Renewed fighting this week in Liberia may make the deployment there of any foreign peacekeeping force much more difficult - and, perhaps, more necessary.
No longer would US and West African troops be entering a tense yet stable standoff between rebels and forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor. For the moment, rebel commanders appear intent on seizing the country's capital, Monrovia, by force.
Yet without some kind of intervention, a humanitarian crisis may overwhelm a country with which the US has historic ties.
Thus the Bush administration is facing calls for another commitment of troops at a time when the US military is already stretched thin, from Bosnia to Iraq.
"In terms of the difficulty of going in, yes, I think we are two steps back from where we were last week," says Joseph Siegle, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
During his five-day swing through Africa earlier, this month President Bush indicated that he might be willing to dispatch US personnel to help enforce the cease-fire then in place in Liberia. But he indicated that such a force might well be modest, and since then administration councils have debated exactly how many troops they would be willing to spare.
While Liberia was founded by freed US slaves, and provided rubber and other raw materials for US corporations for decades, today it is of little geopolitical importance to the US, note experts. It has no oil. Its violence is consuming Liberia itself, not other longstanding US allies in the region. Al Qaeda is not using the Liberian bush as a training base.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon asserts that current missions already have caused it to be overextended. Virtually all the US Army's deployable combat forces are already engaged - and the situation in Iraq is such that commanders there are calling for more muscle, as well. Given all this, the administration's stated preference has been for Liberia's neighbors to take the lead in calming the situation there.
But recent experience shows that is not necessarily the best way to proceed, say critics of the administration's Liberia policy. The forces of the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the past have been accused of committing atrocities of their own, and of taking sides in some conflicts in which they have intervened.
"It's quite clear that West African peacekeepers can't do the job as effectively and with as much moral force as the US could," says Robert Rotberg, president of the World Peace Foundation and director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
As Mr. Bush debates whether to send troops to Liberia, military officials from ECOWAS met Tuesday in Dakar, Senegal, to discuss sending in a West African peacekeeper force.
ECOWAS, a regional organization of 15 West African nations, has previously pledged to send as many as 1,500 peacekeepers regardless of whether the US sends troops.
BUT the organization has no standing army and is dependent on member states to provide troops and funding. So far only Nigeria, the region's economic and political powerhouse, has made a commitment. On Monday, Nigeria said it would provide nearly 800 troops as soon as it receives authorization from other ECOWAS countries.
Nigerian troops have formed the core of almost every ECOWAS intervention, as most other member states have limited military capacity. Nigeria's large oil sector provides the financial means to maintain the region's only substantial air and naval forces.
One option, said Nigerian Army Col. Chukwuemeka Onwuamaegbu, was to divert from Sierra Leone to Liberia's capital a Nigerian infantry battalion of some 700 to 1,000 troops. The soldiers are part of a UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone.
Whatever the composition of any Liberia peacekeeping force, deployment amid the current chaos is likely to be dangerous, as shown on Monday when mortar fire rippled through Monrovia near the US Embassy.
Rebels appear to have decided that now is their chance to depose Charles Taylor by force. The Bush administration had made Taylor's departure a precondition of sending in US troops, and his evident ambivalence about leaving has contributed to the White House's hesitation to get involved in the situation.
The political problem for the US is that it appears to be trying to have things both ways in regards to the Liberian crisis, says Mr. Siegle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
During Bush's Africa trip, he made noises about helping out in an effort to appear compassionate. Yet now it appears the US was never serious about quickly sending in a decisive force, says Siegle.
If the US were now to reverse course and take a decisive position, a Liberia operation could still be carried out with relative efficiency. "I think with a clear signal and political pressure on the rebels, you could see a resumption of a cease-fire and this would allow for deployment in relatively stable conditions," says Siegle.
"In Liberia, I think a small force ... would work. I don't think it would be a military quagmire," says James Woods, a former deputy assistant for African affairs at the Pentagon.
• Nicole Itano contributed to this report from Africa. Wire service material was also used.
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
Established May 28, 1975, to create an economic and monetary union for promoting growth and development in West Africa.
Current chairman: Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal
Total population: 246.8 million
Combined GDP (2001): $75.1 billion ($39.5 billion from Nigeria alone.)
Peacekeeping force: ECOMOG, the ECOWAS Monitoring Group, was first deployed in 1990 to halt factional fighting in Liberia. It has since conducted intervention or peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, and Ivory Coast. It is not a standing army; troops are donated by member countries for specific missions.
Source: US Government