President Clinton said Tuesday that he wants to set a “date certain” for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia and added that the problems of that peacekeeping operation have made him more cautious about sending a similar force to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Clinton did not set a deadline for ending the 10-month-old mission in Somalia but he said that he wants the operation to focus on “a political strategy” that will allow U.S. and other foreign troops to leave.
That means the United States no longer insists on capturing rebel warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and is open to a compromise that lets Aidid go free, other officials said.
“We must not personalize the issue; there is a larger issue than this person,” a senior official said. “Ultimately, the solution has to be a political solution.”
As one alternative, U.S. and U.N. officials said, the Administration has suggested that Aidid go into exile in neighboring Ethiopia or Eritrea, at least temporarily.
White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said that U.S. forces in Somalia are still interested in capturing Aidid “if the opportunity presents itself.” But she said the Administration’s main goal is to establish order in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Meanwhile, she said, the United States has asked the United Nations to replace some of the nearly 5,000 American troops in Somalia with units from other countries. A senior official said that more than 2,500 U.S. troops probably would remain after the proposed drawdown, however.
The shift in U.S. strategy in Somalia came in response to increasing pressure from Congress, where both Republicans and Democrats have complained that the mission in East Africa has no clear termination point.
Congress initially supported the operation, but after several attempts by U.S. forces to capture Aidid ended in embarrassing failure and after three American soldiers were killed last week, opposition to the mission has mounted.
By a lopsided 406-26 vote, the House asked Clinton for a report on the goals of the operation and urged him to seek formal authorization from Congress for the operation by Nov. 15. The Senate passed a similar resolution three weeks ago.
The United Nations already had set a target of 1994 for completing the mission, which is aimed at disarming Somali militias and restoring order after a destructive civil war. But Clinton’s statement about a “date certain” appears aimed at increasing the pressure for a reliable deadline.
A senior official said that the withdrawal date will not be set until more progress is made toward stabilizing the situation in Somalia.
“Every peacekeeping mission or every humanitarian mission has to have a date certain when it’s over,” Clinton told reporters as he opened a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders.
“The enforcement strategy (seeking Aidid’s capture) did not change,” Clinton said. “But . . . there has to be a political strategy that puts the affairs of Somalia back into the hands of Somalia, that gives every country . . . that comes into this operation the sense that they’re rotating in and out--that there is a fixed date for their ultimate disengagement in Somalia.”
The President said that the problems encountered in Somalia had affected his thinking on peacekeeping operations in general. In a speech at the United Nations on Monday, Clinton said the world body should be more careful in deciding where to deploy multinational forces.
On Tuesday, he drew an explicit link to the situation in Bosnia--where he has promised to send as many as 25,000 American troops if an enforceable peace agreement is signed.
“I think that everyone involved in Bosnia is perhaps more sensitive than was the case in the beginning of this Somali operation about the dangers of it and the need to have a strict set of limitations and conditions before the involvement occurs,” the President said.
A senior U.N. official said the Administration is concerned that the erosion of public support for the operation in Somalia would make it more difficult to send peacekeeping troops to Bosnia.
“If you are bogged down in Somalia,” the U.N. official said, describing the American fear, “do you want to send 25,000 troops to Bosnia?”
In recent weeks, the Administration has asked the United Nations to put less emphasis on the hunt for Aidid, he said.
The Americans complained that “the public perception is that we are spending too much time on the military,” the U.N. official said.
But he said top U.N. officials still believe that the peacekeeping force must pacify the southern part of Mogadishu, where Aidid’s militia is based, before any pullout.
“Unless you can calm the situation of southern Mogadishu,” he said, “nothing can go forward.”
The official indicated that the United Nations hopes that the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments could persuade Aidid to accept exile in one of their countries.
“We have a mandate to put him on trial,” he said. “But whether or not he goes on trial is another thing.”
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that President Issaias Afewerki of Eritrea offered to recruit leaders of countries in the Horn of Africa region to try to resolve the situation, presumably by giving Aidid an opportunity to obtain asylum in a nearby country.
“I think that is a good idea and I advised him to pursue it,” Christopher told reporters after the meeting with the Eritrean president.
Christopher noted that Aidid is wanted for ordering his militia to attack both American and Pakistani peacekeeping troops, “so I think it’s desirable to have him brought to justice. But we do want to emphasize the other side of the relationship as well,” he said.
McManus reported from Washington and Meisler from the United Nations. Times staff writer Norman Kempster, at the United Nations, also contributed to this report.