Washington, DC — President George Bush's weekend decision to position "appropriate military capabilities" off the coast of Liberia is at least a symbolic shift in U.S. policy towards African conflicts.
During 14 years of turmoil in Liberia, which spilled violence and instability across the region, only Liberia's neighbors in Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, attempted to intervene. Amid the worsening conflict of the last few months, none of the key international players seemed able or willing to act decisively.
The impasse has plunged an already devastated nation into a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Although Washington is now positioning a three-ship naval assault group with 2,300 Marines on board within reach of the conflict, the White House emphasized that U.S. involvement "will be limited in time and scope."
Further clarifying what those limits are, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Sunday that U.S. troops will only enter Liberia "when there's a cease-fire, when Charles Taylor is leaving, has left" and in support of West African troops. He denied that meant Washington is shirking its responsibilities. "We're not hanging back from assisting," he said during an appearance on Fox News. "We are assisting, and we're taking responsibility in Liberia that the British have taken in Sierra Leone, and the French in the Ivory Coast."
Whether that level of engagement will be sufficient to end the fighting, and whether and how quickly West African forces can take up positions in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, are questions that remain to be answered.
At the beginning of July, with a negotiated ceasefire that was two-weeks old and holding, prospects for easing the widespread suffering appeared reasonably good. Negotiations that produced the truce between government and rebel forces were advancing towards agreement on a transitional plan and an interim administration to run Liberia until elections in 18 to 24 months.
Ecowas, the 15-nation grouping whose members include Liberia, was spearheading the peace talks and laying plans to dispatch a 3,000-strong stabilization force to disarm the warring parties and demobilize combatants. The American president, on the eve of his departure on a five-nation Africa tour, signaled a willingness to assist Ecowas in implementing its peacemaking role.
But the past three weeks produced neither a peace accord nor a peacekeeping intervention. Instead, a resumption in the battle for control of Monrovia has left hundreds of noncombatant civilians dead in a week of fighting. A large number of the city's one million residents have been forced from their homes. Most lack access to food and water, and health care is almost non-existent.
The humanitarian operations that had been keeping thousands of people alive in the capital came to a halt, as fighting cut off access to the civilian population.
"We can no longer continue our supply of potable water, nor construct latrines and bath-houses," Sam Nagbe, project officer in Monrovia for Oxfam, reported on Tuesday. He said Oxfam staff and their families were themselves running out of water and food. "I am seriously hoping this situation will not last too long."
But with only a brief lull on Friday, fighting raged through the week. The rebel group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) continued its drive towards the center of the city, the only area still controlled by the government of President Charles Taylor.
In a telephone conversation with AllAfrica on July 19, just after heavy fighting resumed, Lurd leader Sekou Damate Konneh claimed his forces had been provoked. "Taylor has been attacking us every day," he said.
Sirleaf Withdraws As Decision on Interim Leadership Stalls
As the battle for Monrovia raged, negotiations stalled. The talks in Accra, Ghana, among government and rebel representatives, Liberia's political parties and non-governmental organizations, failed to produce a final accord on how the country should be governed.
President Bush has made Taylor's leaving the country a precondition for U.S. involvement in Liberian peacekeeping, but hopes for his voluntary departure seemed remote. Last month a United Nations-backed court in Sierra Leone indicted him for war crimes in connection with the civil war in Sierra Leone, Liberia's next-door neighbor. While welcomed by international human rights groups, the indictment complicated negotiations for the Liberian president's withdrawal to a safe haven outside Liberia.
Three weeks ago, under both military and political pressure, Taylor accepted an offer of asylum from Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, but he has made no apparent move to leave.
Frustration with the peace talks and with the lack of effective action by the world community has been growing. Bitterness is focused particularly against the United States, which is seen by the rest of the world as the natural guardian for the country founded in 1822 by freed American slaves.
"People are getting increasingly angry with the U.S. reluctance to intervene. They say Liberians have always stood up for the U.S," Oxfam's Nagbe said in an online journal on Friday. "It's true," he added, citing the long history of Liberian support for American positions throughout two World Wars and throughout the Cold War era.
