President Clinton, resisting a cascade of calls for an immediate exit from Somalia, has decided to send 2,000 more U.S. combat troops and dozens of armored vehicles to the East African nation and also plans a political initiative, Administration officials said Wednesday.
The reinforcements--designed to restore order, rescue American captives and cover the eventual retreat of U.S. forces--would be in addition to the 1,700 American combat troops already in the country and the 650 GIs, tanks and fighting vehicles en route there.
In addition, a senior Administration official said that he expects Clinton to establish a deadline of about six months for U.S. withdrawal from Somalia. Clinton and his advisers have concluded that despite the inherent difficulties in pacifying a lawless nation, six months is the outer limit that Congress and the public are likely to tolerate for a continued American presence in Somalia, the official said.
Clinton promised a fuller explanation of his latest Somalia policy to Congress and the American people today.
Aides also said the President had been assured by his advisers that given additional firepower, some stability could be restored within six months, paving the way for a complete U.S. pullout.
A senior State Department official, while cautioning that the six-month deadline was not absolutely firm Wednesday night, said that time frame is the likely one and "would provide U.S. forces enough time to re-establish a measure of security in Somalia and begin building" political institutions in the country.
Clinton also plans a political initiative to accelerate the movement toward self-government in Somalia, aides said. Former President Jimmy Carter will lead an international effort to end the factional fighting and Robert B. Oakley, former U.S. envoy to Somalia, will return to Africa to assist in the diplomatic efforts, officials disclosed Wednesday night.
Under fierce criticism from lawmakers over the deteriorating situation in Somalia, Clinton said Wednesday that he intends to withdraw American forces quickly but "honorably" and indicated that the troops would remain at least until a semblance of stability is achieved.
After hours of what aides described as "tough and very candid" meetings with his senior national security advisers, Clinton concluded that American interests and credibility are at stake in Somalia and that "cutting and running" is not an option.
Swayed in large measure by the specter of American captives in the hands of hostile Somali clan leaders, he determined that U.S. forces could not leave Mogadishu until they had been rescued or exchanged for Somali prisoners, a senior White House aide said.
He rejected advice for massive increases in the U.S. military force in Somalia, however, choosing instead to adopt a two-track policy that combines a modest increase in firepower with an enhanced political effort, White House officials said.
The marathon meetings Tuesday night and Wednesday included Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. David E. Jeremiah and Army Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, who oversees U.S. forces in Somalia.
"It is essential that we conclude our mission in Somalia but that we do it with firmness and steadiness of purpose," Clinton said during a midafternoon East Room ceremony scheduled to mark the signing of a domestic policy bill.
Clinton, his eyes watery and red-rimmed from the hours of Somalia meetings and a Tuesday flight from California, said that he is "anxious to conclude our mission there honorably but we do not want to see a reversion to the absolute chaos and the terrible misery that existed" before the U.S.-led humanitarian operation to feed starving Somalis began last December.
Despite a weekend firefight that left 12 American servicemen dead, 78 wounded and as many as seven missing, he asserted: "Today we are completing the job of establishing security in Somalia."
Clinton said that U.S. forces had been sent to Somalia by his predecessor, President George Bush, on an "extraordinary humane mission" to end starvation that had claimed as many as 350,000 lives. Despite the public clamor for a U.S. withdrawal now, he said, "our men and women in Somalia, including any held captive, deserve our full support."
The reinforcement plan, crafted by the Army and tentatively endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, effectively would double the 1,700 combat troops that the United States now has in Somalia. While 4,700 U.S. soldiers actually are in the country, most are in logistic assignments.
Those familiar with the proposal said that the number of new combat troops could be increased to as many as 2,500, accompanied by 20 more M1A1 tanks and 50 to 75 Bradley fighting vehicles. The troops would be light infantry and heavy infantry, from Ft. Stewart, Ga.
Pentagon officials said that the doubling of U.S. combat strength in Mogadishu would free U.S. commanders from having to rely on the regular U.N. force in Somalia, which is primarily made up of Third World troops who have neither the equipment nor the skills to respond quickly in an emergency.
The idea would be to put maximum pressure on the forces of clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid in hopes of crippling their effectiveness and ultimately paving the way for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area entirely once security has been restored.
Military commanders were said to be pressing Clinton vigorously to decide to send more, rather than fewer, troops with an eye toward mounting a swift and decisive offensive against Aidid's forces and returning the city to some state of calm.
Military leaders reportedly were angered over what some considered Clinton's "incrementalist" approach to the Somalia problem, likening it to the gradual U.S. buildup in the Vietnam War, which they said tended to neutralize U.S. firepower.
On Capitol Hill, a day after what even Administration supporters conceded was a "disastrous" encounter between lawmakers and Christopher and Aspin, pressure continued to grow for Clinton to articulate a plan for withdrawing U.S. forces from Somalia.
