The capital Monrovia remains devastated after two months of fighting between rebel and government forces. About two thousand people have been killed and hundreds of thousands remain stranded without clean water, food or proper sanitation.
More than 2,000 U.S. Marines are positioned just off the Liberian coast, ready for possible deployment.
Stephen Morrison, Director of the African Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says President Taylor is now paying for trouble he started years ago. “Since 1997, the governance of Liberia has been a disaster. The government of Charles Taylor has stoked further armed insurrections in neighboring states in Sierra Leone, in Guinea, and most recently in Ivory Coast. That's helped inspire a lot of tit-for-tat proxy warfare. And that's now coming back to haunt him. He now faces two armed insurgencies, and those insurgencies are right at his door.”
During the past two decades, warlords have battled for control of Liberia. In 1990, President Samuel Doe was murdered. And after seven years of civil war, Charles Taylor was elected president. He first gained notoriety as a leader in the Revolutionary United Front or RUF. In 1991, he sent a small force of rebels to invade neighboring Sierra Leone to seize its diamond fields where they reportedly murdered hundreds-of-thousands of people.
In 1997, President Taylor ordered Liberian troops to invade next door Guinea. They seized more than half the country. But with military aid from the United States, Guinea pushed Mr. Taylor's forces back into Liberia.
Despite Liberia's international aggression, analyst Stephen Morrison points out that Charles Taylor has enjoyed international support. “Charles Taylor has derived a significant share of support over the years from Libya's Gaddafi, and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso. Taiwan has been a big backer of Charles Taylor. He's had extensive clandestine ties with Serbian and Montenegrin arms vendors as well as Ukrainian arms vendors. He has had lots of involvement in illicit diamond trafficking and money laundering networks within the region, which tend to be Lebanese. And it appears from some of the U.N. Security Council investigations that with the imposition of the sanctions Taylor turned increasingly to Serbian and Montenegrin suppliers for his weapons.”
Two years after Charles Taylor was elected president, the group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, began an uprising to remove him from power. And today, backed by the Guinean government, LURD and another insurgent group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia or MODEL, have taken over much of the country. But the Taylor government has called the rebel uprising unconstitutional.
Liberian Senator, Thomas Woewiyu recently visited Washington to discuss the war with U.S. lawmakers. He told VOA that he's concerned about the rebel's political agenda. “What is disturbing right now at this very moment is the group called LURD. They are based in Guinea and they have support from the Guinean government. Their intention is to take the country [Liberia] and convert it to an Islamic country.”
But many analysts caution that there is little evidence linking the Liberian insurgency to an Islamic front. Guinea does have a large Muslim population, but many observers, such as Robert Lloyd, Chairman of the Center for International Studies and Languages at Pepperdine University, doubt that religion is a major factor in the fighting. “Troops coming in from Guinea will probably be Muslim. So they're insurgents who happen to be Muslim, but they're not necessarily Muslim insurgents. And that's an important distinction.”
Analyst Stephen Morrison agrees with Professor Lloyd. He adds that Liberian Senator Woewiyu may be exaggerating the threat in order to gain U.S. support. “Mr. Talyor's government is trying to play whatever cards they have left. So labeling the LURD as somehow a radical Islamic uprising is a bit of a stretch. Yes, there is a sizable Muslim population within Liberia and within Guinea. But I think that's largely beside the point. This is essentially an ethnic and regional war. It's not a religious war.”
Here in the United States, politicians and political analysts are divided over how best to help Liberia. Skeptics fear that U.S. intervention will only send the wrong message.
Ted Carpenter, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute here in Washington, sees two possible outcomes if the U.S. military gets involved. “Both possible reactions are bad. One is that this may be seen as yet another manifestation of U.S. imperialism for populations already suspicious of American motives. And for those who want the United States to solve all problems everywhere, we will have set a very bad precedent."
While their concerns are being deliberated in Congress, most analysts say the general consensus abroad seems to be in favor of American involvement. But here in Washington, many observers fear that sending troops into Liberia might resemble the 1993 peacekeeping mission to Somalia in which 18 U.S. troops died.
Yet Pepperdine University's Robert Lloyd believes that helping Liberia is a moral imperative. “Lurking in the background is Somalia, and the whole operation turned out badly for the United States with American soldiers being killed. But on the other hand, in areas where there's a humanitarian catastrophe occurring, we don't want our hands tied so tightly on national security, that we can't intervene for humanitarian interests."
American involvement in Liberia began nearly 200 years ago when the United States helped establish the republic and thousands of freed African-American slaves made the country their home. Today, as Washington considers its role, disputes among Liberia's many political parties and insurgent groups leave many analysts wondering whether renewed U.S. involvement in Liberia can bring peace and stability.