AS the United States military continues to expand and intensify its activities in Haiti, top officials in the Pentagon worry that the most dangerous part of Operation Restore Democracy is yet to come.
Establishing US authority throughout the country has already been a tricky business - as the Sept. 25 firefight between Marines and armed Haitians makes clear. But the two weeks leading up to President Jean-Ber-trand Aristide's scheduled return on Oct. 15 could well see an up-surge in pro- and anti-Aristide violence, defense planners say.
US forces don't want to get caught between supporters celebrating Fr. Aristide's imminent arrival and a Haitian military that clearly sees the extent to which its power base has eroded. ``So that's going to be the time that we have to pay particular attention,'' said a senior US defense official at a background briefing for reporters on Sept. 26.
The US government will try to make sure both Aristide and junta leader Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras continue to urge caution. But ``when power is shifting there are always some people who will try to take advantage of that shift,'' said the defense official.
So far the military is guardedly optimistic about the progress of their admittedly complex Haitian intervention. The loss of life in the Cap-Haitien shootout was regrettable, according to Secretary of Defense William Perry, but also an example of the determination of the US to build a stable environment for the return of elected government.
In a bid to gradually lower the level of possible violence in Haiti, a weapons buy-back was set to begin Sept. 27, Mr. Perry said. Quickly dubbed ``gourdes for guns,'' after the local currency, the program will pay from $50 for a sidearm up to $300 for military-style weapons such as mortars and machine guns.
Humanitarian aid was also set to begin flowing in larger quantities, as part of the US plan to win the hearts and stomachs of the poor masses. US military engineers were working on restoring power to Haiti's long-dark national electrical grid. At the United Nations on Sept. 26, President Clinton announced that the US was lifting most economic sanctions levied on Haiti and urged that the UN itself do the same ``in the spirit of reconciliation and reconstruction.''
But where the Clinton administration sees a Haiti foreign policy that is finally going right after missteps and hesitation, others in Washington see a potential morass. Though Congress passed up several opportunities to order limits on a possible Haiti operation earlier this year, lawmakers seemed set this week to try to set a binding date for the withdrawal of US troops - something the White House strongly opposes as unnecessary.
Meanwhile, US public support for the operation could already be eroding. A new ABC/Washington Post poll finds that approval for Clinton's Haitian policies has declined from 55 percent of respondents to 36 percent in one week.
Some analysts have already detected signs of the dreaded ``mission creep'' expansion of US involvement in Haiti. When the US first landed, officers insisted they would not intervene in small scale Haitian-on-Haitian violence; now US forces are in effect policing some areas of the country, and relations with General Cedras and his men appear to be worsening.
Mission creep is ``pretty tough to avoid,'' says Joshua Epstein, a senior military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ``You can't go in and declare that you're going to restore democracy, and then indifferently watch them descend into social chaos. Implicitly, it's a long-term commitment.''
Mr. Epstein complains about the ``Restore Democracy'' name of the operation, saying it could lead to false expectations that the US really means to insure democracy in places all over the world. If in Haiti, why not in Bosnia?
The administration really means that it will restore democracy where it can do so at what it thinks is an acceptable risk, says Epstein. The trillion-dollar US military could bring peace to Bosnia if officials so wished. The cost is simply judged too high.
Other analysts say that the US is in for a long haul in Haiti even if the bulk of forces is brought back early next year, as Congress wants. A UN follow-on force will include a high percentage of US troops, points out Robert Johnson, a National Planning Association fellow who has recently written a book on US interests after the cold war.
If this protracted, residual presence is taken into account, the US operation begins to seem more ambitious, says Mr. Johnson. In a limited form ``we could stay there 20 years,'' he says.
Haiti's broken-down infrastructure, if nothing else, will require a long-term rebuilding commitment.
On Sept. 26, the World Bank said it planned to swiftly approve an emergency loan for the battered country, once President Aristide returns, to pay for basic repairs and emergency aid.
Haiti is already some $80 million in arrears on loans made by the World Bank and other international lending institutions. The US and other large donors to these institutions have discussed some form of debt relief to help Haiti get back on its feet.