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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 July, 2003, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Pressure grows on US over Liberia

Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

Children in Liberia queue to receive food and blankets in Liberia
The US is coming under growing pressure to act

All the indications are that US President George W Bush is now seriously considering the dispatch of US troops to Liberia to help enforce a ceasefire there.

Mr Bush came under growing international pressure to back such a deployment during his recent trip through Africa.

Liberia, with its historical connections with the US, may not be part of Uncle Sam's backyard, but it is a country with which Washington has had a particular relationship.

In recent years both France and the UK have demonstrated their willingness to dispatch small contingents of troops to war-torn parts of Africa.

Indeed, the British experience in Sierra Leone is that well-trained and well-equipped Western troops can have an impact far out of proportion to their numbers.

Washington, of course, will not embark upon such a mission alone.

African backing

Indeed any US role is likely to be severely circumscribed.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan [left] with US President George W Bush
Annan says US troops will have a facilitating role in Liberia
Mr Bush has made it clear that US troops would only go to Liberia to support a peacekeeping force drawn from other African countries.

US military assessment teams have already travelled to the region to see what help a coalition of African countries might need.

Any mission would probably fall to the West African regional body the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

According to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the US troops would have a facilitating role.

West African countries could send up to 2,500 troops to Liberia and its controversial President, Charles Taylor, would then leave the country as Washington and others have demanded.

Then more peacekeeping troops would arrive, possibly including the US military.

In due course the UN would take over the operation and the US troops would be pulled out.

Pressure on Pentagon

So, while the US armed forces may have an important facilitating role, the principal significance of a US decision would be to provide a political catalyst for the operation.

US soldier stands guard by local woman in Iraq
US forces across the globe are already stretched
The Pentagon is known not to be terribly enthusiastic about such missions.

But the Americans and others have invested some effort to encourage African countries to develop their own peacekeeping capabilities.

And this kind of "pump-priming" to get an operation off the ground may be essential if a credible force is to be established on the ground in Liberia.

All this, of course, comes from a president who insisted during his election campaign that he wanted to reduce the burden on US forces overseas and to avoid peacekeeping entanglements which were best left to other countries.

With 150,000 troops in Iraq, along with sizeable contingents in Afghanistan, South Korea and the Balkans, there is no doubt the Pentagon is under pressure.

But there is equally no reason why a superpower with America's capabilities should not be able to deploy a small enabling force in Liberia for a limited period.

Breeding terrorism

During George W Bush's bid for the White House it became common-place to insist that US military power should only be used around the globe in places where clear US national interests were at stake.

Liberian President Charles Taylor
Many see the fate of the Liberian president as a test for the Bush administration

So far no clear US interests have been identified by the Bush administration in Liberia.

But critics of the Bush team suggest that this is short-sighted and that Liberian President Charles Taylor's history of regional destabilisation should send out clear warning signals.

Unstable regimes and civil wars are the culture on which international terrorism breeds.

The critics say that a case can be made for intervention in this strife-ridden part of the world on both strategic and humanitarian grounds.

And whatever President Bush may decide on the dispatch of US troops, there are those on Capitol Hill who see the fate of Mr Taylor as a litmus test for the Bush administration.

Mr Taylor is an indicted war criminal identified by prosecutors as one of the individuals bearing the greatest responsibility for a decade of atrocities.

If he were allowed simply to slip away into exile the Bush administration would have some explaining to do.

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