Logistics Challenges Await Troops in Somalia
Limited infrastructure allows few convoys, but much relief needed
WASHINGTON — AS United States armed forces enter Somalia, their biggest challenge may be, not teenagers with guns, but rather the massive logistics effort that will be needed to move in, take control, and get relief aid moving to the areas where it is most desperately needed.
At more than 28,000 US troops (under current plans), the force will be far smaller and more manageable than the 500,000-plus that were transported to the Gulf for Operation Desert Storm.
Other nations have indicated that they will provide supporting units, but it is unclear what form that assistance may take.
Saudi Arabia, for all its vast desert, had huge, new ports and airfields built to handle an influx of military equipment. In contrast, what little infrastructure Somalia has is in shambles.
In the initial area of military operations along Somalia's southern coast there are only two airfields capable of handling C-141s - medium-sized military jet transports. Port facilities can handle only a few ships at a time.
"It is a very, very austere environment," noted Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell at a briefing. "There is no potable water there. No gas stations."
At the same time, the United States is bringing in a force large enough to ensure there will be no doubt as to who is in charge. Some analysts have suggested that 28,000 troops is too much for a situation in which there is little organized military resistance and almost no heavy weaponry. But US officials say they want to go in with enough power to stabilize the situation right away, rather than adding forces incrementally.
"We also wanted to put in a large enough force that we could dominate the entire country and not just find ourselves trapped in a port or in a single city," General Powell said.
US troops will be operating under rules of engagement that allow them to shoot to defend themselves. They will also be authorized to "take action to prevent harm to those who are under their care," in the words of Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, as well as be able to take preemptive action to defuse threats.
US officials have deliberately left vague whether those words mean US forces will simply offer cash bounties for guns turned in, or will shoot first if they encounter one of the menacing truck-mounted machine guns so popular in Somalia. The question of how, or if, the US intends to disarm Somali gangs is still open.
"The chances are these people are not going to resist, but they are going to be standing around with guns," says John Macartney, a former National War College scholar who is now an associate professor at American University.
US marines are to secure the capital city of Mogadishu in the initial phase of Operation Restore Hope. Marines will also move into the inland city of Baidoa, where the Air Force has already been flying in food for several months.
Plans call for additional marines to then begin arriving in the country from Camp Pendleton in southern California, along with the Army's 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y. As manpower builds, US forces will expand their presence into cities in the hard-hit southern region.
"It makes sense to use the Marines," notes senior military analyst Greg Weaver of the SAIC Corporation, "because they're the only relatively heavy forces you can get there fast." Marine weapons, including M-60 tanks, are loaded on ships prepositioned in the nearby Indian Ocean. The pre-positioned ships are capable of offloading themselves onto a beach even if Mogadishu's port is not ready when they arrive.
The reason that the 10th Mountain Division was picked for the job is not as clear. By some measures it is less heavily armed than the mobile Marine forces it will be joining with, though as light infantry it is well-suited to operating in a desert environment.
The 82nd Airborne is the cutting-edge unit the Army might normally dispatch in this case, as it did in the initial days of Desert Storm. But the Pentagon could well have decided to keep the 82nd at home, in reserve - in case it is needed somewhere else around the world.
"It means they aren't really viewing this as a combat action," Mr. Weaver says.
Many analysts have pointed out that the Pentagon may spend more time in Somalia than it plans. Among other things, roads may need to be built to allow transport convoys. And lightly armed peacekeeping UN forces might not be enough to deter Somali bandits, who could resume stealing food after the US leaves.
US officials agree they should not be held to a firm deadline for leaving. But they insist that in six weeks or so, after the situation is stabilized, UN peacekeepers and relief agencies could again handle the situation. "It's sort of like the cavalry coming to the rescue, straightening things out for a while, and then letting the marshals come back in to keep things under control," Powell said.