WASHINGTON — SUDDENLY the United States is returning to Somalia - sort of.
Despite some criticism that US-led United Nations attacks on a Somali warlord have gone too far, US officials say they intend to pursue retaliation against a man they call a "thug" and blame for a deadly attack on Pakistani peacekeepers earlier this month.
US air power is flowing back to the Somali capital of Mogadishu, with four more AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters arriving this week to supplement the AC-130H gunships which have pummeled forces of Gen. Mohammed Farah Aideed in recent days.
US officials say they regret that civilians have died in the upsurge of Somali violence. But they term it essential that General Aideed be disarmed and UN authority be established.
"It is crucial that the United States support the UN effort," said Secretary of Defense Les Aspin in a speech on June 14.
Restoration of order and the free flow of relief supplies is the goal of the operation, according to the US. But some critics question whether calm will return to Mogadishu anytime soon, considering that a man who controls much of the city has clearly been put on notice that he is to be destroyed - at least politically, and possibly even personally.
"How are they going to pick up the pieces afterward?" asks John Mackinlay, a Brown University senior researcher and co-author of a recent study on UN peacekeeping.
That the US and the UN have at least entered a new phase of their peacekeeping mission is clear. In Somalia UN "blue helmets" are no longer even pretending to be passive policemen. They are actively attempting to pacify a country still full of people with guns.
How do you train and equip troops for that kind of engagement? That's a problem that the Pentagon is facing as it advances into the post-cold-war world. US forces are certainly going to be heavily involved in peacekeeping operations in the future, whether they form the backbone of the effort - as they did early on in Somalia - or not.
The US Army, for one, claims it is already heavily involved in orienting its troops toward peacekeeping as it changes from a largely Europe-based force focused on the Soviet Union to a largely US-based institution with a more global orientation.
At big Army installations such as the National Training Center in the California desert, "you would see us training soldiers in these very complex situations," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan at a meeting with reporters June 14 to discuss the Army's emerging new-world battle doctrine.
Learning to operate in areas where it is difficult to separate friends from foes, such as in urban situations, is among the new training exercises, according to Army officials. Still, switching to peacekeeping duty won't be easy for troops steeped in the US Army fighting tradition of massive firepower against massed foes on lethal battlefields.
The US military has long been oriented toward achieving victory by completely overwhelming its foe. How will it know what sort of victory it is supposed to achieve in the gray world of peacekeeping and peacemaking, such as the UN now faces in Somalia?
"Decisive victory tends to be certainly, in that kind of a situation, situational," said General Sullivan.
Just turning the operation over to largely UN control in May was a US victory, Sullivan added.
The US Army chief skirted the issue of whether only the US has the sort of training and firepower needed to safely operate in dangerous peacekeeping situations. He did note, however, that the 3,000-odd US troops still in Somalia "provide many of the assets that hold the force together" for the UN, such as medical units, water purification, maintenance units, and other logistical tasks.