PRETORIA, South Africa — President Bush said yesterday the United States will likely continue training African soldiers for a peacekeeping mission in Liberia as a way to ensure that American troops don’t become overextended.
Mr. Bush declined to say explicitly whether he would send U.S. forces to the war-torn West African nation, but his comments seemed to downplay the possibility of their direct involvement.
“We won’t overextend our troops, period,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference yesterday with South African President Thabo Mbeki.
“Our money has helped train seven battalions of peacekeepers amongst African troops. And it’s a sensible policy for us to continue that training mission, so that we never do get overextended.”
In Washington yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon has also sent teams to other West African nations to determine what kind of peacekeeping forces those nations could deploy in Liberia.
Mr. Bush reiterated U.S. support for that force, organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and said that policy would continue.
“One of the things you’ll see us do is invigorate this — reinvigorate the strategy of helping people help themselves by providing training opportunities,” he said. “It’s in our interest that we continue that strategy … so that we don’t ever get overextended.”
Mr. Bush has invited U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, along with the head of U.N. peacekeeping and the head of U.N. political affairs, to the White House on Monday, a U.N. official in Washington told the Associated Press.
Mr. Annan has said he would like to see the United States lead a multinational peacekeeping force in Liberia, which has historically close ties to the United States since its founding by freed American slaves in the early 19th century.
Mr. Annan said yesterday at a meeting in Mozambique that West African nations were ready to play an immediate role in Liberia, although the ECOWAS bloc itself suggested it might not be ready.
The West African nations initially offered 3,000 troops and suggested the United States contribute 2,000. But negotiators meeting in Ghana yesterday said it would take too long and cost too much to mobilize a force of that size.
ECOWAS is proposing to mobilize an initial 1,000 soldiers within two weeks and is asking the United States for 1,500, West African diplomats involved in the talks told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
American lawmakers, including some Republicans, have questioned the wisdom of another major overseas military mission with U.S. forces already on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The United States has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and 150,000 in Iraq.