Military Gets More Boots On The Ground In Haiti

There is some criticism that the U.S. military is moving too slowly to relieve the suffering in Haiti after last week's earthquake. It took days to get Marines and a brigade of the Army's 82nd Airborne to start relief efforts. Meanwhile, there are worries that the U.S. military could become an occupying force.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States is sending additional ships to help with the recovery effort, including one equipped with cranes to clear debris from the port in Haitis capital. That port was destroyed by the earthquake, which is slowing down the flow of supplies. This is just one part of the U.S. military commitment. The U.S. expects to have about 5,000 Marines and soldiers on the ground in Haiti in the next few days. We are going to discuss the growing military presence with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. He joins us now live. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly is the U.S. militarys definition of its mission in Haiti?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. military says that their main effort now is to distribute food and to move that food and aid beyond the capital. We now have Marines on the ground at L´┐Żogane. They tried to an airfield at Jacmel. And that is their main focus. They say they will provide security as well and they already provided security, for example, for a drop zone, when they dropped food and water in the other day.

So, again, the main effort: deliver aid.

INSKEEP: Although that gets you mentioned security - that gets to a complicated point. What exactly are the rules of engagement for them, particularly in a situation where there's a lot of fear of violence and many people may need security, civilians may feel they need security?

BOWMAN: Well, all they're saying now is that U.S. troops can defend themselves. They're not really talking much, and they never really talk much about rules of engagement. But I don't get a sense right now that they consider it all that dangerous. It's not like Afghanistan, where I've been, where you have detailed rules of engagement.

At this point they're really just focusing on delivering the aid. And the sense I get is they're not all that worried about violence. But clearly in a desperate situation like this anything could happen. They were seeing some incidents of violence, a bit of rioting.

But one of the commanders, Major General Allen, yesterday told us there's relative calm at this point.

INSKEEP: Is the U.S. military, are the officers you speak with, anyway, at all concerned about an expanding mission for the United States military in Haiti simply because the resources are there and so many other resources and governmental bodies are having trouble functioning at all?

BOWMAN: Oh yeah, I think so. I mean, what the Americans will say is that, hey, listen, we have 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers; we have 2,000 Haitian police out there now. But with the capabilities of the United States, with its wealth and its weaponry and all these ships heading down there, the sense is that, you know, the U.S. military could be there - Defense Secretary Gates says they'll be there for some time - but we could possibly see an expanded role down there, possibly with security, as we move into the weeks and months ahead. There's absolutely no doubt about that.

INSKEEP: Does it becomes at some point a challenge for the U.S. military already having big commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq to find troops to put down there and perhaps to rotate through there for a period of months or even longer?

BOWMAN: We could - that could be a problem in the coming months, but at this point, you know, they have the brigade of the 82nd on the ground - they're always on standby for something like this, and the Marines too. You're not talking about a lot of troops at this point. I think 5,000 boots on the ground is something they can easily handle.

But again, if this lasts, you know, many months, yes, absolutely, it could be something of a burden while you still have a large commitment of troops in Iraq and a growing one in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Tom Bowman. He covers the U.S. military and he's reporting this morning on the U.S. military involvement in Haiti. And tom, I wonder if this is a place where there's a sense of familiarity for the U.S. military, simply because they've been in and out of that country for generations now.

BOWMAN: That's right. And let's face it, the American military has a checkered past down in Haiti, and the Marines in particular. They occupied the country early in the 1900s to protect American interests. They occupied it for almost 20 years. And they fought the rebels down there that opposed U.S. occupation and killed quite a few people.

But in more recent years, the Marines have been seen as a positive influence down there, providing security and also food aid as well.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

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