'Easy part' over in violent Somalia Starving people have been fed, but U.N. will face tougher job of building peace

February 27, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Outbreaks of the worst violence in Somalia since U.S. troops landed there highlight the narrow mission the United States set for itself and the vastly tougher job it will leave for the United Nations.

After two months, starving Somalis are now being fed. Some are returning to their villages to plant. But warlords, only partially disarmed, fight and threaten each other and U.S.-led forces. Bandits still harass civilians and relief workers.

"Relief was the easy part," acknowledges a U.S. official who was close to key Bush administration policy-makers before troops were sent to Somalia.

The task of nation-building -- rebuilding grass-roots leadership, an economy and eventually a central government -- has barely begun. Somalia remains fractured and violent.

"What the U.N. has to do in Somalia has never been done before," says a Western official involved in planning for the shift from a U.S.-led military coalition to a U.N. force. "When you talk about a nation that for two years has been without a judiciary, an educational system, a medical system or a police force, it is a major endeavor."

The challenges the United States will leave behind take on new importance as it launches another humanitarian effort in a different part of the world -- airlifting relief supplies to starving Bosnians. In both cases, the United States has been reluctant to become directly involved in the underlying conflict.

Both cases, says the Western official, reflect a growing recognition that "few deep-seated problems can be solved by a purely military solution." Political and cultural conflicts "have to be solved with reason, backed up with political, economic and military resolve."

Even with this week's eruptions in Kismayu, the southern Somalian port, and Mogadishu, the capital, Somalia is significantly better off than before U.S. troops entered.

The U.S. mission was to create an environment that would allow food and medical relief and avert a human catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands of Somalis were expected to starve to death.

U.S. envoy Robert B. Oakley stretched the coalition's mandate to foster agreements of restraint among warlords and to take the heaviest weapons out of the hands of fighters.

"What we're trying to do is take away the most dangerous weapons, thereby changing the balance from war to peace and from empowerment by weapons to empowerment by other means," he explained last month. In the process, the stature of warlords would diminish, allowing local village councils and tribal elders to assert more authority, he said.

The limited results of that strategy were dramatized this week when warlord Mohamed Said Hersi, also known as General Morgan, captured a six-block area of Kismayu with about 150 men. Apparently thinking that General Morgan had captured the entire city, a Mogadishu-based warlord, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, went on radio stirring up a major riot by his followers against Americans and other foreigners.

U.S.-led coalition forces responded harshly. U.S. officials have acknowledged that Somalis might have been killed, although they gave no numbers. Witnesses reported nine Somalis killed Wednesday. In the past two days, five Marines have been wounded.

Their message to the warlords, a senior U.S. defense official said, is: "If they want to play [to retain their power], they've got to play politically, not militarily."

The Mogadishu and Kismayu battles were widely seen as a late gasp by the warlords fearing diminished influence once the United Nations attempts to foster a new political order.

Despite the violence, there is a strong resolve at the White House and at the United Nations to press ahead with U.S. withdrawal and simultaneous handover to the United Nations as President Clinton and Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali agreed at their White House meeting Tuesday.

Current U.N. plans, subject to last-minute tinkering, call for a $1-billion-a-year operation with 20,000 ground troops, 8,000 logistics personnel and 2,800 civilians. About 5,000 Americans will stay behind, mostly for logistics.

The transfer won't get under way until after the Security Council adopts a resolution spelling it out, probably next week. Thus, it will be at least the end of April before the bulk of U.S. troops are due to be pulled out.

"Nothing has changed as a result of the two days of demonstrations and violence," said Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for the secretary-general. But this week's battles highlight the continued level of disruption that U.N. forces will confront.

For that reason, concern is mounting among international relief agencies, whose personnel, along with some U.S. government civilians, were confined to their Mogadishu compounds by this week's violence.

"It is essential that the Security Council confirm to the Somalis that there will be no change in the rules of engagement and that the U.N. will be just as forceful as the U.S." said Peter Davies, president of Interaction, an umbrella group of U.S. relief agencies.

In the meantime, however, the United States has refused to set a flat target date for withdrawal of most of its troops, and a State Department official acknowledged, "The whole pace of the transfer to Unisom II [the planned U.N. force] is going to depend on what the security situation is like."

Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan., who pressed for the U.S. humanitarian mission, says the handover should be hastened, rather than delayed, by this week's fighting.

If the transition is slow, she said, "you create a vacuum, and get gangs to move in and test the waters."

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