US forces reduce Haiti numbers, scale back role in relief effort
By JAMES ANDERSON and JONATHAN M. KATZ
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 14 (AP) — The biggest U.S. military surge since Iraq
and Afghanistan is scaling back a month after the troops arrived in
haste to aid victims of Haiti's catastrophic quake.
Great gray ships have been leaving behind Haiti's battered shores as
thousands of American troops pack up their tents. The mission, however,
is far from over.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. will be in Haiti for the
long haul, although troop strength is down to 13,000 from a Feb. 1 peak
of 20,000. Those who remain will accompany Haitians in an arduous
struggle toward recovery.
Within a broad international relief effort, U.S. forces have provided
some of the most visible support to a nation whose government and
infrastructure were nearly wiped out in less than a minute on Jan. 12.
They have shored up the capital's quake-damaged port to operate at
several times its pre-quake tonnage, while acting as a security and
logistics mainstay for U.N. food distributions. Military choppers have
delivered life-sustaining relief to isolated villages.
The flow of injured quake victims to the USNS Comfort hospital ship has
eased, but the need for medical facilities remains overwhelming in
"We're pretty saturated. This is the chokepoint," said Air Force Maj.
John Mansuy of St. Clairsville, Ohio, the operating room nurse in a
tented, full-service unit with zipper doors and a positive air flow to
keep out choking dust that blankets a landfill in the teeming Cite
His medical team takes in people strapped to stretchers — with
fractures, open wounds and other life-threatening maladies — before
rushing them offshore to the Comfort.
The Haiti aid operation, costing the Pentagon $234 million and
counting, has added a new strain to an already overtaxed military.
About seven in 10 members of the Cite Soleil's modern-day MASH unit are
veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and many are scheduled
to return there.
U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. Douglas Fraser would not specify
during a weekend visit what U.S. troop levels would be in the coming
"Remember that the capability and the capacity the United States
military brought in was for immediate relief," he told reporters.
The U.S. military already is turning certain tasks back over to the
Haitians, such as daytime air-traffic control at Port-au-Prince's
damaged international airport, where commercial flights are expected to
resume by Friday.
The Haitians have generally greeted the Americans with warmth and
appreciation, despite language barriers in the Creole- and
French-speaking Caribbean nation.
One day at the gates of the collapsed Hotel Montana, a group of Haitian
children greeted soldiers with the 82nd Airborne with a rendition of
Michael Jackson's moonwalk. The soldiers replied with a moonwalk of
their own. "Hey, you're good!" one of the kids shouted.
"No one is scared of them. They aren't aggressive, they wave hello.
They have a peaceful attitude," said Jacques Michilet, 31, who lost his
home and is raising two daughters in roadside shack.
Like many impoverished Haitians, Michilet doesn't just want the
soldiers to stay: He said he wants his country taken out of the hands
of its current business and political leaders and annexed by the United
U.S. forces have not always been so welcome in their long history of
intervention in Haiti.
A Marine-led occupation from 1915 to 1934 is widely seen among Haitians
as a high water mark of U.S. imperialism. Troops returned repeatedly,
paving the way in 1994 for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to
power — and then quelling widespread violence in 2004 after Aristide
flew into exile aboard a U.S. plane.
Critics say American perception of Haiti as an innately violent place
drove the troops to focus unduly on security, at the expense of some
Patrick Elie, a former Haitian defense minister now helping restructure
the country's dismantled security forces, said the U.S. troops have
done good but were too focused on security initially.
"The foreign countries that came to our aid fell victim to their own
propaganda," Elie said. "They were afraid of a monster that never
existed except in their own fantasies ... that Haitians are
After the disaster, there were isolated street fights and killings of
looters by security guards, and some gang violence in slums driven by
leaders who escaped from prison. But the capital has been largely calm
and orderly as Haitians organize themselves from the ground up.
On Sunday, volunteers with whistles directed traffic around fallen
buildings and rubble in the hard-hit Bel Air slum. Uniformed scouts
routed cars around singing church parades — a toned-down substitute for
this year's missed Carnival season.
Still, U.S. military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute
said the security precautions were warranted.
"Desperate people do desperate things," he said. "It would be dangerous
and probably counterproductive to put U.S. civilians on the ground
there without military forces to ensure order."
A 9,000-strong Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping force has been in place
since 2004 to help Haiti contain gang violence and maintain basic order.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive defended the size
of the American military presence when confronted by wary Haitian
senators. He said the government's acceptance of the U.S. military
force boiled down to "a reality of capacity, of power, of proximity, of
Half of the 13,000 current U.S. troops in Haiti are on the ground, with
the others offshore on hospital boats or handling deliveries and
Many Haitians said they are most grateful for the U.S. troops providing
security during food distributions, a life-and-death matter for most of
the 1.2 million made homeless by the quake. The U.S. said it has helped
deliver food to 160,000 people a day, but meals remain scarce and food
has been diverted or stolen because of inadequate protection.
Far smaller contingents of Canadian, French, Italian, South Korean and
Japanese troops are also in Haiti, and European Union engineering units
are expected in coming weeks to help build temporary shelters.
But the American contingent is the one that Haitians worry about losing
in their greatest time of need. Told that some U.S. troops are leaving,
29-year-old rooster trainer Watson Geranson grew worried.
"Haiti needs help, we had a catastrophe," he said as a U.S. Humvee
rumbled by a new shantytown of quake refugees, where signs were posted
pleading for food. "I don't see why they should go."