"People in Monrovia are very angry," said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former Liberian finance minister and investment banker, who has also served as an assistant secretary general of the United Nations. "They are dying, and they cannot understand why there has been no response."
Sirleaf, who has had a prominent role in the Accra negotiations, announced Friday that she is no longer willing to be considered to head the proposed interim administration that is supposed to emerge from the Ecowas-mediated talks. "The process has gone on too long," she said in a telephone interview with AllAfrica. "I want to turn my efforts towards alleviating the humanitarian disaster." She said she will visit Washington and New York to advocate for a more robust response to the tragedy.
West Africa Posied to Act?
General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former Nigerian military head of state who is the Ecowas chief negotiator, has indicated he would like to see agreement on the mandate and composition of the interim administration during the coming week. While a number of issues have been settled, key questions remain undecided. The rebel movements, Lurd and a second group called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model), are unhappy that they are being denied a major role in the interim administration.
The Liberian government has been insisting on a "constitutional" handover when Taylor leaves. Last week Taylor told Somini Sengupta of the New York Times that he planned to depart in 10 days and would hand power to the speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, Yundueh Monorkomna.
Liberia's rebel movements and political parties reject that scenario, insisting on a complete break with Taylor's rule. The peace accord document drafted in Accra says that Taylor's presidential term will end on August 1, six years after he was sworn into office following the 1997 elections he won with 75 per cent of the vote, bringing a temporary end to seven years of civil warfare. Delegates to the Accra talks are likely to tap one of Liberia's veteran politicians to lead the government during the transition.
In an attempt to move the peace process forward, West African leaders scheduled a meeting for Monday to decide on sending the first contingent of troops to Liberia. Ghana's President John Kufuor, the Ecowas chairman, is leading consultations with senior military officers from the region.
Nigeria has offered some 1,300 troops currently stationed in Sierra Leone. Ghana and Mali may contribute another 200 or so soldiers to this initial force, which will have a Nigerian commander, Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo.
Although Nigeria has the personnel to carry out the peacekeeping mission, winning support at home is a delicate political issue for President Obasanjo, who has insisted that Nigeria's involvement be funded by the international community. During the 1990s, when the military ran its government, Nigeria spent more than US $8 billion on peacekeeping in Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to a senior Nigerian official quoted by the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN).
Financial arrangements and other details of the new mission were discussed last week in Dakar, Senegal by Ecowas ministers, along with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Pamela Bridgewater and other American officials. Finding common ground on an acceptable price tag has proven to be difficult, with the Ecowas budget for troop salaries and on-the-ground operations reportedly totaling more than $100 million.
The State Department announced Friday an initial contribution of $10 million for logistics support to be provided by a private contractor, Los Angeles-based Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE), whose work with the U.S. government dates back to the Vietnam War. "We provided similar funding for work this firm did in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire," State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said. The company will assist with transportation, equipment and communications for the Ecowas force, he said.
Another American company, Northbridge Services, founded by retired British and American soldiers, has offered to send a security team to Liberia to intervene in the fighting, the Financial Times reported last week.
Heavy U.S. Firepower in the Neighborhood
"We're deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse," Bush said on Friday, following the announcement of U.S. ship deployments. "Our commitment is to enable ECOWAS to go in," he said, so that humanitarian aid can get to those in need.
In response to the president's decision, the Pentagon dispatched an Amphibious Ready Group, led by the USS Iwo Jima, an 844-foot (255 meters) amphibious assault ship equipped with armed helicopter and attack aircraft. Accompanying the battleship is the USS Carter Hall, which the Navy says is designed for supporting landings "onto hostile shores by transporting and launching amphibious craft and vehicles." A third ship, the USS Nashville, which can transport a landing force onto shore, is also moving towards the West African coast, a few days behind the other two, Pentagon officials said.
The ships carry over 1,000 Navy officers and sailors and about 2,300 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, headquartered at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina but most recently based in Djibouti, East Africa.
