President Bush promised U.S. troops would head home from Liberia by month's end. Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command, last week called that "speculation," even if he does agree that crisis management in West Africa can be both short-lived and long-lasting.
"It's going to ... put some stability in that region that they haven't seen for years," he said of the effort by 2,000 U.S. Marines off the coast of Liberia and another 150 in the country since President Charles Taylor left office on Aug. 11. Those troops are scheduled to leave once UN peacekeepers begin arriving-slated for Oct. 1-to enforce a peace agreement reached between warring rebels who forced Mr. Taylor's ouster.
Most relief workers would like to see U.S. soldiers stay a little longer. Liberia, according to SIM (Serving In Missions, formerly Sudan Interior Mission) worker David Yaeger, is a small country with a disproportionately large measure of human suffering. An Ohio-sized country of 3 million, Liberia has about 500,000 people displaced within its own borders, and from half a million to a million more chased out of their homes and into neighboring West African nations. With civil war already rattling Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, the refugee problem could lead to cross-border, regional fighting.
For that reason, humanitarian groups, normally drawing a bright line between their work and military missions, are publicly supporting U.S. military intervention. The U.S. Committee for Refugees announced last month, "U.S. military intervention in Liberia has the potential to do wonders for the troubled neighborhood."
Mr. Yaeger and a colleague last week began a six-week stint in Monrovia on behalf of SIM, along with two colleagues each from World Relief and Samaritan's Purse. They will work through the Evangelical Church Union of Liberia (ECUL) to address some of the acute food and clean water needs in the capital. Mr. Yaeger once taught at Than Bible School, and many of the pastors helping him coordinate relief efforts are former students. Many of those pastors themselves, he said, are in need of food and other essentials.
For Liberians, ties to the United States are both deep rooted and recent. The country began as a return point for freed slaves from America. In recent decades it became a launching site for U.S. missionary efforts to all of Africa, particularly through ELWA Radio, which broadcasts news and Christian programming in 45 languages across the north, west, and east shoulders of Africa.
Under the current crisis, ELWA has to generate its own power and stays on the air only 3-4 hours a day. Mr. Yaeger will use it anyway to announce relief efforts and Bible programs for pastors and others who are currently homeless and otherwise unreachable. Mr. Yaeger calls relief efforts "temporary, a bridge." The group plans to include seed rice and other longer-range commodities in relief packages, but resettlement is the goal: "We want to send people back to their farms so they can make a living."
But rebels continue to roam the countryside. Robbery is rampant. Most soldiers aren't yet disarmed. "Even if you install legitimate government," said Mr. Yaeger, "you have a whole generation of younger people who, for 13 years, know nothing but fighting." For them, it may be easier to start another insurgency than to survive this peace.