NOW that the United States Marines have secured their primary objectives in Somalia and run into almost no serious opposition, the question becomes more pointed for both Somalis and Americans: How long will they stay?
The answer may lie beyond the Marines' control. According to the official Defense Department scenario for Operation Restore Hope, the 20,000 Marines now in-country are to remain just long enough to ensure that relief supplies reach the victims of the country's civil war on a routine basis, without serious danger of diversion or looting. When that point is reached, the longer-term tasks of preserving the peace and promoting political reconciliation are supposed to be handed off to the United Nations and i ts multinational security forces.
The problem for the Marines is that, when it's time to leave, there may be no one capable of taking the hand-off and running with the ball. Right now, prospects are not good, and a game-losing fumble is a real possibility.
Already the Marines' limited mandate is being interpreted more broadly than it was at first. Crews of GIs with heavy construction equipment are now being assigned, for example, to repair potholes, remove sand barriers, and clear away some of the wreckage and debris that months of factional fighting have left clogging Mogadishu's streets. Upcountry in Baidoa, they're drilling wells, repairing bridges, and replacing roofs.
Assignments like these, however, are easy to rationalize in terms of making sure relief supplies and services are available where they're needed.
The real weak spot in the Marines' game plan is whether they can leave Somalia with reasonable confidence that the country won't immediately slide back into the warfare and starvation they found when they landed. Keeping this from happening will be up to UN personnel, military and civilian - and right now they're not equal to the task.
During my two-week stay in Somalia last month, I was taken aback by complaints about the UN I heard from Somalis who agreed on little else: It had been quick to abandon Somalia and slow to return; it was bureaucratic and rigid; it was biased in favor of one clan family (the Darood); it schemed on behalf of national or private commercial interests.
More recently, Somalis loyal to one warlord, dramatized their contempt for the UN and its secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, by rioting in front of the UN compound in Mogadishu and pelting the unfortunate Mr. Boutros-Ghali with garbage.
Almost all Somalis I talked to gave high marks to the UN secretary-general's former special envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, for his attempts to resolve differences among feuding warlords and initiate a process of political dialogue aimed at national reconciliation. But Mr. Sahnoun was sacked in October by Boutros-Ghali for complaining about bureaucratic infighting at the UN itself, and now Somalis point to Sahnoun as the exception proving that the UN is incapable of helping the country solve its complex politica l and security problems.
Nor has Sahnoun's successor as special envoy, a Western-trained Iraqi diplomat with a strong reputation for trouble-shooting, won back the Somalis' confidence.
The new man has had the misfortune of being almost completely overshadowed by President Bush's special envoy, Robert Oakley, and by the excitement of Operation Restore Hope. It did not help the UN image that Mr. Oakley, only hours after arriving in Mogadishu, succeeded in bringing together two of the most important feuding Somali warlords and persuading them to sign a preliminary peace agreement - a goal that eluded UN officials for months.
But the poor opinion Somalis have about the UN civilian bureaucrats is nothing compared to their contempt for the UN peacekeeping forces deployed up until now. (These UN forces consist of only the 600 Pakistani troops flown into Mogadishu aboard US military transport planes in October and wearing the blue berets of the UN. But the fine distinction is lost on Somalis, who generally lump the 7,000 troops more recently arrived from France, Italy, Belgium, Egypt, and America's other Operation Restore Hope pa rtners into the same contemptible category.)
When I spoke in mid-December with Mohamed Farah Aideed, the most powerful of the clan warlords in Mogadishu, he was blunt and caustic: The Pakistani troops were a laughingstock from the start, unable even to look after their own security, never mind protect the relief workers; and the other foreign troops that had arrived on the Americans' coattails were merely out to advance their own national interests at Somalia's expense.
For their part, he charged, Boutros-Ghali and the UN's other civilian officials were systematically scheming to exploit the country's rich agricultural potential and restore power to the clan allies of the ousted dictator.
I told General Aideed I had the contrary impression that UN officials were sincerely working to bring about political recovery, and I pointed out that they were just then organizing a second round of national reconciliation meetings to be held in Addis Ababa in early January. Since Aideed's powerful faction had boycotted the first round of meetings, I wondered how he could expect UN attempts at reconciliation to be successful.
Aideed (who later chose not to be left out of the Addis meetings this time) snorted at what he termed "foreign intervention" in Somalia's internal affairs on the part of UN officials:
"Only American diplomats," Aideed declared, could understand Somalis' differences, solve the country's political problems, and bring its people together.
(Somehow, US intervention is quite different in Aideed's mind from "foreign intervention" and is much more acceptable.)
"Only American troops," he added for good measure, were "impartial, disinterested, and welcome among Somalis as peacekeeping forces."
Even though General Aideed's opinion echoes that of many other Somalis, it implies a broadening of the US agenda in Somalia and an extension of the Marines' assignment that Americans are not yet prepared to accept.
But it also suggests that, unless the US and its allies act quickly to shore up the authority and prestige of UN civilian and military personnel in Somalia, the Marines may have real trouble finding someone else to carry the ball when the Restore Hope game plan calls for a handoff.