In the House, more than 100 Republicans signed a letter to Clinton that castigated his handling of Somalia as a "failure" and called on him to heed the mounting bipartisan calls to "expeditiously withdraw our forces in a safe and orderly manner." American prestige, the letter said, "must not be jeopardized by an indecisive and naive approach to foreign policy."
Clinton's defenders urged patience, however, saying that a decision to withdraw from Somalia should not be made in the emotional heat of the moment.
"We must not permit our anger and disgust to dictate a rash or unsound policy," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said of the mounting calls for a vote on a proposal to compel the withdrawal by cutting off funds for the troops in Somalia.
By the end of the day, Senate leaders had succeeded in delaying what almost certainly would have been a humiliating vote of no confidence in Clinton's Somalia policy by deferring consideration of a defense spending bill--the legislation to which the Somalia withdrawal would have been attached--until the middle of next week.
While apprehension over Somalia has been growing in Congress for some time, it was clear that lawmakers had lost their patience after the two-hour meeting in which Christopher and Aspin met with more than 200 House and Senate members Tuesday.
"It was an absolute disaster that did as much or even more to narrow the Administration's options with Congress than the pictures of American bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu did," one participant said.
Following the deaths of 12 more Americans in Mogadishu last weekend, lawmakers went to the meeting expecting the Administration to clarify its objectives for a mission now widely perceived as unfocused, poorly run, increasingly bloody and alarmingly reminiscent of the way in which the nation became embroiled in Vietnam and Lebanon.
What they received, according to one Democratic senator who asked not to be quoted by name, was instead "an appalling. . , touchy-feely encounter session" in which Christopher and Aspin "spoke in vague terms about how they needed time to 'internalize' the lessons of Mogadishu" but in the end "gave us no clue that they had even the slightest idea" of what to do about Somalia.
The encounter went so poorly, several participants said, that at one point, dozens of House members rose from their seats and started shouting at Aspin, demanding that U.S. forces be withdrawn from Somalia immediately.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali informed the Security Council that he would fly to the region next week and meet with Somali factional and clan leaders there in hopes of working out a political solution to the morass.
In Somalia, a top aide to Aidid said Wednesday that only one U.S. soldier is being held hostage by guerrillas and that he would be treated well and freed in exchange for Somalis being held by the United Nations. U.N. officials say they are holding 24 Somalis captured in Sunday's raids, while the Somalis claim the number is 31.
U.S. officials say six Americans are missing and persistent reports in Mogadishu indicate other Americans are being held. The bodies of two soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on Monday and had not been turned over to U.N. or U.S. authorities as of Wednesday.
A top aide of Aidid's, Issa Mohamed Siad, apologized Wednesday for the brutal treatment of the dead Americans.
Meanwhile, fresh U.S. troops were reported arriving in the embattled city to reinforce U.N. forces.
Times staff writers Michael Ross, Stanley Meisler and Norman Kempster contributed to this story.
MISTAKES COST LIVES: Analysts cite poor planning after 12 GIs died. A8
Changing Tactics in Somalia
In recent months, the U.N. peacekeeping force has relied more and more on American combat troops. The U.S. force, its role and tactics:
* U.S. Quick Reaction Force: One of the most essential parts of the U.N. military effort. It is a highly mobile light infantry unit, equipped with a squadron of helicopters. Remains under U.S., not U.N., command.
* Role: Changed in recent months. Instead of being a reserve force, it is being used more and more as an operational unit.
* How they operate: With almost half of the U.N. forces pinned down in fortified positions in southern Mogadishu by militiamen loyal to Mohammed Farah Aidid, U.S. helicopter patrols have played an increasingly important--and visible--role. They are almost constantly in the sky low over southern Mogadishu, patrolling mean streets on which the United Nations has become increasingly loath to send its soldiers on foot--surrendering them, in effect to Aidid.
UH-60 BLACK HAWK
* U.S. Army utility helicopter capable of transporting 11 air assault troops, strong enough to withstand small-arms fire.
* The Black Hawk has replaced the Huey in multi-role missions since it was first deployed in 1978.
* Killed: 23 in battle, 4 in non-battle situations
* Wounded: 142
* Tanks: 20 to 25 M1-A1 tans, each with plows attached to detonate mines.
* Vehicles: 50 to 75 Bradley fighting vehicles, a cross between a light tank and an armored personnel carrier
* Aircraft: Two AC-130 aerial gunships, the same kind of planes that were used briefly in June to destroy Aidid's home and command center.
TOTAL U.S. FORCE
* Current: 4,700
* Troops coming home: 200
* Troops en route: 650
* Additional troop deployment: 2,000
* Total with new troops: 7,150
* Troops performing logistical tasks, such as providing water and electricity: 2,610
Sources: Times staff, Defense Department, wire reports