THE Americans preparing to fly desperately needed aid into Somalia face a dilemma: tight security will be needed to make sure that the food is not hijacked by bandits and that US personnel are not in danger, but any such military presence could be seen by African countries as close to an armed invasion.
The mission of the US Provide Relief force gearing up in Mombasa for its first airlift into Somalia, expected next week, is specifically to transport food to designated points, where it will be handed over to relief organisations already on the ground.
Brigadier Frank Libutti, the commander of the US task force, was involved in detailed discussions yesterday on how to ensure the safety of the troops under his command. 'He will ensure US forces are not placed at undue risk,' Lt-Col Bob Connelly, the media liaison officer for the task force in Mombasa, said.
The US is clearly wary of appearing to take over sections of the country by force of arms. At the same time it will not want to mount an operation of this size and leave vehicles and personnel at the mercy of the thousands of heavily armed bandits who have contrived to reduce most of the country to a state of anarchy.
Around 13,000 tons is being transported before the end of the month, and a further 20,000 tons in September, before the promised airlift of 145,000 tons begins, probably towards the end of October.
If the Americans wish to ensure a reasonable degree of security, and if they do not wish to be seen to be establishing a form of Pax Americana in an exceedingly dark corner of Africa, they would seem to have no alternative but to cajole the international community, and specifically the United Nations, into providing a structure of international legitimacy under which they could act.
The Desert Storm enterprise may provide a model. 'The airlift is in many ways a dramatic spur to all other issues,' a spokesman at the US embassy in Nairobi said, 'bringing to light lots of difficulties and forcing people to look at larger issues more constructively.'
The 500 armed personnel the UN has agreed to send to Somalia are still waiting to be deployed. Confidence that the current UN presence can provide anything like the level of security needed for a relief operation of the size necessary for Somalia has not been increased by the leaked recommendations of a UN fact-finding team - which left Somalia just over a week ago without having proper consultations with aid agencies established on the ground - to the effect that a further 1,000 troops would be needed.
Colonel Connelly said that the site most extensively surveyed for the first mission into Somalia was Baidoa, 150 miles north-west of Mogadishu. Aid organisations would suggest other points, which would be surveyed for suitability. However, there were plans 'for now' to fly to Mogadishu.
Clearly the Americans would not wish to land their C-141 Starlifters or C-130 Hercules - complete with food and all necessary defence capabilities - near a city that is divided between the forces of the rival warlords, Ali Mahdi Mohamed and General Mohamed Farah Aideed, and marauding gangs who are accountable to no one.
The establishing of food security structures in the more remote rural areas would be less controversial than an intervention in the capital city and carries less risk that the Americans could become deeply embroiled in a chaotic situation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross cancelled two food airlifts to Baidoa on Friday for security reasons. One of the French planes that have been flying food from Djibouti did not land on Friday for similar reasons. Looters stole 300 tons of food aid from warehouses in Baidoa earlier this month, and apparently the Friday flights were cancelled for fear of looting. However the plane left Djibouti for Baidoa yesterday carrying 18 tons of food.
US assurances of a continuing liaison with non-governmental organisations in the field should go some way to smoothing fears expressed by an aid agency staff member that the introduction of UN or other groups into Somalia could put their own operation and effort at risk.
The misunderstandings with the government of Daniel arap Moi appear to have been smoothed over.
Elements within the Kenyan government and military were clearly alarmed at the apparent threat to Kenyan sovereignty imposed by the arrival of the Pentagon's humanitarian force. Colonel Connelly said yesterday that there was now proper co-ordination with the Kenyan Ministry of Defence and liaison officers were being exchanged at several locations.
Drought has left more than 2 million people in imminent danger of starvation in Kenya and Somalia, with thousands dying daily.
To add to Kenya's problems, about 320,000 Somalis have poured across its border to escape famine and war and UN refugee officials say another 2,000 arrive daily.