Wednesday, July 23, 2003

The U.S. military is considering a force of fewer than 2,000 troops to augment a West African peacekeeping force in Liberia, a military source said yesterday.

The source said U.S. European Command, which has responsibility for military operations in West Africa, is eyeing an option that would put about 300 support personnel in Liberia. They would be protected by an unspecified number of combat troops, flown in from Europe or the United States. Most support troops would come from the Guard and Reserves. The total commitment actually is likely to be under 1,000 troops, the source said.

The support troops would include civil affairs officers who help restore basic government services, supply personnel, communications experts and intelligence officers. The team would support a peacekeeping force of West Africans who might number about 3,000.

The White House said President Bush has made no final decision on whether to send American forces to the violence-racked nation. He first wants Liberian President Charles Taylor, who stands indicted on war crimes, to permanently leave the country. He also wants a permanent cease-fire agreement between the government and rebels.

The military source said the debate inside the administration has produced troop options of between 300 and 2,000. The source said the Pentagon, whose troops are stretched thin performing major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is pressing for the lowest possible number. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is described as cool, at best, toward the mission.

In Liberia, hundreds have died in the past several days alone as rebels began an assault on Monrovia. But the shooting waned yesterday and the State Department said a cease-fire seemed to be occurring.

“There are a lot of pieces of this that have to come together,” spokesman Richard Boucher said on Tuesday.

Yesterday, Mr. Boucher indicated a deployment decision by the president was closer in time, but not necessarily today.

“We’re working with the West Africans,” he said. “We’re pressuring the parties to stop the fighting.”

Mr. Boucher said the peacekeeping force would be led by two Nigerian battalions.

Putting peacekeepers in West Africa is conjuring up memories of the last U.S. military foray on the continent in 1992-93. The United States put troops in the East African nation of Somalia to feed a starving people and bring peace among warlords. It ended in withdrawal of them in 1993 after 18 troops died during a mission to arrest clan leaders in Mogadishu.

This time, officials say, the American presence will be much smaller, and its role strictly limited to supporting the West African force.

Mr. Rumsfeld signed an order over the weekend to move an amphibious ready group with 2,000 Marines from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. Officials said the Marines likely will not become the peacekeeping force, but will be on standby in case Americans need to be evacuated.

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a military analyst, said Americans will face many dangers in a war-ravaged country where virtually no institutions are working.

“You will face extensive land mines and mortars,” he said. “You are facing terrible diseases. You have no working infrastructure. No economy. A starving population.”

Col. Maginnis said the American entrance will pave the way for nongovernmental agencies to begin providing humanitarian assistance. But he said their arrival could also mean they will begin, through the media, to urge Washington to bring more troops because the job is larger than first thought.

“Rumsfeld, I don’t think, would tolerate that,” Col. Maginnis said. “We’re already being nickled and dimed over in Iraq.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Times, sought to explain the national security interest in Liberia.

“In Liberia, if you ask the question, ‘What is our strategic, vital interest?’ It would be hard to define that in that way,” Mr. Powell said. “But we do have an interest in making sure that West Africa doesn’t simply come apart.

“We do have a historic link to Liberia. And we do have some obligation as the most important, powerful nation on the face of the Earth not to look away when a problem like this comes before us. We looked away once before in Rwanda with tragic consequences.”

Mr. Powell said Mr. Bush sees the U.S. mission “as very limited in terms of scope and duration.”

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