The Task in Somalia

THE justification for the American-led military operation in Somalia exceeds the traditional definitions of US national interest, as its critics in Congress and elsewhere have charged. And the operation is disturbingly open-ended, with no set timetable for withdrawal.

But those objections have to be weighed against the scale of the human disaster within Somalia. In towns throughout the country, hundreds die each day because of a lack of food and care. Tons of food could be moved inland from Mogadishu and other ports if the roads and airfields could be made secure.

The basic mission of US troops in Somalia is not fuzzy. As President Bush and Gen. Colin Powell explained, it is to make sure that relief arteries are established and then to hand over the task of maintaining them to United Nations forces. As one official said, the US is undertaking some "peacemaking" so that the UN can carry on its "peacekeeping."

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Beyond the statement of mission, however, very little is clear. Will the bands of largely teen-aged fighters that have terrorized civilians and aid workers let the more heavily armed US forces do their job, or will they resist? Can something be done to buy up and destroy the weaponry that flooded into Somalia during decades of cold-war competition there? What political plans are being devised by the UN to bolster the minimal civil authority that remains in Somalia? Clan elders, for example, are said to r etain some constructive influence at the local level.

What's the national interest of the US in Somalia? It's not geopolitical or economic, but the broader interest in moving the international community toward a policy of responding to humanitarian and human-rights crises before they breed larger conflict.

Why intervene in Somalia and not in other equally critical situations? Because the lack of political and military organization there makes feasible a police action to establish some semblance of order. And because the US, without a colonial history in Africa and with the resources to act, is in the best position to lead.

US firepower aside, there's no assurance of success in Somalia. Unless indigenous political structures take shape that can temper the inter-clan warfare and general thuggery, today's problems could recur when US forces leave. For the short term, however, American soldiers arriving in Somalia can be sure their work has the potential of saving countless innocent lives. And it may help give the evolving new world order a more positive shape.

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