President Clinton has agreed in principle to send up to 5,000 U.S. troops to central Africa as part of a Canadian-led humanitarian relief effort, White House officials said Wednesday.
The deployment will include about 1,000 ground troops to be based in eastern Zaire, where more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, cut off by civil war, are stranded without food or other supplies. The remaining support troops probably will be based in the neighboring countries of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, an administration official said.
Rwandan Hutu refugees have been fleeing United Nations camps in eastern Zaire after fighting between Zairian forces and Zairian Tutsi rebels supported by Rwandan forces.
“There are thousands of lives that may be at risk (from) … a recent outbreak of cholera among the refugee population along the border and deeper now into Zaire,” said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien discussed the proposed mission by telephone Wednesday. McCurry said national security adviser Anthony Lake probably would meet with with Canadian officials and others Thursday to “put final touches” on the plan.
“This is not a force that would be equipped or prepared to fight its way in,” McCurry said. “It would have to be a force that would go in with the complicity of governments in the region.
“At the same time,” he added, “this is not a risk-free environment by any means, and it has to be a force that is prepared and equipped to defend itself.”
U.S. officials, who have been criticized by some for moving too slowly, said the overall force from a dozen nations will be from 10,000 to 15,000.
McCurry said a final decision on U.S. participation will hinge on the findings of a military assessment team in the region and on several conditions being met to ensure success and closure of the mission.
McCurry said the administration’s deliberate approach reflected a “desire to have a very carefully constructed mission that avoids some of the pitfalls we’ve seen in the past.”
In 1993, Clinton was criticized for allowing the humanitarian mission in Somalia to shift into a futile effort to capture one of the leading warlords. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed in Mogadishu.
In Zaire, U.S. troops would be under U.S. command. A Canadian officer would command the overall operations, and the United States likely would provide a deputy commander, McCurry said.
He said the U.S. role would involve airport security near Goma in eastern Zaire, assistance in airlifting forces, airfield services and security along a three-mile corridor from Goma to the Rwandan border.
Julia Taft, president of the international relief organization InterAction, praised Clinton’s decision.
“A robust security force … not only offers relief agencies their best hope of saving lives, but it also demonstrates that the United States remains engaged with other nations in addressing this major international crisis,” she said.
The praise was not universal.
Andrew Natsios, executive director of World Vision Relief and Development, another relief organization, said the administration was doing too little too late and had erred by putting a four-month limit on the mission.
The crisis has been brewing for more than a year, he said, and a key to ending it is disarming the Hutu militiamen - something McCurry said neither U.S. troops nor other soldiers in the operation would do.
“We’ve been urging the administration to act for several weeks now - in fact, actually for a year,” said Natsios, whose organization operates relief programs in Zaire and the surrounding nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania.
“The military’s been preparing for this for a couple of months,” he added.
“The other problem we have is that the White House announced that none of our troops would be involved … in disarming the Hutu soldiers in the camps,” Natsios continued. “If they can’t do that, there’s no point in going.”
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the criticism that the administration had been slow to react ignored the fact that the Zaire operation will involve a number of nations and be led by Canada.
“This is not a unilateral U.S. mission, and whether our military has been trying to get ready for a lengthy period of time or not is not the kernel of the question here,” the official said. “We need to get organized right to do something (with other nations) here.”
As for disarming the Hutus, the official said: “Our mission is twofold: It’s to provide humanitarian relief for the hungry, (and) it’s to do it in a way that encourages voluntary repatriation.
“There are political problems in the area that need to be addressed,” he added. “We’re working on those in a variety of ways.”
Natsios also said it was a mistake for the administration to set a four-month timetable for achieving the mission.
“People don’t take you seriously if they know when you’re going to leave,” he said. “They just say, ‘We’ll wait you out.”’
The White House official said the four-month period was an estimate of how long it would take to stop the humanitarian crisis. It does not rule out some kind of multilateral force, including African troops, remaining in the area after the existing chaos has been quelled.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: U.S. conditions While President Clinton called American participation in the relief effort “vital,” he set a series of stringent conditions that must be met before American troops participate: Local governments and forces now fighting must agree to the peaceful entry of United Nations troops. U.S. forces will not attempt to disarm militias or other fighting forces and will be prepared to respond violently in the event of attack under “very robust rules of engagement.” Other participants in the international force, including nearby countries, must be identified and committed. American troops must remain under U.S. command despite proposed Canadian leadership of the relief effort. Costs of the mission will be paid by participating states. The United States must reassess security risks to American forces and verify that they are acceptable. The United Nations Security Council must authorize the effort based on a petition expected from Canada.