WHAT began this week in Somalia as a narrowly defined humanitarian aid operation by United States-led troops is likely to evolve into a broad new long-term commitment for the United Nations itself.
Under the UN mandate, the US command is to hand the job of relief supervision over to the UN as quickly as possible. The UN then will try to help warring parties reach a political settlement.
Security Council president Chinmaya Gharekhan says the US-UN transfer is unprecedented but that it should be "smooth." He says the UN Operation in Somalia, a peacekeeping force now authorized at 3,500 troops, will likely have to be expanded.
Yet some UN experts say the transfer and the tasks ahead may prove a major challenge for the UN.
"The idea is to have the US clear the way [for aid] and get things running ... but the hard part is left to the UN," says Innis Claude, professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. He questions, for instance, how a relatively small contingent of lightly armed UN peacekeepers can deal with armed Somali gangs who may decide to resume shooting after US troops leave.
One still-unanswered question is who, if anyone, will disarm gun-wielding Somalis? UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali says demobilization is a first step to any political solution. Yet the latest Council resolution makes no mention of the job, presumably at US insistence.
Professor Innis says UN peacekeepers would face a particularly difficult task if Somalis resist. "That would probably mean defeating them in an armed struggle, capturing them, and taking their weapons away," he says.
"There's a very big question in everybody's mind as to what the second phase of this [UN] operation is going to look like," agrees Thomas Franck, a professor of international law at New York University. The UN is likely to be left "holding the bag" on ambitious tasks just when it needs to be seen as an instrument of progress, he says.
Separating military from political objectives in such ventures is almost impossible, Dr. Franck says. Also, civic problems cannot be addressed without a look at economic and social problems. "The bottom line is that you can't have very high expectations for stability in a society where the per capita income is around $140 a year," he says.
Diplomats and UN officials agree that development help must be part of the Somalia mix. "This is perhaps the ideal case for what the secretary-general calls the UN's peace-building role," says Ambassador Gharekhan. "We're waiting to do that in Cambodia, but it will take a long time there.... I think once some kind of stability is restored [in Somalia] ... the UN and the international donor community will have to help."
If UN efforts are to have any lasting positive impact on the famine situation, suggests Professor Claude, Somalis also must be helped to get a "decent" government that will address such issues as land use, food distribution, environmental safeguards, and, perhaps, population control.
How to get so many warring factions to agree to such a government is still an open question. Ismat Kattani, the secretary-general's special representative in Somalia, describes Somali society as in an "advanced state of disintegration."
Still, the 12 clan leaders attending the UN humanitarian aid conference on Somalia, held in Ethiopia earlier this month, all endorsed the concept of national reconciliation. Boutros-Ghali talks about a Cambodia-like solution for Somalia that might involve an interim UN administration and supervised elections.
All signs are that the UN is in for the long haul on Somalia. Analysts warn that the results may not necessarily go as expected. Franck points to the virtual UN takeover of government services in Haiti before free elections were held there. Three months later a military coup ousted the president and the situation in Haiti is "back to Square 1," he says.
Much in the end will depend on the Somalis themselves.
"If the Somalis are determined - after we've restored law and order and brought in some food - to have a genocide among themselves, there's very little the world can do about it," Franck says. "Civil wars are messy and awful ... but sooner or later somebody wins and history moves on."
"I think Somalia is probably going to have to straighten out its own affairs," agrees Claude. "It's very difficult to see how the UN could be expected to make it a society that works."