U.S. involvement in Somalia explained

October 05, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Here is a primer on U.S. involvement in Somalia.

Q. What was the point of sending troops to Somalia in the first place?

A: To restore order, so that hundreds of thousands of starving people could be fed. At the time, last December, Somalia had no government and armed bandits were making relief deliveries impossible. President George Bush dispatched the troops, acting on a request by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Q: Did the troops finish that job?

A: Mostly. Food distribution resumed after order was restored in much of the country.

Q: Why only "mostly"?

A: The United Nations wanted the Americans to take on the job of totally disarming the Somalian warlords, but the Bush administration refused. So the potential for violence remained.

Q: Now that people are eating again in Somalia, what's the point of keeping troops there?

A: To help rebuild Somalia's government.

Q: Why is that our problem?

A: The United Nations believes that, without a stable government, there could be renewed civil war and starvation.

Q: Rebuilding the government doesn't sound like such a challenge. Why so much violence?

A: There's at least one person who clearly doesn't want it to happen -- warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid. He seems to think he and his clan will lose their chance to acquire power. He's also well-armed.

Q: When were U.S. troops originally supposed to leave?

A: The U.S. government originally hoped to have many of the troops out by the time Mr. Bush left office in January, and even expected to bring some forces home by the end of last December. In fact, the withdrawal didn't begin until mid-January.

Q: How many are there now?

A: Under 5,000, compared with an original deployment of about 24,000.

Q: Wasn't this whole thing supposed to be turned over to the United Nations?

A: Yes. And it was. But the United States never intended to withdraw completely right away. The United States planned to keep support troops in Somalia to help the U.N. forces, plus a quick-reaction force offshore that could be called in by the United Nations in emergencies. As of now, 28 nations are participating in the U.N. force.

Q: Why do I have the idea this is just a U.S. show?

A: The American profile has increased since early June, when forces loyal to General Aidid began assaults on U.N. forces, starting with an ambush that killed 24 Pakistani U.N. soldiers. The top U.N. civilian in Somalia is an American, retired Adm. Jonathan Howe. So is the U.N. military spokesman, Maj. David Stockwell. U.S. helicopters have played a key role in attacks on General Aidid's headquarters. U.S. troops have been sent to try to capture the warlord.

Q: Why are they trying to capture General Aidid?

A: The U.N. Security Council has called for the arrest and trial of those responsible for the deaths of U.N. troops. He's the prime suspect.

Q: Why are they having such trouble catching him?

A: Bad intelligence. Once, U.N. troops raided what turned out to be a U.N. compound. Another time, they got the wrong clan leader.

Q: Is capturing him the only answer? A: No. The United Nations and the Clinton administration, prodded by Congress, are trying to isolate General Aidid. One idea is to lure him into exile abroad; another is to put him under house arrest.

Q: Has President Clinton's policy changed?

A: Yes. Originally, he supported the same goals that the Bush administration had. Later, his administration allowed U.S. combat troops to play a key role in Somalia, even after overall control had shifted to the United Nations. A month ago, Mr. Clinton's policy was to keep combat troops there until south Mogadishu had been brought under control. Then last week the president indicated he wanted a definite date for a withdrawal. ,, And yesterday he authorized reinforcements.

Q: What has 20-20 hindsight taught the experts?

A: That U.S. and U.N. officials may have been lulled by their early success into believing that the warlords would pose less of a problem than they have.

Q: What are the U.S. interests in this?

A: General Aidid has been getting support from Iran through Sudan. Both countries sponsor terrorism and Islamic extremism, though General Aidid is not considered an extremist. Apart from that, the U.S. interest is in demonstrating a readiness to respond militarily to a humanitarian need. No U.S. strategic interests were involved at the outset. But now Mr. Clinton has to consider what message it would be sending if the United States withdraws.

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