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Liberia conflict puts U.S. on hot seat

The president inherits the heavy historical baggage of U.S.-Liberian relations, and may see new strategic reasons to send U.S. forces there, but deciding to do so will hit domestic opposition. By Kari Huus.
A U.S. Marine stands guard by one of the vehicles of the U.S. military assessment team as it visits Redemption Hospital in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on Tuesday.
A U.S. Marine stands guard by one of the vehicles of the U.S. military assessment team as it visits Redemption Hospital in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on Tuesday.
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Just as the international protest of U.S. military action against Iraq had begun to fade, there is a new chorus of voices rising — this time calling, even pleading, for the Bush administration to intervene in the war-torn nation of Liberia. The call is especially poignant as President Bush travels through Africa pledging greater U.S. help in the region. The president inherits the heavy historical baggage of U.S.-Liberian relations, and may see new strategic reasons to send U.S. forces there, but there are practical and political hurdles.

As Bush prepared to travel on the continent, Liberia was mired in chaos, with rebel groups closing in on the capital, Monrovia, and growing pressure for President Charles Taylor to quit.

Few will be sorry to see this warlord leader go — he has been considered a pariah for many years. And now that there is an opportunity to rid the region of Taylor and end a civil war that has ebbed and flowed for 13 years, Europe, the United Nations and many humanitarian groups are looking to the United States to lead a multinational force to provide stability and help the country start a peaceful transition to a new government.

No one could be more adamant about it than the Africans themselves, who have likely told Bush every step of the way that this is a job for Washington. In Liberia, which Bush will not visit, people thronged a U.S. military “assessment team” on Thursday appealing for a full-scale American intervention.

“Liberia has come apart, and people all over the world are looking to the United States to take the leadership because of historical ties, and also because of Cold War ties,” says Joseph Siegle, the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And, he argues, time is of the essence. “If we take decisive action now, the conflict can be brought under control without too high a cost, and without too much risk to U.S. forces. But the situation won’t remain static.”

Bound by history
U.S.-Liberian ties date to Liberia’s beginning in the 1820s, when it was founded for freed African-American slaves. Liberia’s affinity for the United States has persisted, despite its divergence from democratic principles. During the Cold War, the United States used Liberia as a listening post in the region, and a launch pad for covert activities against Libya. The United States was largely responsible for keeping then-dictator Samuel Doe in power.

In 1989, as the Cold War was winding down, Charles Taylor launched a guerrilla war to oust Doe, and finally assumed power in 1997. In the process, Taylor used neighboring Sierra Leone as a new front in his war. By training and backing a group of rebels in Sierra Leone, he was able to gain access to that country’s diamond mines, providing his forces, and then his regime in Monrovia, with a steady flow of revenue.

The result in Sierra Leone was horrific. Some 150,000 people died in decade of fighting there, and many thousands were raped. The rebels became notorious for hacking off the limbs of people to keep local populations in line. In June, Sierra Leone indicted Taylor for war crimes committed on its soil. The warrant for his arrest came on top of existing U.N. sanctions that forbid Liberian arms and diamond transactions, and ban international travel by Taylor and other top Liberian officials.

That move further emboldened Taylor’s foes in their drive toward the capital, the culmination of a 3-year-old campaign to oust the leader. Now rebel factions have agreed to a cease-fire while negotiations continue on whether Taylor will be forced into exile. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees are clustered around Monrovia, in deteriorating living conditions.

The case for intervention
To date, the United States has largely steered clear of Liberia’s civil strife — as well as that of its neighbors, declining to contribute peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone or the Congo.

Now under the spotlight, the Bush administration says it will send peacekeeping forces if Taylor leaves the country, but it has not agreed to send military forces to secure the country. Taylor, in a show of his political wiliness, said he would leave, but only after Bush sends in forces to keep the peace.

Throughout his Africa travels, Bush has deflected questions about a U.S. role in ending the conflict, saying he awaits word from the assessment team.

Back in Washington, the debate about involvement in Liberia is already on. Obligation based on historical ties is among the arguments for sending in a military contingent. And there are recent examples to lend weight to this idea. In neighboring Ivory Coast, which melted into crisis late last year, former colonial power France sent in about 4,000 troops to evacuate foreign nationals, secure the country and usher in peace talks. In Sierra Leone, it was former colonist Britain that finally sent in troops to quell the chaos. Now, many observers argue, it is Washington’s turn to help out — if not a former colony, then an old ally in trouble.

