THE steady stream of nations offering to join Operation Restore Hope is bolstering the belief of United States officials that American forces will not get stuck in Somalia for an extended period of time.
So far, 18 nations have volunteered troops to help out with the Somali humanitarian relief effort, either in the current peacemaking phase of the operation or in the follow-on United Nations peacekeeping force. The total size of the non-US contingent could surpass 20,000 personnel, and involve members from Australia to Zimbabwe.
This third-country presence promises to be much larger than Pentagon officials had counted on when they laid plans for the Somali intervention last month. US units already in the country could be swapped with some foreign counterparts fairly soon.
"The significant influx of forces of other countries will permit some forces to go home in January," Gen. Joseph Hoar, the head of US Central Command, said in a Mogadishu meeting with reporters on Friday.
The influx also means that the UN peacekeeping effort, intended to fill any power vacuum created by the ultimate US withdrawal, could be "up and running early on," says James Woods, deputy secretary of defense for African affairs.
The transition from US- to UN-led security in Somalia will not be an abrupt affair, Mr. Woods told Congress last week.
Rather, it will be a phased process, with forces swapped on a unit-for-unit basis. No one in Washington even pretends anymore that the US will be out by inauguration day (Jan. 20), but "two to three months ... would be a reasonable time frame," Woods says. Congress is concerned
Still, there is an undercurrent of concern among those members of Congress who have not yet fled Washington for the holidays that the way out of Somalia for the US might not be that quick and easy. Woods and Herman Cohen, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, faced stiff questioning from the House Foreign Affairs Committee during their unusual out-of-session appearance.
The looting and gunfire that continues outside the area of US-protected zones has led some legislators to worry that things may not be quite as controlled as the Pentagon has made them out to be.
"I'm concerned about the US getting bogged down in Somalia. Our policy seems to be shifting faster than the desert sand," said Rep. Toby Roth (R) of Wisconsin. Allies provide bases
Promising troops is not the only way other nations have helped the US military so far in its Somali effort. En-route refueling and rest stops provided by a number of countries have been invaluable in establishing an "air bridge" from the mainland US to Somalia, according to Pentagon officials.
After all, it's a long way from Africa to main US staging areas, such as March Air Force Base (AFB) in California and Dover AFB in Delaware. To make the trip, US military cargo aircraft require at least two refuelings and a change of crews.
Airfields in Somalia itself are austere, to say the least. There are no refueling or resupply facilities except those brought in by US forces themselves. Facilities have been looted down to the very wires, which have been stolen for their copper content.
"You have to see the utter lack of infrastructure there to believe it," Air Force Gen. Ronald Fogleman, the four-star officer who heads US Transportation Command, said at a breakfast with defense reporters.
As a result, US flights into Somalia are operating out of staging bases in other countries about two hours flying time from Mogadishu, General Fogleman said.
The general said some large facilities in the Middle East were serving as main rear-operating areas. He would not name the nations involved, saying some were sensitive to the domestic political implications of appearing too close to the US military.
But the sultanate of Oman has often provided access to US and British military forces in the past, and both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are reportedly providing airfields to aid the Somali effort.
The Restore Hope airlift is using approximately one-third of the total US force of 72 large C-5 cargo planes, as well as about 10 percent of the medium-sized C-141 aircraft, Fogelman said.