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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Los Angeles Times July 03, 2003

U.S. Willing to Send Troops to Help Liberia

Washington reacts to international pressure to intervene in the civil war. The deployment would be small and short-term, sources say

By Robin Wright and Esther Schrader

After a decade of avoiding intervention in messy African conflicts, the United States now appears ready to deploy U.S. troops to strife-torn Liberia, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources.

The deployment is expected to be small, from 500 to 2,000 troops, and short-term, diplomatic sources said. In recent days, U.N. and African leaders have called on the U.S. to send peacekeepers to provide security to the war-terrorized population and help with humanitarian aid.

About three years ago, rebels began a campaign to oust Liberian President Charles Taylor, who won office in 1997 after a grisly civil war that left about 200,000 people dead. The current fighting has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.

The Pentagon has opposed sending troops because of other commitments. "The Pentagon is less interested, as it has plenty of forces deployed already," a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

But, after intense debate by President Bush's foreign policy team, the administration on Wednesday signaled its willingness to play a role in Liberia.

"The humanitarian crisis clearly calls for some type of response," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters.

Liberia is also a tinderbox for wider regional destabilization, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"As the president has clearly stated, where you have insecurity and instability and failed states, you're creating an environment in which terrorists can take root quite easily," the official said. "And so we're concerned about any region of the world that becomes lawless. And Liberia certainly has the potential to move into that category."

Officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House insisted that no order deploying troops had yet been signed.

But administration sources said the goal was to define the mission and finalize arrangements before Bush formally approves the move, and to make an announcement before he heads out Monday on a five-day tour of Africa.

A small team of Marine Corps police is on standby in Spain for possible deployment to defend U.S. facilities in Liberia, Pentagon officials said. The team of 30 to 40 is designed to beef up security at U.S. facilities abroad where needed. The U.S. ambassador in Liberia has not yet requested the team, the officials said, but the Marines have been on alert since last week. They could land in Monrovia, the capital, within six hours of receiving orders to deploy, officials said.

The senior administration official denied reports that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is resistant to deploying troops to Liberia, or that U.S. forces are overstretched around the globe.

Still, one official said, "there's always concern, though, whenever you inject military forces in a situation, and [Rumsfeld] is looking at all the pluses and minuses."

The Iraq Factor

The equivalent of more than five of the Army's divisions are either in Iraq or assigned to support operations there. The Iraq occupation has stretched U.S. ground forces thinner than they have been in three decades, with at least one Army unit, the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, deployed for more than nine months.

But Pentagon officials said the idea that the military is stretched too thin to easily deploy troops to Liberia is "just ridiculous."

The number of troops that might be sent to Liberia "is chump change, that's way to the right of the decimal point," agreed John Pike, a military analyst who is director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank.

"There are various different brigades and regiments of several thousand troops that are basically just sitting on their helmets at bases around the world that are just waiting to be told, 'Let's go.' They know that for the next six months, they are the ones that are on a short tether."

The State Department has pressed hard for the United States to play a stabilizing role in Liberia, which has ties to the U.S. dating back to the 19th century.

The favored administration compromise is a limited mission, with U.S. troops deployed probably no more than three to four months to help end a war that has torn apart the West African nation.

"The most careful judgments have to get made where the situation is not only involving a matter of clear military issue, but also where a humanitarian issue comes into play," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "And these are close calls. These are difficult calls."

The deployment, if it comes, would mark a policy shift in Washington toward a wider U.S. role in conflict resolution in Africa.

After the debacle in Somalia a decade ago, both the Clinton and Bush administrations avoided intervening as unrest erupted. The administration of the first President Bush deployed about 25,000 U.S. troops to Somalia, again under international pressure and also due in large part to humanitarian concerns about starvation resulting from a civil war.

But U.S. troops became the target of warlords, and 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in 1993. The U.S. then withdrew. The experience is often blamed for the U.S. reluctance to help end Rwanda's genocide in the mid-1990s.

Europe Taking Action

The U.S. desire to help in Liberia comes as Europe is getting involved militarily on the continent.

"The British have intervened in Sierra Leone, the French in the Congo. We have done what we can to train African forces, including Nigerians, for peacekeeping," a State Department official said.

"But West Africa's previous attempts to stabilize Liberia have not been crowned with success. We need to look at how to stabilize and bring peace, and if it's important to have U.S. forces be part of that, we're willing to consider it," the official said.

Still unanswered, however, is exactly what role U.S. troops would play and what the rules of engagement and the exit strategy would be.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell discussed options and details with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

In a push to ensure a cease-fire can take hold, Bush again called for Taylor to step down. He also expressed regret over the massive and growing toll on Liberians.

"The people are suffering there," Bush said Wednesday. "The political instability is such that people are panicking."

He praised the recent cease-fire agreement as a beginning. But U.S. officials said the truce is due largely to the need of both sides in the conflict to rearm.

The U.S. has about 146,000 troops in Iraq and 9,000 in Afghanistan, with an additional 3,300 in the Balkans and tens of thousands tied up in long-standing commitments in Germany and South Korea.

A deployment in Liberia, however, would be a token force demonstrating U.S. prestige, clout and involvement rather than any major military role, U.S. officials suggest. The lead role would still be played by the Economic Community of West African States, with an international component.

Adding Some 'Heft'

"The purpose is to add some heft to the force, and [the ] thinking [is] that would help bring peace more quickly," Boucher said.

Liberia was created largely as a result of U.S. actions during President James Monroe's administration, which bought land so freed slaves could return to Africa.

It was formed in 1822 by settlers, who named the capital Monrovia after the president. In 1847, it became Africa's first independent republic.

Copyright 2003, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times