The decision to send the ships and soldiers to Liberia has been opposed by senior Defense Department officials on the grounds that no direct U.S. interests are at stake in Liberia and that U.S. forces are spread thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other commitments around the globe. This is happening at a time when the Pentagon has been redeploying forces and negotiating new base access agreements in several parts of the African continent.
The United States has to deal "with a large number of unstable places in the world," said Wolfowitz, who is the number two official in the Pentagon and an influential Bush advisers. For Liberia, the administration wants the United Nations to take responsibility, along with West African states, and also wants to know '"we're assisting a situation that's on the road to a solution."
Reservations about involvement in Liberia were voiced forcefully by the chairman and vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officers in the U.S. chain of command, during U.S. Senate hearings last Thursday on their re-nominations to the posts. "It's not a pretty situation," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers told the Senate Armed Services Committee when he was asked about Liberia. It's not going to give way to any instant fix. Whatever the fix is going to be is going to have to be a long-term fix."
"It is potentially a very dangerous situation," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, Myers' deputy, told the committee. "If we're asked to do something militarily, we need to make sure we do it with the proper numbers of troops and that we be prepared for the eventualities of having to take military action."
In a similar vein, Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa and senior State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has warned against "doing it on the cheap in Liberia." Writing in the Washington Post on July 19, he said 1,500 to 2,000 U.S. troops should be used to support a West African force of 2,000 to 3,000 and that "we should plan to stay nine to 12 months."
Lyman, however, strongly urged that the United States take action. "Doing Liberia right will redound to America's credit throughout Africa," Lyman wrote. "It will give substance to President Bush's many promises of help during his recent trip and strengthen African support in the war against terrorism."
Two days earlier, speaking in support of U.S. involvement at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S Army Special Forces Major Roger Carstens argued that U.S. "interests and values match" in Liberia, and an intervention to help end the suffering and fighting would "strike a blow in the war on terrorism."
The intervention could be accomplished without a large military outlay, helped by the fact that "everybody wants us to be there," Carstens said, speaking in a private, not official capacity. An instructor in guerrilla warfare at Fort Bragg, Carstens said "a small number of Special Forces units and a Marine amphibious strike force" could deal effectively with the Liberian insurgency, in much the same way that the British did in Sierra Leone in 2000. Emphasis should be given to humanitarian aid and restoration of basic services, relying on civil affairs and psychological operations specialists in the U.S. military, he said.
James Woods, who spent 34 years in the Defense Department, said the Pentagon's reservations are understandable but misplaced. "We cannot 'do nothing' all over again," he said in an interview, referring to the first Bush administration's refusal to intervene militarily or diplomatically to halt the Liberian civil war in 1990. As the conflict deepened late that year, a four-ship task force with a Marine amphibious unit was anchored within sight of Monrovia residents, but the troops were used only to evacuate foreigners from America embassy grounds.
Following Bush's trip to Africa and the comments he made, "the president's credibility is on the line," said Woods, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for African Affairs from 1986 to 1994. "We should have done it two weeks ago," before fighting resumed, he said.
In their comments to Congress, Generals Myers and Pace contradicted "what their own assessment team told them," Woods said. The report drafted by the military team, which spent more than a week in Liberia, was rejected by senior Pentagon officials. According to government sources, the conclusions favored a rapid deployment of a mid-size force to pave the way for West African troops to come in and separate the factions.
The Pentagon said the ships that are en route to the area will take seven days or more to reach the Liberian coast. Once they arrive, pressure to put 'boots on the ground' will inevitably mount, especially if the humanitarian crisis worsens, as seems almost certain. But opposition will continue, not only within the administration but also from Republican members of Congress who have already expressed doubts.
The Congressional Black Caucus is trying to mobilize counter-pressure, although the group, all Democrats, has limited political clout with the current administration and Congressional leadership. Rep. Donald Payne from New Jersey has introduced a resolution in the House calling for an International Stabilization Force for Liberia, to be formed in cooperation with Ecowas, the United Nations, and the African Union.
If that doesn't happen, he told Australian television last week, "it will be a catastrophe. Tens of thousands will die."