WASHINGTON — The general who led the initial U.S. intervention in Somalia said Thursday that the United States made "a gross miscalculation" when it mounted a manhunt for clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid--a miscalculation that he said has since been corrected satisfactorily.
"Whether you like Aidid or not . . . in the Somalis' eyes he was a leader," Marine Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnston told the House Armed Services Committee. "To take him on, you . . . take on his entire clan. And (they) will fight you to the death."
Johnston's comments added another major voice to the increasing criticism, from both within the military and outside it, of the policies that the Administration pursued in Somalia last summer and much of this autumn.
The veteran Marine general is one of the military's most respected commanders, and the U.S.-run part of the Somalia effort that he oversaw--which ended in May, when the United States transferred command of the operation to the United Nations--was regarded as successful.
However, Johnston, who currently is deputy chief of staff for manpower and reserve affairs at the Pentagon, also endorsed the Administration's newly revised policy in Somalia, contending that U.S. strategy there now is "back on focus."
He also called the March 31 deadline set by the Administration for pulling U.S. troops out of Somalia "a reasonable timeline," given all the circumstances.
If the United States pulled out any more rapidly, he warned, it would risk unraveling the entire operation.
The Administration has come under severe criticism in recent weeks for agreeing to a U.N. proposal to target Aidid as a fugitive and for trying to capture the Somali clan leader.
Critics now blame that policy for sparking counterattacks by the warlord's militiamen and leading to the Oct. 3 firefight that killed 18 U.S. troops and wounded 77 others.
Although top Administration officials initially approved the manhunt operation--and later sent elite Army Rangers to Somalia especially to capture Aidid--they recently have sought to portray the effort as primarily led by the United Nations.
After the Oct. 3 debacle, Congress pushed the Administration to reverse course, prompting it to abandon the hunt for Aidid and to withdraw the Rangers from Somalia as part of a cease-fire that the Somali warlord so far has honored.
The first of 750 Rangers began heading back to the United States on Thursday, and U.S. officials said that the remaining American combat troops--including 3,600 Marines offshore--will avoid offensive operations.
Wire service reports indicated that Mogadishu remained quiet but tense Thursday.
Meanwhile, seven U.S. amphibious assault ships carrying the newly arrived Marines sailed in single file just three miles off the Somali coast in a demonstration of force.
Earlier this week, U.S. Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Montgomery told reporters that U.S. combat troops will be strictly limited to protecting other American forces in Somalia and no longer will join U.N. units in street patrols or in seeking to disarm any of the country's factions.
At Thursday's hearing, Mohamed Sahnoun, an Algerian who once served as U.N. envoy to Somalia, also criticized the hunt for Aidid, contending that U.S. troops should have left last May when the situation in Somalia appeared to be stabilized.
Johnston, in his testimony, called the current truce in Somalia "fragile" and said that U.S. troops should remain there for a few more months "to see (that) the political process (is) working at least in the right direction before we ultimately pull out."
At the same hearing, Richard L. Armitage, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the George Bush Administration, decried what he called "unseemly finger-pointing" by all sides in the wake of the Oct. 3 firefight.