Poor Peacekeeping

March 25, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- The U.S. pulls its remaining troops out of the U.N. operation in Somalia today, leaving behind a myth, irresponsibly aided by the Clinton administration, that American soldiers' lives were lost because of flaws in the U.N. command.

This dangerous and damaging illusion casts a pall over future U.N. operations. In the former Yugoslavia, for instance, how will a brokered cease-fire be kept if the present peacekeeping units are not enlarged by a significant American presence? No other country has the combination of numbers, professionalism and logistical capacity.

By its own benchmark, the Clinton administration's U.N. policy has failed. It took office committed to reversing the Republican policy of holding the U.N. at arm's length. Candidate Bill Clinton had even called for the establishment of a small, standing U.N. ''rapid-deployment force.'' It was assumed, at least in the National Security Council, that American troops would be placed under ''operational control'' of U.N. commanders ''on a regular basis.'' All this is buried in the sands of Somalia.

Only the 2,700-strong logistics component of the U.N. forces was truly under U.N. operational control. Though the U.N. Somalia commander is a Turk, Lt. Gen. Cervik Bir, military operations were under direct U.S. military command, The secretary general's special representative was an American, Adm. Jonathan Howe, aided by 28 American officers.

General Bir's deputy, Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery, also served as direct tactical commander of the Quick Reaction Force, which mounted the military operations last June against the Habr Gidir clan of the Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. There was little consultation with U.N. headquarters in New York. The great firefight that led to serious American casualties on October 3 -- 18 killed, 78 wounded -- was initiated by the Special Operations Command in Florida, which ordered units of the Quick Reaction Force to move against a suspected Aidid stronghold. General Bir was told about the operation just before it began.

How, then, could the U.N. be to blame for the deadly debacle?

In the current issue of Survival, the quarterly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mats Berdal asks whether the ''U.S. armed forces may not, at present, be temperamentally and culturally attuned to the requirements of low-level military operations of the kind required in Somalia?''

U.S. tactics, he argues, inevitably have been shaped by Vietnam and by ''a deeply entrenched belief in the efficacy of technology and firepower as a means of minimizing one's own casualties.'' Such tactics in Somalia were inappropriate, even counter-productive. A ''clean, surgical attack,'' in Admiral Howe's description, forfeited local support by killing large numbers of Somalis, including important religious and clan leaders. The U.S. command seemed to have no understanding of the U.N.'s long-standing distinction between peacekeeping and enforcement.

Other national contingents have worked differently. In Kismayo, initially one of the most fiercely contested battle grounds, Belgian soldiers conducted their patrols on foot, worked with local leaders and successfully set up a local police force. The whole Belgian sector was stabilized by one Belgian battalion and two companies from Botswana.

Similarly, French forces in Baidoa and, earlier, Canadian and Australian forces outside Mogadishu were able to stabilize the situations in their respective sectors with a comparatively small number of troops.

The American decision to withdraw under the pressure of a public with no stomach for U.S. casualties had a ricochet affect on other contingents. The French, Belgian, Saudi Arabian and German forces have left or are about to leave, as they were tTC reliant on American logistical support. The Indians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Canadians and Zimbabweans are bravely staying on, but without sophisticated logistical support their work will be exceedingly difficult.

Is it sensible that much of the membership of the U.N., in particular European countries, is badgering the U.S. to don the blue helmets and go into the former Yugoslavia? Anyone wanting to provoke trouble knows that attacking American troops is the best way to go about it.

The U.S. can help the U.N. in Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, in many important ways: logistics, communications, engineering and, not least, paying its dues regularly. But perhaps American combat forces are not, at this time, what the U.N. needs.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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