Liberia: Why We May Have To Go In

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For the past month Liberians have been burying new dead and bandaging new wounded as they wait for a promised peacekeeping force to arrive. Their hopes were raised Wednesday as a group of ten Nigerian officers toured the war-torn capital Monrovia to assess conditions for deployment of a battalion of troops. Elsewhere, the regional security organization ECOWAS announced that a contingent of 1,500 Nigerian troops would arrive in Liberia early next week to start the peacekeeping mission, and appealed to Liberia's president, indicted warlord Charles Taylor, to keep his word and take up asylum in Nigeria within three days of their arrival. But having been disappointed many times over the past month — by failed cease-fires, by the failure of the ECOWAS forced promised one month ago to arrive, and by the U.S. equivocating over its role in any peacekeeping operation — the Liberians know the limits of hope.

Still, help in some form is on the way. A U.S. Marine force is steaming towards Liberia's coastline and should arrive within three days — but with no orders to go ashore. The Bush Administration is reluctant to be drawn into a potentially open-ended nation-building exercise in a country with no importance to U.S. national security, but is at the same time facing domestic and international pressure to act to stop another African tragedy. That's why the White House is sending forces to the region and offering logistical support, but insisting that its role will be simply to support Nigerians. The problem is that thus far, Nigeria has not shown up, and everybody knows the U.S. is an infinitely more capable and better endowed player.

If anything, the delay of promised peacekeeping forces appears to have encouraged more fighting. Despite cease-fire agreements, rebel groups have launched repeated offensives to capture the capital and the second city, Buchanan, over the past three weeks, leaving hundreds of civilians dead in the ensuing battles. The goal is to create facts on the ground before the peacekeepers arrive — the two rebel groups already control 80 percent of Liberia, and if they can defeat Taylor's forces in the capital before ECOWAS arrives, the peacekeepers' role will simply involve overseeing and guaranteeing the transition to a new government. Some African analysts have even speculated that Nigeria's delay in deploying peacekeepers may be in part to allow the Darwinian logic of the battlefield to produce a clear winner.

But further delay has become untenable, in the face of the mounting civilian death toll and the burgeoning humanitarian crisis. The undisciplined young fighters wildly trading fire on the capital's streets may have rendered the peacekeeping mission far more difficult. It's one thing putting troops in between two armies that have agreed on a cease-fire; quite another when their job is to fight their way in and impose a truce on both — and to do so as the city's food and drinking water supplies dwindle and cholera becomes a real threat. The most immediate cause cited by West African leaders for the delay in getting an ECOWAS force onto the ground may be financial. The Nigerians claim their peacekeeping efforts in neighboring Sierra Leone over the past decade have cost Nigeria $12 billion, and they want assurances that this time the international community will pick up the tab — a call echoed in a U.S.-sponsored resolution currently before the UN Security Council. Besides financial aid, the West African force will also need logistical aid to airlift its troops in.

Nigeria's previous interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone have been somewhat messy: Hundreds of Nigerian troops were killed, making the deployments unpopular domestically. And in retaking the capital of Sierra Leone from rebel fighters, Nigerian forces displayed a brutality akin to that of some of the region's warlords, and UN officials later accused some Nigerian officers of corruption. More immediately, veterans of previous peacekeeping operations have warned that the scale of the Nigerian force envisaged for Liberia is insufficient to stabilize Monrovia.

Concerns over the ability and will of the West African force to undertake the mission may also become U.S. concerns. While the West African states have repeatedly emphasized the need for them to take responsibility for stabilizing their own region, once there are U.S. forces in the region tasked with helping the mission succeed, the expectation will grow that they will plug any gaps that emerge.

The limits being set by Washington on what its troops may do has not been well-received by the West Africans. Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo told the BBC, "If your house is on fire and somebody says: 'Here I am. I have my fire engine. Now when you put your fire out on your house, I will come in.' I wonder what sort of help that is, with all due respect." And the fact that the U.S. has a fire engine and a corps of firefighters whose capabilities dwarf those of everyone else in the neighborhood makes it difficult to insist on playing second fiddle. Once U.S. troops are off the coast of Monrovia, the political pressure on Washington to send them ashore is likely to grow exponentially.