires, U.S. officials believe the war will have cost the U.S. at least $1 billion. According to an estimate by a British newspaper, the U.K.'s involvement will have cost about $1.6 billion.
Last week, Italy's foreign ministry called for an immediate end to hostilities in part because of the costs of the war.
NATO has said it is committed to supporting the rebels if the Gadhafi regime falls. But at the same time there's concern about how long it could take. And it's unclear who will be in charge.
"The way this will be judged is in the political outcome, which is as unclear now as it was two months ago," Alterman said.
(William Douglas and David Lightman contributed to this report.)