Now U.S. Troops are in Somalia, How Do They Get Out?

December 27, 1992|By FRANK CRIGLER

MAGADISHU — Mogadishu. -- Ask any ten Somalis, and you'll get ten different opinions about why their country collapsed in anarchy and what should be done to salvage what's left.

But there's one point on which almost all Somalis agree: The U.S. Marines should stay on the job there until all warring factions have been disarmed or neutralized and the political reconciliation process has been put securely on track.

Unfortunately for the Somalis, that's an unlikely scenario. From the beginning, President Bush and his spokesmen have defined the U.S. role in much narrower terms. America's principal concern, they've said, is to safeguard the relief operation aimed at rescuing the hundreds of thousands of Somalis whose lives remain in jeopardy on account of famine and clan feuding. Politics figure far lower on their scale of priorities, as indeed they should.

But Somalis see it differently. Unless the Americans take away the guns and help sort out the country's tangled politics while they're here, the warlords and looters will be back at it again as soon as the troops leave, relief workers and food supplies will be targeted just as before, and the cycle of human misery will commence all over again. Why send in the Marines in the first place, they ask, if not to do the job right -- the "American way."

The Somalis have a strong case, but it has three important flaws:

* First, it understates the enormous task of disarming (or even neutralizing) an entire nation under arms. No weapons-for-food or neutral arms depot scheme could begin to recover the hundreds of thousands of small arms and ammunition that years of Cold War competition left spread around this country. Already, Somali warlords and freebooters have taken the precaution of sending their armed "technicals" deep into the bush or across the Ethiopian border, beyond the Marines' reach.

* Second, the Somali argument exaggerates the ability of Americans (or, for that matter, any outsiders) to find their way through the country's tangled political maze and come out the other side with a usable road map for reform. Moreover, America's record of benign intervention in Africa is less than exemplary; Somalis forget that Zaire's long-time despot Sese Seko Mobutu is a product of our handiwork. If there is a political pathway out, Somalis themselves will have to find it.

* And third, after years of successfully playing off superpowers against each other, Somalis have difficulty comprehending the indifference that exists in America today toward the political shambles left in the Cold War's wake. They mistakenly view the Marines' arrival not so much as reflection of America's humanitarian concern as a sign that their country remains strategically important to the U.S. They fail to grasp how totally turned off Americans are by the selfish posturing of Somalia's political leaders and savage destruction their feuds have caused.

But if Somalis are deluding themselves about the Americans' intentions and staying-power, the Americans themselves are doing little to smooth the way for the Marines' early departure. The very size and bulk of the invading force suggest it is prepared to remain for the duration. The Neanderthal pace of their deployment upcountry implies they have all the time in the world to complete their task. And the total eclipse of U.N. activity, both political and military, in the shadow of the U.S. military machine, only reinforces the contempt Somalis already feel for the multilateral institutions that are supposed to step into the Marines' shoes when they leave.

In fact, there are very few signs that much thought has been given to how the American withdrawal will be orchestrated. According to the original script, once food and medicine begin reaching the famine victims routinely, the troops will pack up to leave and the longer-term tasks of political and economic reconstruction will be neatly handed off to the U.N.

In its own way, however, that scenario is as unrealistic as the Somalis' own fantasy of the U.S. Marines rescuing their country from chaos. Fundamentally, the Somalis are right: Without a political solution, we'll be right back where we started, with sickening scenes of devastation and emaciated children spilling into our living rooms all over again.

Nor without active American leadership is there much hope the U.N. can make any serious headway toward political reconciliation.

Absurd as it may seem to us, no one but the American ambassador could have pulled a rabbit out of the hat the way Robert B. Oakley, President Bush's special envoy, did only hours after he arrived in Mogadishu, when he got two of the chief Hawiya warlords to sit down together and sign a preliminary peace agreement. The same rabbit had eluded the U.N. Secretary General's representatives for months.

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