“We recognize we have a share of the responsibility,” says Princeton Lyman, senior fellow and director of Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We have a direct history here and if you need an outside Western power to bring stability, the only logical one is the United States.”

In making a decision, the administration will also be weighing new factors, such as the role that Liberia has played in enabling terrorists. The terror network al-Qaida has well documented ties with the Taylor government, with whom it was engaged in the diamond trade in an apparent effort to fund its operations and hide its assets. Liberia is also one of the most popular places to register ships because it is relatively easy to keep vessel ownership anonymous, which has raised concerns that it may be used by terrorist groups trying to move illicit shipments.

Most relevant to Bush’s current visit is the impact that Liberia’s chaos could have on West Africa, a region where the president wants to bolster several fledgling democracies as well as shore up U.S. oil interests. As it is, Taylor’s forces have been involved in fomenting unrest in Guinea and Ivory Coast, and it will take Sierra Leone decades to recover from its trauma.

“What (Bush’s) trip signifies is that Africa is on the agenda,” says Lyman, who served as ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria. “It comes about from 9/11 … and the realization that weak and failed states can cause real problems for us.”

Hurdles ahead
Some experts suggest the actual commitment of U.S. troops would not have to be large to be effective. Some say it would take as few as 500. West African nations initially asked for 2,000 U.S. troops, to go along with 3,000 of their own, and then lowered the request to 1,500. This force would fan out and secure the main cities, making way for peacekeepers and humanitarian aid. After security was established, a large contingent of international peacekeepers would likely be needed — about 17,000, says Lyman — about the number deployed to Sierra Leone.

Even so, the Bush administration faces hurdles — practical, political and psychological.

In Liberia, as in other African conflicts, there is the difficult problem of child soldiers. In other conflicts, they have been offered amnesty and jobs or other opportunities, in order to keep them out of the fray.

“It’s a big complication, because no soldier wants to shoot children, but no soldier wants to be shot by one either,” says Lyman.

Philosophically, Bush’s Republican Party is opposed to peacekeeping endeavors, and a Liberian mission is expected to meet resistance from heavyweights like Sen. John Warner, who heads the Senate Armed Forces Committee.

Warner is not the only one who has invoked the memory of Mogadishu, Somalia, where a U.S. peacekeeping effort ended in disaster in 1993 when 18 American servicemen were killed in an ambush by Somali rebels.

The similarities between Liberia and Somalia are, in fact, quite limited. The most important difference is that Liberia’s rebel factions have agreed to a cease-fire and are calling on Washington to intervene, whereas in Somalia, armed groups were still fighting out and a key player, clan leader General Mohamed Aideed was opposed to U.S. intervention. It was clashes with his forces ended in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster and U.S. withdrawal.

Nonetheless, as Bush is already under fire for continuing casualties in Iraq, and unfinished clean-up of Afghanistan, he may be all the more reluctant to get involved in Liberia. As elections approach, the idea of entering another conflict will surely be questioned by Democrats, who will stress Bush’s shortcomings in the ongoing engagements.

And to be sure, there are real hazards to involvement and key issues that would have to be resolved before sending in forces.

“I think if there’s not a clear understanding from Taylor’s forces that they will stand down, there may be some hesitation,” says Lyman. Knowing how Taylor will leave, as well as when is also a critical precondition, he says, and getting assurance that the rebels won’t take advantage of the situation.

And it’s not just a matter of dealing with Liberia. International observers argue that West Africa countries all need to sign onto the process, and agree that they will no longer get involved in fomenting unrest in neighboring states.

So far, the president has focused on concerns that U.S. forces, already deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, might become stretched too thin.

“We won’t overextend our troops, period,” Bush said Wednesday at a news conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had pressed him on what role the United States would play in the crisis.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. involvement would likely be “very limited in duration and scope,” and intended to mainly ensure the arrival of West African peacekeepers under the regional Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS.

“The arrival of ECOWAS forces would have to be supported in some way by the United States. ... The intention right now is to lead with ECOWAS, with the United States playing a role of support,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this story.