Marine unit headed for Middle East now rerouted to Haiti

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, set to deploy to waters of the Middle East – potentially to support the mission in Afghanistan – is now headed to Haiti first. It's a sign of the depth of the humanitarian crisis.

By , Staff writer

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    US marines carry bottled water after landing in a rural area outside Port-au-Prince Tuesday.
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The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it would send a second Marine unit to Haiti to support what has become an expanding relief effort for the Defense Department, deepening the American military’s role there.

About 4,000 marines and sailors from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Lejeune, N.C., who were scheduled to leave for the waters of the Middle East this week, will instead steam to Haiti to support humanitarian relief operations. The unit will still continue on to the Arabian Sea to support missions in the region and beyond – including potentially Afghanistan – for its scheduled deployment in the coming weeks.

But the decision to re-route the Marines points up the depth of the need for humanitarian assistance in Haiti, which experienced a severe aftershock Wednesday. It also presents the Pentagon with a delicate balancing act, since the already-overstretched US military can ill afford to get mired in a security-and-stabilization mission.

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The US must do as much as it can while taking care not to create a false expectation, says Tony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

“There are strong reasons not to deploy US forces to Haiti because if you do, you get a mission of dependency,” says Mr. Cordesman. “We have to be very, very careful about our rhetoric; amidst a crisis, you want to assure people we will do what we can, but we cannot do what we can’t.”

Avoiding a long-term entanglement

Military officials recognize the need to stay out of Haiti for the long-term, especially as they manage two wars that have already taxed their vast resources.

“We’ll be there only as long as necessary,” said a senior military official at the Pentagon Wednesday. “But between being there as quickly as possible and staying as long as necessary, a lot of those things will be conditions-based, as opposed to time-based.”

The official, who spoke at a briefing by agreement without being named, said it is still too soon to tell if the military’s stay will be weeks, months, or longer.

But while other countries and relief organizations are providing much help, the capabilities of the American government may make it difficult for President Obama to extract the military from Haiti, which has long suffered from enduring poverty, instability, political corruption, and debilitating class divisions. That problem will become even more serious if unrest, now sporadic, expands across the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Those security problems have been limited to “pockets of instability” stemming from he desperation of people in need of food, water, and medical supplies, according to Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, deputy commander of Task Force Unified Response, who briefed reporters Tuesday. But so far the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake last week has been marked by calm.

Haiti first, then the Arabian Sea

Military officials said the deployment of the 24th MEU to Haiti does not mean its mission to the Arabian Sea will be scrapped. Instead, the 24th will push off to conduct its mission there only after its job is done in Haiti.

The 24th will arrive in Haiti with helicopters and ship-to-shore landing craft, and is expected to provide mostly logistical support, lightening the burden on a flotilla of about 20 other Navy ships already there, including the hospital ship USNS Comfort.

Marines from the 24th are not expected to go ashore, though that mission could change. Other ground forces are already headed in. The 22nd MEU arrived in recent days and has already sent about 800 Marines onshore to conduct a humanitarian-assistance mission. Meanwhile, members of the 82nd Airborne Division, based here, have begun to flow into Haiti to help distribute relief supplies and, if needed, help secure areas of unrest.

The 82nd is arriving with the support of the 43rd Airlift Wing based here.

The wing commander said US ground forces and their equipment are starting to flow into Haiti fairly smoothly now.

“You’re seeing better flow, but still, it’s not like you’re going into Chicago,” said Col. James Johnson, the 43rd’s commander.

[Editor's note: The original headline misstated the Marines' original destination.]

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