White House Moving Forward with Plans to Send U.S. TroopsBy Don Oberdorfer
and Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
The White House is moving ahead with plans to send U.S. combat troops to Somalia with the objective of doing their job under a U.N. mandate and coming home before Jan. 20. But the Pentagon doubts the operation can be completed by then.
Reacting to the recommendations presented Monday by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Washington officials expressed the belief that, after several days of debate, the Security Council would accept the U.S. offer of a substantial military force.
The aim of the force, spokesmen for the White House and State Department reiterated Monday, would be only humanitarian -- to break the hold of clan fighters and armed hoodlums on relief supplies for starving Somalis.
An official familiar with the deliberations which preceded Bush's Nov. 25 decision to offer U.S. ground troops for U.N. duty said there had been no explicit agreement within the administration about how long American troops would be present in Somalia. However, a White House official said the president's objective is to terminate the U.S. presence on the ground before Bush leaves office Jan. 20.
If this could be accomplished, it would simplify the transition to the Clinton administration, since Bush would not be handing over a partially completed American military operation in Africa. Until now, President-elect Bill Clinton has been informed but not consulted about the U.S. proposal to use ground troops.
Pentagon officials, skeptical that such an enormous undertaking could be completed in as little as six weeks, said Monday the Jan. 20 objective should be taken "with a grain of salt."
"It may be the goal right now to turn it over to the U.N. by Jan. 20," said one senior defense official. "(But) I don't think anybody is saying we will be out of there by then."
Military planners, anxious to avoid unrealistic expectations, recalled that in the early days of the buildup to the Persian Gulf War, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu '61 leaked word that only 50,000 troops would be required, when internal Pentagon estimates already called for more than 200,000. About 540,000 U.S. troops eventually fought in the Gulf War.
For Operation Provide Comfort, the postwar operation to feed and protect Iraqi Kurds, "we were going to be out by April" of 1991, one official said. That operation is still underway.
While informal discussions about how to proceed are expected to take place among U.N. diplomats in New York, U.S. officials in Washington will be drafting a Security Council resolution that would give U.S. ground troops, as part of a multinational force, a mandate to provide security for deliveries of food and medicine. An official said the United States envisions a resolution authorizing use of "all necessary means" to protect the relief operations.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to issue Monday night the operation's first formal planning order to Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, chief of U.S. Central Command, and supporting commanders around the world.
According to officers familiar with preliminary Pentagon planning for the operation, the expectation was that U.S. troops would be on the ground in Somalia for three to six months. Planners said the most likely scenario remains a Marine amphibious landing to secure Mogadishu's airfield and port, followed by the establishment of three or four major regional feeding and security centers.
Administration spokesmen went out of their way Monday to say that the United States has no plans or proposals to establish an international trusteeship or protectorate in Somalia. The weekend remarks of a senior administration official, who in a discussion with reporters suggested that the United Nations may be compelled to install an interim government and organize elections, were described by White House officials Monday as merely theoretical ideas based on logical assumptions, not an expression of U.S. policy.
Administration sources conceded that, ultimately, some means for restoring civil order in Somalia will be necessary to redress conditions underlying the "man-made famine," as experts call it. However, discussions now about organizing a new governing system in Somalia are deemed politically unhelpful and unnecessarily provocative.
The question of what role the United Nations or other outside powers might play in the future governing of Somalia is "incredibly touchy for Africans," an administration official said.