Number of U.S. troops in Haiti exceeds projections U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 30, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The number of U.S. troops on the ground in Haiti, which officials had predicted would total about 15,000 -- is now 19,605 and climbing.

Pentagon officials, saying that the figure could reach 20,200 as early as today, played down its significance.

"I think we are less concerned about being fixed to a particular number or a particular schedule than we are to making sure we have the assets on the ground to deal with the situation," Pentagon spokesman Dennis Boxx told reporters.

But the issue of the number of U.S. troops is a sensitive one because it inevitably heightens concern in Congress and among the public about "mission creep" -- an expansion of the U.S. military role.

Even as the troop figure was disclosed, Congress continued to debate fixing a date for the troops' withdrawal. But administration opposition to such a move gained needed support from the Congressional Black Caucus, which argued that setting a date could be dangerous for U.S. troops.

The caucus effusively praised President Clinton for sending troops to rescue democracy in Haiti, saying in a statement: "This is one of the nation's and President Clinton's finest hours."

To pave the way for peaceful restoration of civilian rule in Haiti, the U.N. Security Council voted yesterday to lift fuel, trade and arms sanctions against Haiti, beginning the morning after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns from exile. His return is expected by mid-October. The vote was 13-0, with Russia and Brazil abstaining.

Several reasons explain the increase in troops over last week's estimates:

* U.S. commanders, given broad latitude to draw on the troops they need, are bracing for mass demonstrations planned today in Port-au-Prince to mark the third anniversary of the coup that overthrew Father Aristide.

* U.S. troops have been drawn reluctantly into filling a security vacuum, particularly in northern Haiti, as Haitian troops who were supposed to police the streets have disappeared.

* Anxious to prevent casualties, the U.S. military is intent on deploying troops in enough numbers to promote their safety.

Senior U.S. officials always said that they planned to deploy an "overwhelming force" to keep American casualties at a minimum while subduing Haiti's 7,000-man army and the thousands of their allied militiamen, or "attaches," who have terrorized the populace.

When it appeared that Mr. Clinton would have no choice but to launch an invasion that might meet armed resistance, officials estimated that the U.S. force would number up to 20,000.

But after the team led by former President Jimmy Carter obtained an agreement to allow a peaceful occupation, Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher publicly used a lower figure.

"This year, I expect there will be about 15,000 -- give or take a few thousand -- troops there," Mr. Christopher said on Sept. 18.

As it turned out, the Haitian military leaders' decision to allow U.S. forces into Haiti did not mean that fewer troops would be needed.

Although Haiti's de facto ruler, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, pledged that his troops would cooperate with U.S. occupiers, a different dynamic has developed.

Besides using Haitians for front-line police work, U.S. soldiers are under orders to intervene if General Cedras' troops wantonly use force against civilians.

They also are allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves, as they did in a firefight Saturday night in Cap-Haitien that killed 10 Haitian military policemen. Since that incident, most Haitian police in the region have fled, leaving a security vacuum.

The presence of the Haitian military on the streets, among a civilian populace suddenly freed from brutal restraint, heightens the instability.

Mr. Boxx and others have noted that General Cedras' power is weakening. But this could increasingly bring Americans in to fill the vacuum.

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