Somalia almost certainly will revert to brutal clan warfare and brigandage soon after the current famine relief operation ends unless its bandit gangs are effectively disarmed. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expects the United States to spearhead that mission, and he has indicated that he won't even start to enlist an international peacekeeping force until the gangs have had at least their heavy weapons taken away. Only then would he regard the anarchic East African country secure enough for U.N. peackeepers to venture into.
But Washington has been firm that the primary American role is to secure the airfields, ports and roads needed to bring in and distribute food and medicine; it is not to become Somalia's military policeman. To that end, U.S. plans call for pulling out combat troops--as distinct from support units--within a few months. This concept of a limited mission ought to remain unwavering.
Of course there's a need to neutralize hundreds of thousands of armed Somalians. Absent that, a resumption of the predation that has brought such misery to the country in the last few years can be taken as a given. But it is simply wrong to suggest, as Boutros-Ghali and others have done, that only the United States can do that job.
It's wrong because disarming Somalis isn't a task that requires tactical nuclear weapons, Stealth bombers or other superpower military accountrements. What's needed are a sufficient number of infantrymen on the ground, supported by light artillery and helicopter gunships. Dozens of countries have such forces; some have already said they would contribute to the Somalia operation, some in fact are already there. Most especially, if only to reduce frictions, African and Arab countries that have cultural affinities with Somalia should be induced to participate. U.S. forces can provide airlift, communications, supplies to back up these troops. That ought to be the limit of the American role. Here is a case where the task at hand is suited to the abilities of others. It's time for those others to get more deeply involved.