EL TORO — Back in Southern California after a five-month mercy mission in Somalia, the commander of the U.S.-led multinational force said Wednesday that the strife-torn country was now in "good hands" and on a long road toward recovery.
Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnston, who along with his staff was treated to a flag-waving welcome fit for returning heroes at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said that dramatic strides have been made in the Somali population's general health and that once-dangerous cities have been returned to the people.
"We have reversed the famine. . . ," Johnston said after stepping from a giant C-141 transport plane that had carried him from an earlier visit in Washington with President Clinton. "The kids there are going back to school. In cities where you used to see 50 people moving through a major intersection, now you see 10,000. We have helped Somalia get back on its feet."
While describing the mission as a "complete success," the general, still attired in desert camouflage fatigues, said that not all of the gun-toting bandits have been removed from the countryside. He predicted that it could be at least a year before "a viable government structure" is in place.
Earlier in the day, Johnston was in Washington, where his work in Somalia was recognized by Clinton with the award of the Distinguished Service Medal.
"President Clinton told me that he was very proud of the men and women that served there," Johnston said of his meeting with Clinton. "It was an honor."
In a brief meeting with reporters, the Camp Pendleton-based general described his service as "the most gratifying mission of my three decades as a Marine."
"When I first got there, what we saw were expressionless children. Now, they are smiling and going to school."
Asked to evaluate the potential commitment of U.S. military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Johnston, who served as chief of staff to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf in the Persian Gulf two years ago, warned of a "much more challenging" operation that would risk "many casualties."
"Bosnia is a much different proposition," Johnston said. "It involves different terrain and a much different enemy."
The general said he did not know if he would be part of a possible U.S. operation in Bosnia.
In Washington, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed a different view: "There are many parallels between this situation (in Somalia) and what may happen in Bosnia."