Wringing Violence Out of Haiti Keeps US Soldiers on Their Toes

IN Haiti, the United States military is launching an operation that will challenge the tact, judgement, and leadership of everyone from top generals to lieutenants and sergeants heading patrols.

At the highest levels force commanders will have to work out ways of cooperating with Haitian counterparts who are sort of friends, not quite enemies, and fearful of their future under a government led by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On the ground junior officers will face snap decisions about things they didn't learn in infantry school.

Sometime soon, somewhere in Haiti, US soldiers will be suddenly confronted by a mob that appears unruly. ``Are they carrying weapons, or aren't they?'' says a US Army colonel, running through the decision process soldiers will face. ``Are they out to do us harm, or aren't they? In Desert Storm you could ID all the players. In Haiti things aren't that clear cut.''

What the Pentagon wants to avoid is another Somalia, where a peacekeeping mission degenerated into a small-scale war and US casualties undermined public support. Pentagon officials say at least two major lessons learned from the Somali experience have already been incorporated into Haiti planning.

The first is the need to avoid ``mission creep,'' where a low-key peacekeeping role gradually expands into something else. To that end, the tasks assigned the US force now pouring into Haiti are very specific, according to the Pentagon. US soldiers will enforce only essential civic order. Policing the pro-Aristide slums, for instance, will apparently be left to the existing Haitian police - who have been implicated in anti-Aristide violence.

Stopping mission creep ``will require a great deal of attention on the part of commanders on the ground,'' said a senior Pentagon official at a briefing for reporters. ``There will be a great propensity to get the military to do more.''

The second Somali lesson US officers will try to incorporate is the need for a sensitive and gradual approach to disarming Haitians judged not supposed to have weapons - particularly paramilitary groups. Top US officers say the US fully intends to run a disarmament program in Haiti, including perhaps an offer to buy back weapons, but that they won't be going house to house looking for shotguns. The US also will try to encourage the Haitians themselves to begin rounding up loose rifles.

If US troops approach a police or military barracks and are fired upon, they will seize and disarm the whole camp, according to the Pentagon.

It is a process that will have to be taken one day at a time. The US wants to ``constantly tighten it down, so that the conditions are there not for a disarmed society but a society that frankly has less and less capability for violence,'' said the senior Pentagon official.

As of this writing several thousand US troops had arrived in Haiti with no casualties on either side. US officials said only two shots were fired the first day of the Haitian intervention - both by a Haitian policeman shooting into the air to get the attention of a crowd. By the end of the week large military roll-on/roll-off transport ships were to arrive and begin unloading Bradley armored personnel carriers and other weaponry.

Members of Congress said they had been told to expect a large-scale Haiti operation stretching to at least February. After that, a United Nations force would take over in conjunction with a smaller US presence, leading up to Haitian presidential elections in late 1995.

President Clinton is likely eventually to seek congressional approval for a supplemental budget bill to pay for the Haitian deployment, according to lawmakers.

The Defense Budget Project, a private group, estimates that cost at $500 million to $700 million - assuming an average of at least 4,600 US troops on the ground in Haiti over the next 17 months.

Despite its appearance the intervention should not be termed an ``occupation,'' claim US officials. Instead, they say, US forces will be trying to create a stable, secure environment and rebuild Haitian institutions so that the police and military can do their jobs. Martial law has not been declared. ``We are not going to hand out traffic tickets,'' said the senior Pentagon official.

One place the US military worries about is Cap-Haitien. The Army commander in the area is judged the most capable in the country. He has dispersed his eighty or so troops into groups of four or five, in civilian clothes, with mortars and other dangerous weapons, according to the Pentagon. But US Marines began an unopposed landing there Sept. 20.

Meanwhile, some US supporters of President Aristide have begun criticizing the agreement brokered by ex-President Carter as inadequate. The general amnesty called for under the pact is too broad, they complain, excusing rape and murder along with more narrow political crimes.

Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his allies should not be allowed even the opportunity to stay in the country, charged Randall Robin-son, director of the TransAfrica lobbying group in Washington. It is ``a total, impractical folly to allow these people to stay in this country with their assets and with amnesty after they step down,'' Mr. Robinson said.

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