Gates: Qaddafi losing ground in Libya

Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates discuss U.S. strategy in Libya on 'Face the Nation,' Sunday, March 27, 2011.
CBS/Chris Usher

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed confidence this weekend in ongoing international military operations in Libya, suggesting that Muammar Qaddafi's forces are losing ground in the wake of the strikes and that his days as Libya's leader were numbered.

In a joint interview on CBS' "Face the Nation" that aired Sunday, Gates and Clinton said U.S. military operations in Libya were so far going "quite well" - although they declined to guess how long they might continue.

"I think the military mission has gone quite well," Gates told CBS' Bob Schieffer. "I think we have been successful a lot. You know, there was never any doubt in my mind that we could quickly establish the no-fly zone, and suppress [Qaddafi's] air defenses."

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When asked how long the no-fly zone might be in place, Gates said "I don't think anybody has any idea."

Citing recent reports that opposition forces had seized the Libyan city of Ajdabiya, as well as Qaddafi's forces' inability to penetrate the city of Benghazi, Gates argued that the Libyan leader's strength was being depleted.

"We're not only striking his armor, we're striking his logistics and supplies and things like that," Gates said. "There are a lot of things that can go on here. His military can turn, we could see elements of his military turning, deciding this is a no-win proposition, the families splitting, I mean any number of possibilities are out there, particularly as long as the international pressure continues, and those around him see no future in staying with him."

Acknowledging potential weaknesses in the nature of Libya's opposition forces, Clinton said that, nevertheless, "we've already seen quite significant progress on the ground," and argued that the opposition was being bolstered by Libyan military defectors.

"Yes, this is not a well-organized fighting force that the opposition has," Clinton told Schieffer. "But they are getting more support from defectors, from the former Libyan government military, and they are, as Bob said, very brave, moving forward, and beginning to regain ground that they lost when Qaddafi was brutalizing them by moving toward Benghazi."

"I think the results on the ground are pretty significant," she added.

Gates also disputed reports that U.S. forces had resulted in civilian casualties in Libya, and said there were "a number of reports" suggesting that Qaddafi was blaming the U.S. for civilian deaths inflicted by his own forces.

"The truth of the matter is we have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for," Gates said. "But we do have a lot of intelligence reporting about Qaddafi taking the bodies of the people he's killed and putting them at the sites where we've attacked. We have been extremely careful in this military effort, and not just our pilots but the pilots of the other coalition air forces have really done an extraordinary job."

Gates urged viewers not to "underestimate the potential for elements of the regime themselves to crack," and suggested that Qaddafi's days were numbered.

"I'd just underscore: the military attacks began essentially a week ago, last Saturday night," he said. "I wouldn't be hanging any new pictures if I were him."