No timeline for military’s role in Haiti
WASHINGTON — Defense officials are rushing to get military assets and personnel into Haiti as quickly as possible. How long they’ll stay and what they can accomplish is anyone’s guess.
Military and State Department officials so far have declined to put a timetable on U.S. intervention in Haiti, saying their focus is on the immediate rescue and humanitarian needs of the devastated country. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Tuesday destroyed Port-au-Prince and likely killed tens of thousands of Haitians.
By the end of the week, more than 10,000 troops and federal relief workers are expected to be conducting missions there.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the work ahead a “long-term undertaking” for the United States, noting that “the length of time that we will have thousands of troops in Haiti or off-shore, frankly, is impossible to predict right now.”
The presidential palace and many of the capital’s civil institutions were felled in the earthquake. In a country plagued by poverty, violence and a history of political malfeasance, some have seized at the rebuilding effort as an opportunity to adopt a radical new approach from the decades of failed stabilization efforts, and a chance for more heavy-handed intervention there.
But the complexity of the problem and the immediate need of victims there make that an overly ambitious goal.
“You’re talking about a country that struggles to provide basic services even in the best of circumstances,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Corruption is so entrenched in the government there. The society is in a perpetual state of dependency on foreign aid. It’s going to be a major challenge to try and do anything differently this time.”
Outside experts predict the initial recovery effort could last several months, with Marines providing security for much of the country. But few see evidence that the Haiti mission will become a larger intervention for American troops, especially with the force still stretched by two wars overseas.
“This is not a U.S. military mission long term. There’s not a comfortable environment for that kind of presence,” said Bob Perito, coordinator of Haiti programs for the U.S. Institute of Peace. “But it will be weeks, months before the U.N. will regain its abilities.”
About 2,000 troops from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are scheduled to arrive in Haiti early this week. Capt. Clark Carpenter, a spokesman, said the unit has initial orders for a 30-day mission but has prepared for a longer stay and a host of humanitarian and security duties.
The Pentagon has also tapped Lt. Gen. P. K. Keen, the deputy director of Southern Command, to lead a new joint task force there, with an eye toward handing over responsibility to the State Department as soon as possible.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama pledged $100 million in foreign aid to help rebuild Haiti, which had already seen more than $1 billion in damage in the last year from four separate hurricane landfalls.
The U.N. has operated a stabilization mission in Haiti since 1993, and Perito said in recent years South American countries have stepped up their involvement. Ideally, experts say, the larger international community will fill in gaps in funding, diplomatic assistance and technical expertise.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said 30 countries have sent or pledged help to Haiti.
Of course, getting those countries to follow through on their commitments may prove trickier.
“The U.S. is not the only country invested in Haiti’s future, and [Obama] has to make sure the U.S. isn’t the only one paying for the solutions,” said James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former foreign service officer in Haiti. “We can’t afford an extensive, expensive effort alone.”
Patrick said in the past successful U.N. efforts have focused more on direct aid to the people of Haiti rather than building up governmental capabilities. That will have to change, and will fall largely to the U.S. State Department to help build a more stable democratic system than exists today.
But in the past those reforms have proven too difficult, and the extreme need among Haitians following this disaster will likely tempt those running the reconstruction efforts to again circumvent the Haitian govenrment and instead find quicker, more direct fixes, Patrick said. That approach, as it has in the past, will provide short-term answers but no permanent solutions.
At least in the short-term, experts agree that the U.S. military will take the lead in organizing the influx of aid. U.S. Southern Command officials said they have not yet begun discussions on what benchmarks will need to be met before servicemembers begin to return home, because the immediate humanitarian needs remain the primary focus.
Reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.