IS the United Nations operation in Somalia too strong on force and too weak on diplomacy?
Critics, including the Italian government, which supplies the third largest UN peacekeeping contingent in Somalia, say yes. In their view, the onetime UN humanitarian operation has become a Rambo-style military effort that is overly focused on one uncooperative warlord: Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. The result, they say, has been far too much bloodshed and increasing anti-UN sentiment. The Organization of African Unity has urged the UN to review its mandate in the East African state.
Even a senior official complained yesterday that UN members were spending at least 10 times as much on their military operation in Somalia as they were on aid.
In a rare criticism of a UN operation by a high-ranking official, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Eliasson warned that the original aim of sending troops to Somalia - to protect aid - risked being forgotten, he told a UN group.
But other UN officials counter that the chaos would be far worse if UN troops were to pull out, arguing that UN resolve is being tested and that the organization cannot afford to back away. They say a secure environment for delivering aid cannot be established until all Somali factions disarm.
"Disarmament is a critical component of returning peace to Somalia," agrees David Smock, an expert on Africa with the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, "but I think the approach has to be an evenhanded one that doesn't just focus on Aideed."
"We're dealing with a peace enforcement situation," insists Kofi Annan, UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations. "Only one faction is behind the violence in Mogadishu today.... It's not a question of being partial or singling out Aideed [who he says has defied UN disarmament orders]; I would hope the UN would treat any faction similarly that behaves in this way."
The current standoff between the UN and General Aideed began June 5 when gunmen believed to be acting on the warlord's orders ambushed and killed 24 Pakistani UN troops. The UN Security Council demanded the arrest and prosecution of those responsible. Jonathan Howe, the UN secretary general's special envoy in Somalia and a retired US admiral, followed with an order for Aideed's arrest.
Much of the current criticism of the UN was triggered by the July 12 air assault on a suspected Aideed command and control center in which more than 50 Somalis died, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross. Since the end of May, 35 UN peacekeepers have been killed. A case against Aideed
"I feel very strongly that Aideed needs to be held personally accountable. There's no question this guy is a thug," says Michael Clough, an expert on Africa with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Yet by practicing "gunboat diplomacy" and moving first to "hammer him militarily" rather than by trying to lessen his political appeal and build a case against him, the US, which Mr. Clough says controls the UN Somali operation, has made Aideed a hero among Somalis. "We turned him into a symbol of the struggle against US domination," Clough says.
Aideed, who remains in hiding, tells his followers through aides that the UN is trying to "colonize" Somalia. "We cannot accept foreign domination," he says.
Sniper fire, presumably from his followers, wounded four Americans in two days this week. UN forces have now begun to clear the no man's land around UN headquarters so that gunmen can no longer shoot from abandoned buildings. UN ground troops have conducted a number of house-to-house weapons searches in recent days as US helicopters provided air cover.
Top officials from Italy may visit UN headquarters early next week to discuss their concerns about UN tactics with UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Also an Italian military officer is soon to be assigned to the Somalia desk of the peacekeeping staff of UN headquarters.
Italy, which once held southern Somalia as a colony and asked to be part of the UN peacekeeping contingent, has sharply criticized UN military tactics, urging more dialogue among warring factions.
But according to as yet unsubstantiated reports, Italian officials may have informed Aideed of impending UN raids.
The recent refusal of Gen. Bruno Loi, commander of the Italian contingent of UN forces in Somalia, to obey UN orders until he cleared the orders with Rome led to an open split with the UN military hierarchy that almost resulted in his dismissal. As things stand, he will stay on in Mogadishu until Sept 1. `Unity of command' needed
Undersecretary-General Annan says that initially four or five of the 27 troop-contributing nations refused to accept certain UN-assigned tasks until these were cleared by their capitals. Most such situations now have been resolved, he says. "For an operation like this to succeed, you need unity of command," he says.
Annan insists that the UN is in close contact with all Somali factions and is ready to talk once the guns are gone. "If we stop to negotiate with these criminal elements now," he asks, "can we rely on their word?" The present difficult period is a necessary phase, he says, which he hopes will be brief.