WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- As the first wave of U.S. troops prepared to land in Somalia, Bush administration officials offered conflicting views yesterday on the conditions that would allow them to return home.
Their lack of agreement as to when United Nations troops could take over the humanitarian mission underscores the administration's difficulty in defining its goals in Somalia.
One senior administration official insisted that disarming Somalis and pointing them toward political reconciliation "are not conditions" for U.S. withdrawal, but rather are "factors that will have to be looked at before the U.N. takes over."
But a second official said there would have to be progress toward disarming Somalis and reconciliation among the leaders of warring factions before the United States hands its mission over to U.N. peacekeepers.
While the Pentagon has not used the term "peacemaking," which implies enforcing peace, this official said: "It describes what they have agreed they have to do."
The conditions under which U.S.-led forces would withdraw were left deliberately vague in crafting last week's Security Council resolution authorizing the humanitarian mission, said a Western diplomat stationed at the United Nations.
"No one has determined [the conditions]. They were not mentioned in the Security Council resolution for that reason," the diplomat said.
The resolution called for the forces to "establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations Somalia."
In fact, "there is no clear idea what people actually mean by a 'secure environment,' " the U.N. diplomat said. "This is a shot in the dark."
Publicly, administration officials have refused to commit U.S. forces to any large-scale disarming of the Somalian population.
Thomas L. McNaugher, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said the military effectively could create secure areas inside which food and relief aid could be distributed. Heavy force would be used if necessary to protect those areas, he predicted.
While the analyst doubted it would be feasible to disarm all the factions in Somalia, he said the heavily armed U.S. presence would create a new power center in the war-wracked nation.
There will be "an overpowering incentive" for local actors to melt away, waiting for the Americans to leave, he said.
Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense who is also at Brookings, told reporters there would be pressure on the U.S.-led forces to remain and assist in the task of rebuilding the nation.
He urged that a six-month deadline be set on U.S. participation to avoid being sucked in to a long commitment.
How much weaponry will be left in Somalian hands when U.S. combat troops withdraw has a heavy bearing on the kind of U.N. force needed to replace them, officials acknowledge.
Currently, 3,500 U.N. peacekeepers are slated to go in, with continuing U.S. engineering and other support. But the continued presence of weapons may mean that the peacekeepers will have to be strengthened with a new and potentially more aggressive "peacemaking" mission, involving more than 3,500.
Technically, it will be up to the Security Council, acting with recommendations from Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to determine when U.N. peacekeepers will take over.
In practice, however, U.S. forces will withdraw when the president decides, a senior U.S. official said.