THE United States military has found it relatively easy to go into Somalia. The question is, how much harder will it be to get out?
Though President Bush talked of ending the US peacemaking deployment by Inauguration Day, it has become increasingly clear in recent days that the effort is unlikely to end that soon. In fact, Operation Restore Hope could take weeks or perhaps months longer than Mr. Bush anticipated, even if things go well.
Some vehicles and other equipment of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, for instance, will be traveling to Somalia via two Military Sealift Command ships. Even at their top speed of 30 knots, the two fast cargo ships may not arrive at their destination until well after Christmas. Full deployment of 10th Mountain units might not occur until the new year.
As President-elect Clinton pointed out this week, no one really has the final answer as to when or how US forces will have stabilized the situation enough to allow their replacement by a smaller, multinational peacekeeping force. But the fact that implementation of policy sometimes is messier than the laying of plans does not mean the deployment is wrong, Clinton said.
"This mission has merit and an artificial timetable cannot be imposed upon it," he said.
After the Marines' smooth entry into Mogadishu, the Somali capital, at first light yesterday, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney conceded there was no chance US forces would all be home by Jan. 20. But he held out hope that the US could begin turning authority over to UN troops by the beginning of February. "I don't think it's unrealistic," he said.
As yet few analysts are predicting Somalia will become a quagmire. Indeed, the effort is widely backed in Washington. An unusually broad political spectrum supports the operation - from the Congressional Black Caucus and other traditionally liberal groups to conservative GOP congressional leaders.
The most vocal opponent has, surprisingly, been the relatively pro-military head of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania. Mr. Murtha has complained that the Somalia deployment will cost too much. "I just don't see the national interest" in Somalia, he said recently at a breakfast with defense reporters.
From an operational point of view the marines now moving into Mogadishu now face two primary tasks: readying the airfield and port for the larger flow of troops to follow them, and establishing the parameters of their relationship with the gunmen loosely controlled by the country's feuding warlords.