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Why Bush Must Send Troops to Help Save Liberia

Financial Times, 18 July 2003

While Washington continues to dither, Charles Taylor, Liberia's president and an indicted war criminal, remains in power, angling for ways to protect himself and those around him responsible for destroying his country and destabilising the entire west Africa region. It is time for President George W. Bush to abandon his opposition to peace operations in Africa. He should put US troops on the ground in a place where, for once, everyone wants them, and do the right thing in a country America helped to found a century and a half ago. The risk of renewed bloodshed increases every day that passes without decisive action to support the fragile ceasefire.

US financial and logistical support alone is insufficient. Washington must provide visible leadership for a multinational force. It needs to put "boots on the ground" - as did the UK in neighbouring Sierra Leone and the French in Ivory Coast. Almost all parties in Liberia not only are ready to accept US troops but also have been vigorously urging them to take such a role, given the historic identification of the country with the US.

To accommodate various US sensitivities, the sequence of events could be along the lines suggested this week by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general. A west African (Economic Community of West African States) contingent of 1,000-1,500 men would hit the ground first. Mr Taylor then would leave for Nigeria, it is hoped voluntarily. US forces, with their logistics, communications and command and control capacity, would arrive almost simultaneously - not necessarily in great numbers but sufficient to be visible and effective. That force would be augmented by several thousand more west African soldiers to check the standing down of all rebel and government forces and the stability of the country. As the situation calmed, UN peacekeepers would take over.

Mr Taylor's removal is an essential requirement for peace and stability in Liberia and its neighbours. If, as promised, he leaves voluntarily for Nigeria, so be it. The Sierra Leone special court indictment remains in force and, at the very least, as long as Mr Taylor is in Nigeria the threat of its enforcement should serve to keep him out of Liberian and regional politics.

If Mr Taylor does not leave immediately of his own free will, he will have to be made to. The Security Council could readily give the Sierra Leone court enforcement powers, enabling those indicted to be arrested in any country and removed to Sierra Leone. Forces going into Liberia would, in these circumstances, have the necessary authority to do just that.

Washington's reluctance has much to do with the spectre of Somalia a decade ago, when US forces lacked a clear military mission, a political plan for the country, or an exit strategy. But in Liberia, these ingredients are all there. The US would provide the political leadership to ensure the departure of Mr Taylor and his permanent removal from Liberian and regional politics, and the military leadership necessary to bed down the current ceasefire. Having stabilised the country - on the face of it a much more straightforward task than in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq - the US-led multinational force would turn into a traditional UN peacekeeping operation.

The US role would also be to put in motion a political process that would help ensure the stability of the country. Moses Blah, the Liberian vice-president, could complete Mr Taylor's term through to January 2004. He would have the assistance of, and then be replaced by, an interim government that would hold office until such time as the conditions could be established for free and fair elections administered by the UN. The composition of that interim government would be determined by negotiations - involving the civil society that Mr Taylor eviscerated and the insurgents - in a process supervised by the UN and ECOWAS over the next few weeks. Once that election had taken place, the UN operation would wind down.

Rather than shunning peace operations in Africa after Somalia, the US should be grasping with both hands the chance to show that it can get one right. There are few such operations where the risk/return ratio is so low. Mr Bush has been back from his African visit for days, the assessment mission returns are all in, the need for US involvement in Liberia is acute, the clamour for it is almost unanimous and the time for action is now.