WASHINGTON — As the number of U.S. soldiers in Haiti and aboard a small armada floating offshore builds toward 18,000, the question of how and when they will leave remains unanswered.
While past humanitarian missions, most notably in Somalia in the 1990s, have morphed into protracted — and bloody — "peacemaking" exercises, experts say there are many reasons that Haiti is unlikely to turn into a quagmire for U.S. forces.
If anything, said a half-dozen officials with long experience in humanitarian relief and peacekeeping operations, the danger is that the troops, ships and helicopters will leave too soon, before security is re-established. With ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has little appetite for an extended military mission in the Caribbean.
"The risk is the opposite: that they will leave too quickly, and we will have chaos," said Andrew Natsios, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2001 to 2005. "They've got their hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan-Pakistan. The U.S. military does not want to do this, in terms of anything beyond the humanitarian response."
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The Haiti earthquake Jan. 12 devastated the country's capital, Port-au-Prince, left as many as 200,000 dead and crippled both an existing U.N. peacekeeping mission and the country's government.
There are about 13,000 U.S. military personnel in Haiti — roughly 4,000 ashore and 9,000 aboard ship — and that number will grow to 17,000 to 18,000 by this weekend with the arrival of a second Marine Expeditionary Unit, said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. Twenty-two ships and 66 military helicopters are participating in the relief effort, he said.
Lapan said, "There hasn't been an impact to this point" on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, although military planners are keeping a close eye on the flow of forces.
If all goes as planned, U.S. troops will begin departing after United Nations agencies and private aid groups are ready to fully take on the task of recovery and rebuilding. A U.N. peacekeeping force, which is being enlarged with 2,000 more peacekeepers and 1,500 policemen, will provide security alongside Haitian security forces.
"As we get through this initial crisis, as those other organizations bring up their capacity, we will work with all those organizations to determine when the right time is to transition our capabilities out of Haiti," Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the commander of the military's Southern Command, said Thursday.
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has spelled out the details of when and how that will happen, however.
Large-scale violence, which has been sporadic so far, or thousands of desperate Haitians taking to the seas to try to reach U.S. shores could upend the Obama administration's plans.
It also remains to be seen who'll coordinate the task of rebuilding Haiti, which will take years, cost billions of dollars and involve hundreds of agencies and charities.
Private aid groups have complained that the U.S. military has wrested too much control of the relief effort.
"There's a lot of pitfalls to all this well-meaning compassion," said Elizabeth Ferris, an expert on humanitarian issues at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a research center.
The U.S. military's role "is still not clear to me," Ferris said, questioning whether American forces are focused on their own security, setting up logistics supply lines or directly delivering relief supplies. Once international and nongovernment agencies stand up their operations, "are there plans for it to exit in a reasonable period of time?" she asked.
The United States and the U.N. signed an agreement Friday clarifying the world body's lead role in earthquake relief efforts, the Reuters news agency reported.
A senior State Department official said the chances of Somalia-like "mission creep," with U.S. forces staying in Haiti as political arbiters, "are zero. ... What's the strategic rationale?"
Who'll lead the huge reconstruction effort "is a reasonable question," however, said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to speak more frankly.
The United States has a long, troubled history of intervention in Haiti. U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. President Bill Clinton sent in U.S. troops in 1994 to restore democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A decade later, U.S. Marines were back as part of an international stabilization force sent in after Aristide fled the capital.
James Dobbins, who was Clinton's special envoy to Haiti and helped organize the 1994 intervention, said he didn't foresee a lengthy stay for U.S. forces in the wake of the earthquake. Haiti's long-standing political tensions have been muted since Aristide departed, he said.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, despite losing 70 staff members in the earthquake and having its headquarters collapse, is well-established in Haiti and has a clear job mandate, Dobbins and other specialists said.
"Ideally, I'd like to see U.S. troops stay as part of the U.N. force ... but I don't think that's likely to happen because of our other priorities," Dobbins said.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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