Changing the Guard in Somalia

February 17, 1993

Most Americans want to see American troops leave Somalia -- their job well done -- soon. Most Americans also want American troops on any operation to be under American command. Yet the two desires are in conflict. One must be sacrificed to achieve the other.

Although American troops have served in NATO exercises under allied commanders, a quiet principle of the Pentagon since World War II is that American operations in anger are American-commanded. It is a principle from which the U.S. is going to have to back down if it wants to see increased use of United Nations commands in tackling regional problems.

The United Nations is completing a plan to bring most of the current 19,000 American troops home from the emergency feeding operation in Somalia within two months. Reportedly, 3,000 to 5,000 American troops would remain as specialists in communications, intelligence and logistics for a United Nations force of some 20,000. Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnston, the U.S. Marine commanding the American force now, would return with the bulk of his troops.

Gen. Cevik Bir, a Turkish army commander with three stars, is expected to replace General Johnston. Such an appointment meets Somalian sensibilities; he is a Muslim from a Muslim country. It also meets American sensibilities; he is from a NATO ally.

Military doctrine and procedure for the problems of the 1990s and beyond are being developed now, perhaps by trial and error. They are bound to see U.S. components of multi-national forces with limited missions. U.S. technical intelligence, communications and airlift are likely to be sought again and again.

Developing these precedents will be a challenge to Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, the service secretaries and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, equal in importance to the challenge of down-sizing the armed forces for maximum effectiveness within a diminished budget.

But the operation in Somalia, where U.S. and allied troops are running into problems trying to disarm clans and prevent civil wars, will challenge the U.N. and General Bir and whoever replaces the American diplomat, Robert Oakley, as the chief U.N. policy official. The long-range problems of restoring civil society to Somalia will just be beginning when the greater numbers of American troops come home this spring.

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