U.S. is coming to Haiti’s aid as fast as it can, Pentagon officials say

Top Pentagon officials said the U.S. responded to the Haiti earthquake as quickly as it could, and promised that as many as 10,000 American troops would be in-country and off-shore by the weekend.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that he anticipated that U.S. ground forces, including soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the Marine Corps, would take a key role in helping distribute relief supplies quickly.

U.N. forces, led by Brazil, will take the lead in security. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military would help with that effort but focus on humanitarian assistance.

“Getting the relief help out there is what we are focused on right now,” Mullen said. “The initial intent is to strategically place some of our soldiers so they can help with the relief distribution.”

The U.S. deployment includes 4,000 to 5,000 sailors on ships at sea, plus 3,000 soldiers and 2,000 Marines on the ground.

Mullen noted that Coast Guard helicopters and cutters had begun evacuations within 24 hours of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday afternoon. Gates said the pace of the U.S. response has been hindered by the collapse of infrastructure, problems at the airport and the time it takes ships to travel.

“I don’t know how this government could have responded faster or more comprehensively than it has,” Gates said.

Mullen said the military ruled out air drops of troops or supplies early on. Gates said such an action could have led to riots.

“That seems to me is a formula for contributing to chaos rather than preventing it,” Gates said.

While there has been some scavenging for food and water, Gates said the security situation remained good. But he emphasized that the military was focused on speeding up supply distribution in order to keep that order.

“The key is to get the food and the water in there as quickly as possible so that people don’t in their desperation turn to violence or lead to the security situation deteriorating,” Gates said.

The size of the U.S. force could be increased if commanders on the ground determine that more troops are necessary. And Gates and Mullen dismissed suggestions that the forces flowing into the country could be seen as occupiers.

“Given the role we will have in delivering food, water and medical help to people, my guess is the reaction will be one of relief of seeing Americans providing this kind of help,” Gates said.