U.S. Assists in African Conflicts from Afar

A month before Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993, U.S. Marines stormed ashore in Somalia seeking to halt a devastating famine and cast the model for future life-saving interventions in convulsed African states.

Now in the twilight of his presidency, Clinton is making a weekend journey to Nigeria, home to the latest version of U.S. peacekeeping efforts in Africa. An advance party of 14 U.S. soldiers from North Carolina’s Fort Bragg touched down here Wednesday to train Nigerian soldiers for duty in beleaguered Sierra Leone.

Limited U.S. Peacekeeping Role

Africa has endured more ruinous wars than any other region over the past decade, yet the United States and other Western nations have largely retreated from the continent. An overstretched United Nations has struggled to patch together peacekeeping forces made up mostly of African armies and soldiers from other poor nations.

“There is an unspoken policy that the United States won’t send troops to Africa,” said Salih Booker, head of the Africa Policy Information Center in Washington. “Africans are concerned that the United States has abandoned peacekeeping roles that are supposed to be a shared international responsibility.”

More U.S. military trainers are coming to Nigeria, but they are not expected to top a few hundred, and there may be fewer. They plan to work with several battalions of Nigerians at a base in Ibadan, north of Lagos.

The United States has allocated $20 million to help train the Nigerians, who have the most powerful army in West Africa and extensive experience as peacekeepers — and combatants — in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

However, the Nigerians also have a reputation for ruthlessness; human rights groups have accused them of frequent abuses. The U.S. trainers plan to stress human rights, according to Major Ed Loomis, a U.S. military spokesman in Germany.

Critics: U.S. Effort Small Scale

The Americans have helped prepare several African armies for regional peacekeeping missions since 1996 in the belief that troops already on the continent could respond rapidly and would have a better understanding of local disputes.

However, critics say the U.S. effort has been small scale and is designed mostly to counter the view that America is ignoring Africa.

The Clinton administration and Congress have not “been willing to consider more than token funding for U.N. or regional peacekeeping forces, and each has consistently ruled out U.S. troop contributions,” John Stremlau, a former U.S. State Department official wrote recently in the journal Foreign Affairs.

U.N. peacekeeping missions have traditionally involved soldiers from a broad cross-section of nations. And the United Nations is now juggling 14 such operations around the globe, a number that has risen sharply in recent years.

Yet in Sierra Leone, none of the 13,000 U.N. troops comes from Western states. And in war-torn Congo, where the U.N. plans to send in peacekeepers, neither the United States nor any country in Europe has volunteered forces.

Supporters: U.S. Policy Is Prudent

Supporters of the current U.S. approach — training and aid for African armies, but no American troops — say it is a prudent policy in the post-Cold War world.

Africa’s wars do not threaten important U.S. interests, they argue. Also, the African conflicts tend to be highly unstable guerrilla wars, and U.N. peacekeepers become embroiled.

Even Clinton’s detractors acknowledge he has devoted more attention to Africa than his predecessors, including an 11-day, six-nation tour in 1998.

But the deaths of nearly 40 U.S. servicemen in Somalia in 1993, including graphic footage of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets, prompted a swift withdrawal.

Since then, American forces provided logistical support following Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, and helped deliver food to flood victims in Mozambique earlier this year. But the Americans have steered clear of combat.

A Double Standard?

Critics see a double standard, noting that Washington is willing to offer troops for long-term peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Korea, but not Africa.

Nigeria had withdrawn its troops from Sierra Leone, grumbling about the heavy cost in both money and lives lost. But now the country has sent more than 3,500 troops back and may send more.

“We would like to see a little more burden sharing,” said Omafume Onoge, head of the Center for Advanced Social Science in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. “Given the continent’s weaknesses, the international community needs to step in to help in African crises.”

A small number of well-trained Western troops can make a big difference.

In Sierra Leone, the mere presence of fewer than 1,000 British soldiers helped stem an advance by rebels who had taken 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage and were approaching the capital Freetown in May. But then the British forces pulled out and sporadic clashes between the rebels and the U.N. forces have resumed.