THE deployment of United States troops in Somalia is dragging toward its end with US officials confident that Operation Restore Hope has essentially accomplished what it set out to do.
The world community should now begin contemplating the broad lessons learned from the relief effort, according to the former US special envoy to Somalia. Despite the initial misgivings of the United Nations, Restore Hope proved that massive humanitarian aid can be delivered by force if necessary, former Amb. Robert Oakley said on April 14.
But having pulled Somalia from the brink, at least for the moment, the pressing question becomes: What other situations merit such treatment? "Which countries are we going to decide to help?" Mr. Oakley said at a briefing on the Somalia aftermath put together by the US Institute of Peace.
As yet the Pentagon hasn't set a specific timetable for the relief of the 12,000 US troops still involved in Somalia. UN officials have talked about the planned new UN-led international peacekeeping force taking over on May 1. But that deadline, like other tentative dates for a US pullout before it, apparently will not be met.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's new envoy for Somalia, US Adm. Jonathon Howe, has said the pullout will be "a lot later than May 1." Thirty countries have now been asked to provide troops for an international force by the end of May.
US officials admit the military transition has been painfully slow. Even after the UN takes over, some specialized US logistical forces will remain, as well as a quick-reaction Army battalion.
"We will almost certainly remain the single most important national actor in the Somali scene," Ambassador David Schinn, the State Department coordinator for Somalia, told Congress last month.
The basic US goal for its Somali effort has been reached, claim US officials. A secure environment for food distribution has been created. The malnutrition rate in Mogadishu, the capital, has fallen from 70 percent last August to 18 percent today, with comparable progress elsewhere in the country, according to US State Department figures.
LOCAL police forces are going concerns in many areas. To their advantage, the ability of warlords to cause unrest has been hurt by the fact that their vehicles, mounted with weapons, are breaking down. Two-thirds of these vehicles are now out of operation, according to the US.
Still, substantial problems remain. Simple banditry by roving gunmen is increasing. US troops have been made wary by continuous rock-throwing and harassment from some Somali elements.
Above all, there is no functioning Somali government. Peace talks between Somali factions held recently in Ethiopia have yet to show any concrete results. If the UN peacekeeping mission fails, another humanitarian crisis would certainly develop.
With no reconciliation between warlords in sight, US and UN efforts have focused on building regional government. There has already been some progress in this regard, Oakley claims. In Baidoa, for instance, a town council with popular support was formed after the arrival of US troops, displacing a warlord-designated mayor.
"There has to be some regional authority. The national debate can be postponed," Oakley said.
The basic structure of the US operation - large deployments of force to deliver aid over the objections of local gunmen, if need be - had been rejected by the UN last fall. Now it has been adopted, as a large UN force moves in.