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Haiti Relief Operation: Who Should Be In Charge?

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Haiti Relief Operation: Who Should Be In Charge?

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Haiti Relief Operation: Who Should Be In Charge?

Haiti Relief Operation: Who Should Be In Charge?

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The Pentagon is moving troops, planes and ships to take part in the Haitian relief effort. That effort is slower than expected. One reason: the military is coping with the same challenges as civilian aid groups — a small airport and a demolished port. But one U.S. general says the White House made a mistake by putting the State Department's Agency for International Development in charge of the effort instead of the U.S. military.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now the U.S. military is moving in troops, planes and ships to Haiti, but faces the same challenges as civilian aid groups: a small airport and a demolished port.

NPRs Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN: They are called the Ready Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division -able to deploy within 18 hours, anywhere in the world for combat or humanitarian missions. On Friday, the nation's top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said 100 of those paratroopers were already in Haiti.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN: And the rest of the brigade will be on the ground by the end of the weekend.

BOWMAN: That didn't happen. Less than one-third of the 3,500 troops were on the ground as of last night to help in the relief effort. The rest are expected to arrive some time this week. Why? Major Christian Sorenson, a spokesman for the 82nd, blamed a clogged Port-au-Prince airport.

Major CHRISTIAN SORENSON (Spokesman, 82nd Airborne Division): The main reason, of course, is that the airfield at Haiti itself - there's a bottleneck there. You know, we're limited to the accessible runways there, and we are not the only aircraft that are trying to land at this time.

BOWMAN: In addition, Sorenson says it wouldn't make sense for the 82nd to parachute into Haiti before the military is able to support them on the ground.

Maj. SORENSON: When you have that many troops on the ground, those are, again, 3,000 additional mouths to feed.

BOWMAN: That's not good enough for retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore, who led relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina. Here he is on CNN yesterday.

Lieutenant General RUSSEL HONORE (Retired): We need to drop the rest of that second brigade of the 82nd Airborne in there in daylight tomorrow morning and get this problem taken care of.

BOWMAN: Honore says he thinks the Obama administration made a mistake in putting the Agency for International Development in charge of the American effort rather than the U.S. military. They just don't have the operational experience, he told NPR.

Lt. Gen. HONORE: It requires a lot of logistics on the ground, quickly. It requires a lot of capability to evacuate people. And when you put USAID in the lead of this, I and again, it's nothing personal against them - the military's waiting for USAID to tell them what to do.

BOWMAN: So, if you had to change something, how would you change it at this point?

Lt. Gen. HONORE: I'd put General Keen in charge of the entire operation, working in support of the president and our ambassador on the ground, senior U.S. representative.

BOWMAN: That's Lieutenant General Ken Keen, the senior American officer in Haiti. He told reporters yesterday in Port-au-Prince, the U.S. is working with the Haitian government and the United Nations. The Americans are not in the lead.

Lieutenant General KEN KEEN: No. We are in support of the government of Haiti and the United Nations as it relates to humanitarian assistance. What we want to do is use our resources as best we can to enable the humanitarian assistance supplies to get out to the points I indicated.

BOWMAN: What Keen just mapped out is part of the problem, says retired Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis - too many people.

Lieutenant General GUS PAGONIS (Retired): Clearly, there has to be one agency, one single point of contact. Otherwise, logistics just doesn't work. You've got too many people stirring the pot.

BOWMAN: Pagonis should know - he was in charge of moving all troops and supplies during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Lt. Gen. PAGONIS: In all normal disasters, that's what happens. The government thinks they're in charge; the military thinks they're in charge; the police think they're in charge. With our own disaster in New Orleans, we had that huge problem.

BOWMAN: Still, Pagonis says the Pentagon can take steps on its own to make things better - starting with that airport. He suggests carving out a second runway to land military C-130 aircraft carrying water, food or paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne.

Lt. Gen. PAGONIS: The C-130s, you could set up an unimproved runway pretty rapidly if you have the bulldozers or the expertise to be able to clear the land. That's what they need to do.

BOWMAN: But as of last night, no one in the military was talking about a second runway.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And our photographer David Gilkey is in Haiti. He's sending back images of misery in the Caribbean sun. They're at NPR.org.

It's NPR News.

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