Leading Article: High stakes for the UN in Somalia

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ANALOGIES are often drawn between the US experience in Vietnam and the dangers of a similar 'quagmire' effect in Somalia. They are largely inappropriate. Successive American administrations were sucked deeper and deeper into the Vietnam conflict because they believed that vital national interests were at stake: if the Communist North Vietnamese were permitted to overrun a friendly, anti-Communist government in South Vietnam, the domino effect would, they believed, be disastrous, and the Communist world would have scored a significant victory in the Cold War. No national interests are at stake in Somalia - but the future of UN operations, at least in Africa, is.

When President George Bush first sent American troops to Somalia last December, their primary mission was to protect relief supplies. Mr Bush's motives probably included real compassion for the victims of the famine there, some feelings of guilt about non-involvement in Bosnia, and a desire to end his presidency on a high note of humanitarian action. Providing the warlords could be restrained, the task looked finite. Access was easy. The Pentagon was ready to co-operate.

Outside the capital, the mission was relatively successful: relief supplies got through and rural people were able to plant their crops. But in Mogadishu, a series of policy errors were made. The chief of these was the American decision - encouraged by the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali - to seize or eliminate the dominant local warlord, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, a leader with a following of several hundred thousand clansmen.

There followed a series of US-led heavy-weapon assaults that caused great loss of civilian life, made Gen Aideed something of a hero, and encouraged him to fight back. A battle last weekend resulted in 90 American casualties, including 13 dead. Ostensibly, the goal of capturing Gen Aideed had been abandoned. In reality, it remained in place.

American losses inevitably put President Bill Clinton under heavy pressure to pull the 4,000 US troops out of Somalia: a move that would have been a kind of defeat, and would have exposed the non-American UN troops to the possibility of being driven into the sea. Yesterday he took the braver course of increasing the strength of the US contribution to the UN force in Somalia while fixing a deadline for an American pull-out next spring.

Yet withdrawal would be deeply problematical in domestic terms if US prisoners were still being held by hostile Somalis. For the UN's future, it could be disastrous. If remaining UN troops were actually defeated by Gen Aideed's fanatical fighters, as is likely, the future of UN intervention would be seriously damaged. For the international order, if not for the US itself, the stakes therefore remain high.