WASHINGTON — THE United States military has found it relatively easy to go into Somalia. The question is, how much harder will it be to get out?
Though President Bush talked of ending the US peacemaking deployment by Inauguration Day, it has become increasingly clear in recent days that the effort is unlikely to end that soon. In fact, Operation Restore Hope could take weeks or perhaps months longer than Mr. Bush anticipated, even if things go well.
Some vehicles and other equipment of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, for instance, will be traveling to Somalia via two Military Sealift Command ships. Even at their top speed of 30 knots, the two fast cargo ships may not arrive at their destination until well after Christmas. Full deployment of 10th Mountain units might not occur until the new year.
As President-elect Clinton pointed out this week, no one really has the final answer as to when or how US forces will have stabilized the situation enough to allow their replacement by a smaller, multinational peacekeeping force. But the fact that implementation of policy sometimes is messier than the laying of plans does not mean the deployment is wrong, Clinton said.
"This mission has merit and an artificial timetable cannot be imposed upon it," he said.
After the Marines' smooth entry into Mogadishu, the Somali capital, at first light yesterday, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney conceded there was no chance US forces would all be home by Jan. 20. But he held out hope that the US could begin turning authority over to UN troops by the beginning of February. "I don't think it's unrealistic," he said.
As yet few analysts are predicting Somalia will become a quagmire. Indeed, the effort is widely backed in Washington. An unusually broad political spectrum supports the operation - from the Congressional Black Caucus and other traditionally liberal groups to conservative GOP congressional leaders.
The most vocal opponent has, surprisingly, been the relatively pro-military head of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania. Mr. Murtha has complained that the Somalia deployment will cost too much. "I just don't see the national interest" in Somalia, he said recently at a breakfast with defense reporters.
From an operational point of view the marines now moving into Mogadishu now face two primary tasks: readying the airfield and port for the larger flow of troops to follow them, and establishing the parameters of their relationship with the gunmen loosely controlled by the country's feuding warlords.
Pentagon officials are not exactly sure what state Mogadishu's limited transportation and shipping facilities are in after months of chaos. But the bareness of the ground may be shown by the fact that lighting and air-traffic-control equipment will be among the first US military cargo loads brought into the country, according to Navy officials.
The warlords who now control the country have said they will rein in their forces and cooperate with the US. US officials hope they have made it clear that this means the heavily armed jeeps typically found in Somalia should stay off the street.
THE rules of engagement laid out to US troops will undoubtedly emphasize restraint. But gunslinger Somalis hardened by chaos and fighting may not understand at first what could happen to them if they squeeze off a few potshots.
US military training does not emphasize measured responses. In tense situations such as Panama, US forces "have responded to moderate provocations with a huge amount of fire, not because they are trigger-happy but because that's what they are trained to do," says Michael Mazaar, a Center for Security and International Studies fellow who has written extensively on the uses of light infantry.
Neither the marines nor the Army troops slated for service in Somalia are trained for the policing type of operation they will be involved in, Mr. Mazaar notes. Given the ragged nature of potential opposition, that should not be a problem. But he says it shows how in the future the "US might dedicate some forces on a near-permanent basis to the UN."
With 28,000 troops scheduled to eventually enter the country, the US military should be strong enough to blot out just about any conceivable military opposition that should arise. But the notion that the US will thus be controlling the country completely does not follow - Somalia is the size of Texas, big enough so that even 28,000 troops spread out could look rather thin.
Tactics will thus likely emphasize controlling protected areas, and corridors between them. It is improbable that US forces will go on hunting expeditions to disarm Somali bands.
"The best strategy would be a kind of passive strategy" that doesn't give the appearance of siding with any local warlord, says James McKenney, a Wichita State University political science professor who has instructed US military officers.