WASHINGTON -- As U.S. reinforcements began arriving in Somalia last night, President Clinton met with his advisers to consider how to extricate himself and the country from a humanitarian mission that has turned into a nightmare.
The meeting took place against a backdrop of mounting U.S. casualties and ghastly television images of their treatment by Somalis. Those images have aroused demands from lawmakers in both parties that Mr. Clinton consult with Congress and explain the current mission in Somalia -- or get out.
A late afternoon briefing at the Capitol for about 200 senators and representatives by Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher did little to soothe congressional anger.
"I learned nothing I didn't already know. Anyone who watches the local and national news would get more information," snapped an irate Sen. John S. McCain, the Arizona Republican and one of the most prominent critics of Mr. Clinton's Somalia policy.
Mr. Clinton returned to the White House from a California trip for a strategy session with top national security advisers and senior military leaders.
Late last night, a high-ranking White House official said that the president was asking "some pretty tough questions" of his foreign policy advisers, including the basic one of how U.S. Army personnel found themselves in a firefight without sufficient reinforcements.
"He reviewed the options on where to go to make sure the troops are protected as you leave," said the official.
Asked if the president would consider leaving immediately -- especially in light of the fact that there are U.S. captives in Somalia -- this official replied, "There are one or more prisoners there, but that is not going to be the centerpiece of our policy."
Questioned explicitly if the president would conceivably order an evacuation of Somalia while American soldiers were still held in that country, this official reiterated, "You can't have the entire policy driven by that single question."
A key question is whether the United States would negotiate for the release of prisoners.
Mr. Clinton also must decide whether the United States should deploy even more troops and equipment to "neutralize" forces ++ loyal to Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid, Pentagon officials said.
Officials declined to comment yesterday on reports that up to eight Americans were being held by General Aidid's supporters.
Mogadishu remained uneasy yesterday in the aftermath of the 15-hour battle late Sunday and early Monday that left 12 U.S. soldiers dead, 78 wounded and at least six missing.
Television stations in the Somalian capital continued to broadcast vivid pictures of the body of a U.S. soldier being
dragged through the streets.
Another videotape showed a captured American pilot, Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, visibly in pain, his face scratched and bruised.
U.N. seeking release
Capt. Tim McDavitt, a U.N. military spokesman, said the agency was trying to secure the release of the prisoners, but he refused to give any specifics about the number of missing soldiers.
The Clinton administration has said it wants to encourage development of political institutions in Somalia and work through the United Nations to hasten a withdrawal of the roughly 4,550 U.S. troops currently there as part of a 28,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force.
However, the administration has said that U.S. troops would not leave the country until security in the capital city of Mogadishu has improved.
Yesterday, a new condition was added: the release of any captured Americans.
"The United States clearly is not going to leave a situation in which a United States individual is being held captive," said Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman.
Aspin deferred action
A senior Pentagon official confirmed that, in early September, Defense Secretary Aspin had deferred action on a military request for the deployment of heavy tanks and other armored vehicles for the Somalian operation.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there seemed to be "no great sense of urgency" at the time, so it was put aside.
Asked if the presence of M1A1 main battle tanks would have prevented U.S. casualties in last weekend's bloody firefight in Mogadishu, a general familiar with the operation replied, "Yes, clearly."
Not an escalation
Although administration officials reiterated that sending extra troops and weaponry did not signal an escalation of the offensive against General Aidid, a senior military planner said, "This is a demonstration they're willing to send more. It's not necessarily the end."
If the fresh troops, tanks and artillery gunships are expected to join Army forces already there to create a "secure environment" in Mogadishu, there won't be enough, military officials said.
"A mechanized infantry company is not able to sustain itself and operate for a long time without reinforcements of some sort," one planner said.
Military officials complained that the combat reinforcements that Clinton ordered Monday to Somalia are leaving Fort Stewart, Ga., with an uncertain mission.
Shocked and angered by the brutality of General Aidid's urban ** guerrillas, these officials expressed frustration over what they now regard as the administration's inability to set clear, coherent military objectives in Somalia.
"You have amateurs who go in and define a mission and give you a number of people to do the mission," the planner said. "You understand there will be political constraints, but it becomes frustrating that the number of troops seems often to be derived without any connection to the actual mission . . . In my view, military force can't solve all the problems. You need to be somewhat selective in choosing your missions and define them more clearly before you get in."
'Who's in charge?'
"Personally," the senior planner added, "it's not clear to me who's in charge. That's my problem right now."
Military officials said General Aidid's forces have proven to be much more skilled at urban warfare than expected.
His forces have had "several months to work on guerrilla tactics, improve their techniques," including the use of spotters to direct mortar attacks with better accuracy and to detonate mines with RTC greater precision, a senior officer said.
The general's control of the city's main arteries allows him to resupply his forces, officials explained. "There are more Aidid supporters coming to town. They are more aggressive and, very frankly, they're getting better at what they're doing," the senior officer said.
Last night's White House meeting included discussions with Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa, about how the military might quell the resistance by the Aidid forces.
The general also spent two hours talking with Defense Secretary Aspin and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.
The United Nations and U.S. intelligence officials warn that if the United States were to withdraw suddenly from Somalia, other nations would follow suit. Civil war could resume, the U.N. humanitarian effort would collapse and starvation could reappear.
This, in turn, would undermine the United Nations' credibility in peacekeeping missions elsewhere.
While Mr. Clinton has become wary of new U.N. ventures, they remain a relatively cheap alternative to direct American intervention in world trouble spots.
Not Bush scenario
It was hardly the scenario that President George Bush had in mind when he launched "Operation Restore Hope" to establish enough order in Somalia to get food to thousands of starving people.
The operation shifted from U.S. to U.N. command in May, and has increasingly become directed at weakening General Aidid's power.
U.N. officials said the warlord lay low during much of the period when the operation was under American control, but they realized that eventually they might have to capture him and destroy his inner circle and weaponry.
Other options for dealing with General Aidid include exiling him, putting him under house arrest and bringing him actively into negotiations on Somalia's future.
* Intensify efforts to seize Mohamed Farah Aidid. Additional fighting vehicles and gunships sent to Somalia by the Pentagon could be used to strengthen U.S. forces for offensive operations.
* Blockade General Aidid's stronghold in southern Mogadishu. By disengaging from the roughly 1,000 armed Somali troops loyal to General Aidid, U.S. forces could cut their losses and focus international attention on humanitarian relief operations.
* Declare the U.S. mission complete and withdraw, despite the warnings by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that other nations would withdraw their armed forces from Somalia if the Americans leave.