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RETURNING TO HAITI : The Military Option Is Fraught With Risks

July 17, 1994|James Blackwell | James Blackwell is assistant director of the Strategic Assessment Center of Science Applications International Corp. and a senior associate in international security studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

McLEAN, VA. — 'No, I don't despair, I don't believe in despair, but our problems won't be solved by the Marines. I'm not sure I wouldn't fight for Papa Doc if the Marines came. At least he's Haitian. No, the job has to be done with our own hands. We are an evil slum floating a few miles from Florida, and no American will help us with arms or money or counsel. We learned a few years back what their counsel meant.'- Graham Greene, 'The Comedians' 1966

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Once again, the American public is being prepared for an impending, if not imminent, military operation in Haiti. What might such an operation entail and at what cost?

Some senior military people I know are perplexed by what it is they will be called on to do if ordered into Haiti. They are confident that any operation will be thoroughly professional. But they are troubled by what appears to be a lack of a clear military objective.

There are only two possible missions that the military can accomplish. The President could order U.S. forces to enter Haiti and take over the government, installing the exiled, democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, by force. Or Bill Clinton could order forces to protect, and perhaps to evacuate, U.S. citizens whose lives may be endangered. Both types of missions have been carried out before.

The protection mission widely hinted at by the Administration would not be a simple one. The Marines fear that any evacuation of Americans living in Haiti may result in a long-term occupation. The last time such an operation was mounted--in 1915--it was 19 years before the Americans left the island.

Although the plan of attack is undergoing revision as conditions change, it probably calls for the seizure of the airport at Port-au-Prince and the establishment there of a secure base for subsequent operations to evacuate U.S. Embassy personnel, business people and journalists in the Haitian capital.

To round up the hundreds of Americans, mostly missionaries and aid workers, scattered at dozens of remote locations and small towns in Haiti, the Marines would have to fan out into the countryside. Many of these Americans would have to be told that they were indeed being rescued and need to move to an area from which they could be picked up by helicopter or small boat. This rescue mission--known as a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation, or NEO--is fraught with risk, because it would take time to get to the sites where Americans are known to be and because military authorities could not possibly know all the locations where Americans might be in danger.

The second mission that may be assigned to U.S. forces is restoring the "legitimate" government to power in Haiti. U.S. troops have recently performed this mission. It was, in large part, what Desert Storm was all about--taking Kuwait from the Iraqis and returning it to the Kuwaiti government. But any such operation in Haiti would be more like those undertaken by U.S. forces in Grenada and Panama.

The thugs surrounding Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras would probably have to be captured or killed before Aristide could be safely returned to power. These kinds of operations are called Coups de Main. They can be quite bloody. They require extensive preparation and rehearsal. They always demand the use of overwhelming force, because all centers of power have to be stormed. In a country like Haiti, this would be a tall order, since armed bands of thugs, many not under Cedras' control, may welcome the opportunity to try to take control and militarily challenge the Americans.

Of course, there is a good possibility that the Cedras gang would simply run when faced with the prospect of doing battle with a Panama-like U.S. military campaign involving 22,000 soldiers. Certainly, neither the Haitian armed forces nor the elite presidential guard, which is loyal to Cedras, would be a match for a suitably sized and equipped U.S. invasion force. The entire Haitian army numbers no more than 7,000, with about 1,000 of them armed and equipped for fighting with small arms only. It has about a dozen armored cars, a few dozen light guns, a tugboat and two traffic-cop airplanes. One Marine can do more damage than the entire Haitian military.

The more difficult problem for U.S. forces would be to deal with the well-armed citizenry, which makes Haiti more like Somalia than Grenada. For example, what will the rules of engagement be if a U.S. soldier comes upon a threatening teen-ager with an Uzi? Most Haitians, in or out of uniform, will not warmly embrace invading Americans. And taking a shot at a low-flying helicopter is an easy way to express such displeasure.

Even the environment will be hostile. Most of the time, it's hot and humid in Haiti. Worse, the hurricane season is about to begin, and Haiti sits in the zone of greatest danger from killer storms.

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