As Haiti's airport reopens, US military shifts its role

While there is still much work to be done, the security situation in Haiti has stabilized enough that some US forces will soon leave the country.

Carlos Barria/REUTERS
A man sits at a makeshift tent camp as the first commercial flight since the earthquake arrives to the airport in Port-au-Prince Monday.

The airport in Port-au-Prince opened up to commercial airline traffic for the first time Friday since last month's earthquake, marking a turning point in the country’s ability to begin to stand on its own.

At the same time, the US military has begun to ponder pulling many of its forces out of Haiti, with some of the first ground forces to arrive leaving very soon.

Officials with American Airlines said the first flight from Miami to Haiti arrived in Port-au-Prince at about 9:30 a.m. Friday morning. At least one other airline had planned to begin flights into the airport, which had banned all commercial air traffic following the Jan. 12 earthquake that the Haitian government says killed as many as 212,000. The Haitian government has begun to oversee daily airport operations once again.

Military officials say that while there is still much work to be done in Haiti, their role is beginning to diminish. Looting has decreased, along with criminal and gang activity, and the security situation in Port-au-Prince has stabilized enough that the military can begin to leave. Water and fuel supplies are also back to their “pre-quake” levels, says one senior military official.

The bulk of US forces will likely be gone in the next few months.

“We think the security situation will allow us to slowly withdraw some forces,” said the official, who would speak only on background.

Lead elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, which had deployed in the days following the earthquake, will begin to leave soon, according to the official. Military officials say other forces, including the hospital ship USNS Comfort, will likely stay longer. The ship has a couple dozen patients who require critical care, and those patients will gradually be transferred to facilities ashore.

Earlier this week, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, the top US commander in Haiti, said that the country's initial, emergency needs – conducting search and rescue operations, providing medical assistance and security, and handing out food and water – have largely been met.

“As we see this transition occurring, we see our civilian partners increase their capabilities – both government here in Haiti as well as the nongovernment organizations – we see the need for our military assistance dwindling,” Gen. Keen told reporters in a video teleconference Wednesday.

Keen said the military’s mission will transition to a more sustainable force focused on other needs, such as providing shelter to Haitians who lost their homes, ahead of the looming rainy season.

“We’re looking at tremendous requirements to provide shelter as the rainy season begins, but also rubble removal, which is connected to shelter, as you might imagine, and ensuring that we have locations where we can move folks to,” Keen said.

After what some described as a slow start, the US military’s massive response topped 22,000 armed forces, both on land and at sea, a flotilla of about 20 naval and US Coast Guard ships, including the USS Carl Vinson and the USNS Comfort, and dozens of airplanes and helicopters. The 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg, NC, two Marine Expeditionary Units, the 22nd and the 24th from Camp Lejeune, NC, and various Air Force units to establish a useable airport were all deployed there. There are currently more than 10,000 US service members in Haiti, 7,000 of whom are ashore.

The military has helped distribute about 2.4 million meals. On Thursday alone, the military helped provide 18,000 families with World Food Program aid, the official said.


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