WITH United States troops entering Somalia in ever-larger numbers and beginning to seize territory outside Mogadishu, the rate of starvation in the battered country should stabilize and then begin to decline within a month, says a top US aid official.
About 2 million Somalis are currently at risk of dying from lack of food, estimates Andrew Natsios, a State Department official who directs US humanitarian assistance for Somalia. The vast majority of the starving are in the southern swath of territory US troops intend to control.
But lack of food is not the only problem. Sources of clean water will have to be provided to forestall epidemics. And relief agencies do not really know how bad problems are in interior regions they have not been able to reach due to marauding bands of gunmen. "I'm afraid of what we're going to find when we get there," Mr. Natsios says.
Overall, the effort to save Somalia will require 52,000 tons of food a month, according to the State Department. That amount will feed the estimated 4.5 million people living in Somalia's southern region.
Through most of the fall, relief food arrived at a rate of 37,000 tons a month, Natsios says. That was an improvement over the summer's rate of 20,000 tons. But by early November, the rate of theft of relief supplies had jumped to more than 80 percent. Armed intervention became the only alternative. "We had tried everything," Natsios says. "What upset President Bush the most was the increased level of violence."
Greed was one factor driving the rising violence - as gunmen saw more relief supplies coming in, they demanded a larger cut. The other major cause was a general instability in the balance of power between Somali warlords sparked by a spate of late fall fighting.
After adequate emergency food supplies are assured, Natsios says, relief efforts should focus on several major issues:
* Restoration of order. Working through clan and village elders, US forces must rebuild traditional lines of authority in order to avoid a return to chaos. Military civil-affairs officers are to be placed in relief organization operational headquarters for this purpose.
* Seed. Relief organizations managed to distribute only half the seed needed for planting before fall rains. The next few months will be critical, as agencies distribute seeds for March planting.
* Resettlement. The displaced need to be encouraged to return to their homes, which they won't do if the security situation isn't assured. Some villages are now completely deserted, Natsios notes.
* Livestock. Thirty percent or so of animal herds in southern Somalia have died. While that is not as bad as initially feared, the livestock will need to be replenished soon to support the Somali nomadic lifestyle.
* Jobs. Relief agencies must fund projects that provide employment, so that adult males have sources of cash and food that do not require use of automatic weapons. Natsios says that once supplies in the south are "monetized" - markets flooded with enough stock so that prices are at normal levels - relief agencies can sell food and use the profits to fund public works projects.
After two years of chaos, there is lots to do: roads need to be rebuilt, rubble cleared, and buildings repaired. Service as a gunman should not disqualify a Somali for gainful employment, Natsios says. "We will hire anybody who will work," he adds.
The forcible, massive intervention by US troops in a situation of anarchy could set a model for future relief efforts, according to Natsios. But, he adds, American relief efforts would not be appropriate in a situation where a civil war is raging between two clearly defined sides, as in the former Yugoslavia. And, he says, US forces would not always have to take the lead. "I'm suggesting the international community may want to follow it," he says.