U.S. to end permanent military role in Haiti

Remaining 480 troops likely to be withdrawn by the end of the year

August 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from the Pentagon and Republicans in Congress to reduce military commitments overseas, the Clinton administration plans to withdraw the last U.S. troops stationed in Haiti, even though peace there remains tenuous at best, Defense Department and administration officials said yesterday.

The U.S. troops -- 480 people, including engineers, doctors and nurses and a security force from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division -- are the remnants of the force of 20,000 that occupied Haiti beginning in September 1994 to restore the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Although the White House has not yet announced its decision, a withdrawal of the remaining force, which cost more than $20 million a year, is expected to be completed by the end of the year, the officials said.

In the future, the Pentagon will continue to send smaller contingents of reservists and national guard members to Haiti each year on short, temporary assignments, like those in other Caribbean and Central American nations, the officials said.

A U.N. contingent of roughly 400 peacekeepers acting as advisers to the Haitian police will not be affected. But the withdrawal will end a continuous U.S. military presence in Haiti, something that officials in Haiti and advocates in Washington consider important to help Haiti's troubled democratic transition succeed.

"It's not a very large number of troops, but it's not the size that is critical," said Donald E. Schulz, a former analyst at the U.S. Army War College who has long studied Haiti. "It's the psychological presence. It can be argued that it is a deterrent to those who would try to destabilize the government."

The mission in Haiti is only one of several international military operations that the Pentagon has pressed the administration to reduce. With the nation's armed services having shrunk to 1.3 million men and women on active duty, a 36 percent drop from a decade ago, senior commanders have begun warning that the frequency of operations -- from Korea to Kosovo -- is stretching the military thin.

"There's a concerted effort all over the world to look at our commitments and ask ourselves, `Do we still need to be there?' " said Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.

In Bosnia, the Pentagon has drawn up plans to reduce the U.S. peacekeeping force to fewer than 4,000 troops, compared to 6,200 today. That reduction is part of a larger NATO plan, expected to be completed next month, that would reduce the number of international troops in Bosnia to 18,000 or 19,000, from more than 30,000 today and 60,000 when the NATO-led force first went there in December 1995.

The Pentagon is also pressing the administration to scale back the U.S. role in the multinational observer force in the Sinai Peninsula, where about 900 soldiers have been stationed since 1982 to help monitor the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

A decision on that mission is not expected soon and probably would not come without a breakthrough in the Mideast peace process, one defense official said.

Those who oppose the reductions say the administration is sacrificing its own foreign policy objectives to pressure from Pentagon commanders overly worried about the strain on the military and the drain on its budget, and from Republicans lawmakers who consider peacekeeping missions a distraction from traditional war fighting.

In Haiti, the job is far from done. Although the U.S. intervention five years ago forced the military junta led by Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to step aside and allow Aristide to take office, little has happened since then to reverse Haiti's standing as the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the least stable.

The 480 troops left operate primarily in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, maintaining a small base at the airport and running a hospital. Most of the troops are engineers or medical personnel.

Administration and Pentagon officials said that the decision to end the permanent presence in no way reflected a lessening of American interest.

Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, said the United States would have "a frequent presence, thought not a continuous one." He added that the reserve and guard missions could expand humanitarian projects to more sites across the country, including rural areas not reached now by the U.S. force, which remains close to Port-au-Prince because of security concerns.

Although the number of troops in Haiti is a mere fraction of the 1.3 million men and women now on active duty, the deployment has an impact on the military's readiness, Pentagon officials said.

For every soldier stationed overseas, there is another who has just returned and another getting ready to go -- and still more devoted to providing transportation, supplies or other administrative needs.

With the number of operations growing since the end of the Cold War, senior officials at the Pentagon, starting with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, have become more vocal in pushing for an end to long-running missions.

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