Turmoil in Liberia
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, U.S. troops are headed toward Liberia. A new round of fighting there between rebels, who want to oust Liberian leader Charles Taylor, and government forces, has killed hundreds of people in the last month.
In a Rose Garden appearance today, President Bush explained that U.S. troops would assist an international peacekeeping force, mainly comprised of troops from West Africa. They go by the acronym ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Here’s what Mr. Bush had to say.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: U.S. troops will be there to help ECOWAS, to go in and serve as peacekeepers, necessary to create the conditions so that humanitarian aid can go in and help the people in Liberia. We’re deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse. Aid can’t get to the people. We’re worried about the outbreak of disease. And so our commitment is to enable ECOWAS to go in, and the Pentagon will make it clear over time what that means.
Secondly, it is very important for Charles Taylor to leave the country.
Third, we want to — in order to expedite aid and help, in order to make the conditions such that NGOs can do what they want to do, which is to help people from suffering — that the cease-fire must be in place. And finally, we’re working very closely with the United Nations. They will be responsible for developing a political solution. And they will be responsible for relieving the U.S. troops in short order.
And so we’re working all these pieces right now. But today I did order for our military, in limited numbers, to head to the area to help prepare ECOWAS’s arrival to relieve human suffering.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the president’s order we go to Eric Schmitt, who covers the Pentagon for The New York Times. Eric, welcome.
ERIC SCHMITT: Hi, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: The White House called the deployment one of limited size and scope. What more do we know about who’s going to Liberia and what they’re going to do?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well the timing in this announcement caught the Pentagon a little bit off guard today, Ray, but what they’re saying now is that approximately 2,300 Marines on three ships will be sailing, continue to sail on from the Mediterranean on down the coast of Africa. The advance party of these Marines should be there in the next week or so — the first two ships of the three-ship group. They will be standing by offshore, as the president said, waiting to help and assist the peacekeepers should they be able to organize and go in.
RAY SUAREZ: Where are they now; where are they heading from to go to the West African coast?
ERIC SCHMITT: The three ships originally started off at the Horn of Africa, and then they were told about a little over a week ago to head toward the Mediterranean so they could stand by in case they were needed off the Liberian coast. What President Bush did today was continue their journey so that they will now be off Liberia sometime in the next week to ten days or so.
RAY SUAREZ: Do we know anymore about what their role is? It has been vaguely described as support. Do we know what the 2,300 troops will be doing?
ERIC SCHMITT: We really don’t right now and that’s part of the reason there’s this delay. The seven days or so between when the Marines arrive and where they are now will give the Administration time to assess the situation on the ground in Liberia. It will also enable them to assess just what the peacekeepers can do. These are peacekeepers that look to be coming now from Nigeria. But generically, the Marines obviously can bring combat power if needed; they can provide security for the peacekeepers. But they can also provide logistics, intelligence and communications that the peacekeepers may need once they’re on the ground.
RAY SUAREZ: You said earlier that you were a little bit surprised by the announcement. Had the Pentagon been quietly opposing a deployment of this kind?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, obviously everyone has known that the Marines or other American forces could go in there in some role. What caught them a little bit by surprise was the timing of this.
Just yesterday General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was up on Capitol Hill warning of the risks of such a mission, and also warning policymakers and lawmakers that before any American troops go into Liberia, they need to have a very clearly defined mission, including an exit strategy. So I think the president’s decision today, which came after a National Security Council meeting this morning caught some military officials by surprise by the precise timing of it.
RAY SUAREZ: Was there any indication of what sped this along? Was it the rising tide of violence in Liberia, the violence coming closer to the U.S. Embassy?
ERIC SCHMITT: Clearly that was a concern. There was intense shelling today in Monrovia, the capital, which contributed to the deaths that your correspondent mentioned that happened over the last month.
But also there was a sense that the West African nations, that are going to be contributing forces to this, were waiting for a signal from Washington, that they were ready to help participate in this. So there was a sense within the administration, there was somewhat of a stalemate and mixed signals here. And they needed to get the president out in front and basically make clear that the United States is ready to go when the peacekeepers are.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, while generals are testifying on the Hill, we are talking about the difficulty and danger of the mission, the secretary of state has been making assurances that there would be some U.S. role, that he looked kindly upon it. Another example of a difference of opinion between the Department of State and the Department of Defense?
ERIC SCHMITT: A little bit, yes. You have the Pentagon’s natural reluctance to put American soldiers on yet another mission, given the demands they’re facing right now in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, you have Secretary Powell making the argument that the United States cannot sit on its hands with this kind of humanitarian crisis unfolding in Liberia, particularly after the president made many pledges, both before and during his recent trip to Africa.
RAY SUAREZ: And some time has elapsed since the first time the president announced there was the possibility that America would be getting involved; that help was on the way in one form or another. Was it perhaps just the passage of time that was creating some pressure for the White House?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, exactly. I mean there had been raised expectations both here and in the United States, but clearly in Liberia that the Americans were on their way and were going to be helping out in this situation. As the weeks went on, assessment teams have come and gone and no action. I think a lot of people are being frustrated, both the advocates here in the United States as well as Liberians on the ground, who are facing continuing fighting from the rebels.
RAY SUAREZ: Given the distances that have to be traveled to reach that part of the West African coast, if there is a further elevation of the American role, is this going to have to be something that phases in over the course of many weeks?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, again, the Marines can be on station — a fairly sizable Marine presence can be on station within a week to ten days or so. They come equipped obviously with helicopters, both combat helicopters and transport helicopters. There has been a reinforced Marine presence there to protect the embassy and to help evacuate Americans should it come to that.
But the Marines come as a package and they can deliver a lot of capabilities fairly quickly. Obviously the United States military is standing by to deliver more if they need to from Europe or from pre-positioned places they have in Africa.
RAY SUAREZ: Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, thanks for being with us.
ERIC SCHMITT: You’re welcome.