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.