US Backs Up UN in Somalia, Protecting Its Investment

DESPITE handing over control of the massive relief and recovery operation in Somalia to the United Nations, the United States seems intent on protecting its investment here by helping to ensure the UN will not fail.

The new UN Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM II), backed by a 20-plus nation force of 28,000 soldiers, calls for maintaining peace between 15 clan factions by deploying troops throughout Somalia, disarming Somali factions, and rebuilding civil institutions. At $1.5 billion for the first year, UNOSOM II is the world's most expensive field operation.

The operation's aim, according to UN officials, is to rebuild Somalia from scratch.

"Our mission is accomplished," said Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, commander of the US-led forces in Somalia, before handing control of the operation to the head of UNOSOM II forces, Lt. Gen. Cevik Bir.

But he made American interest in the UN operation clear, adding: "It has been worth every penny we spent to end the famine. But 18 troops were lost, and those casualties will not be worth it unless UNOSOM II is successful."

The same problems that caused Somalia to collapse after the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre two years ago still exist. The country is awash with hidden weapons, the fratricidal clan system is intact, and, as noted by the US Army Intelligence and Threat Analysis Center in its "Restore Hope Soldier Handbook," "Somalis are prone to take an aggressive, pro-active approach to resolving anything perceived to be a problem."

The handbook also notes that Somalis "admire military strength and power," and this is why US forces will maintain a presence. UNOSOM II will include 2,800 logistics experts, and a US Army Quick Reaction Force of 1,300 troops that can be deployed anywhere in Somalia within 24 hours.

US Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery, second in command of UNOSOM II, says: "The message we are giving out is that if we are tested, we are prepared for a decisive response." US military presence

The US has seeded Americans into every level of UNOSOM II, giving them effective control of the operation.

US officials at the top include: retired US Navy Adm. Jonathan Howe, the UN special envoy to Somalia; his executive assistant, who is a retired three-star US general; and General Montgomery, who, besides serving as deputy military chief for UNOSOM II, also reports directly to the Pentagon as commander of US forces in Somalia; and the influential UNOSOM II military spokesman, who is an American major.

UNOSOM II commander Bir admits that his UN operation is top-heavy with Americans: "The critical posts are manned by Americans, and I'm happy to see them in my headquarters."

The transfer of command to the UN also marks changes for the 40 relief agencies already at work in Mogadishu. Many of them, their mission limited to "emergencies," are now cutting back. Others are trying to concentrate on returning displaced people, handing out seeds and tools, and opening schools. New expectations

Expectations have changed for UN agencies that were heavily criticized last year for their slow reaction to the famine. But with images of Somalis dying by the hundreds gone from television screens, most major donors have given little money to see that tragedy does not revisit Somalia. A modest UN appeal in March for $153 million in relief has so far reaped only $13.5 million.

For the moment, Somalia is top priority for the Clinton administration. In 1993, the US plans to spend $190 million for humanitarian relief in Somalia, double that given to any other African country, according to US Ambassador Robert Gosende. Such continued US influence may help convince Somalis that the UN has the resolve to "enforce peace," now that the famine emergency is over. But Ambassador Gosende worries that it could send the wrong impression about US long-term interests in Somalia.

"If there is a perception of a problem among Somalis, it is that the [US] has interests and responsibilities here far beyond what we do have," Gosende says.

That mistake was made before, he adds, in the late 1960s. The US government built a palatial embassy on 83 acres, including a golf course. Gosende says that such a display "was confusing and it was wrong."

To avoid a similar mistake, the "new" American Embassy will use a small former US Information Service building on the embassy compound, which Gosende says, is "just the right size."

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