The Bush administration has no present plans to put U.S. combat troops on the ground in Liberia to assist West African forces in an international peacekeeping mission.
A senior defense official told VOA that the Bush administration does not intend to place American soldiers in harm's way in Liberia, carrying out patrols, manning roadblocks or performing other active peacekeeping duties.
Instead, the senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the U.S. military role will be restricted to supporting West African troops by facilitating communications, providing intelligence information and, above all, by assisting with transportation and supplies.
In addition, the official says because of the Liberia situation, the Pentagon is examining how to accelerate its training programs for West African troops to meet an anticipated long-term need for peacekeepers in the country.
The official spoke to VOA as the amphibious assault vessel USS Iwo Jima and its contingent of nearly 2,000 Marines entered the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea accompanied by another Navy ship, both en route to the waters off Liberia.
But it is the West African regional grouping ECOWAS that has promised troops for the actual peacekeeping operation in Liberia with Nigerian forces forming the vanguard.
Another top Pentagon official, Air Force Lieutenant General Norton Schwartz, says there are now five U.S. military assessment teams in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Sierra Leone. General Schwartz, director of operations on the Pentagon's Joint Staff, says the teams are evaluating the requirements forces in those countries might have to take up duties in Liberia.
The general says the assessments are ongoing.
The senior official who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity credits ECOWAS forces with having improved military skills, largely because of U.S. and other western training programs.
But the official calls logistics the major weakness or, as the official puts it, the "Achilles' Heel" of ECOWAS, in part because the defense budgets of its member countries have not facilitated development of an adequate supply and support network.
The official says that is the area where the United States is looking to provide assistance, though the official concedes plans for a strictly American support role in Liberia could be adjusted if developments change.
"Right now," the official says, "we are still very much committed to supporting ECOWAS and getting them in there and getting them to start the mission. We're also committed to getting U.N. forces in there because we see this as a long-term mission." The official predicts Liberia will not be a quick, in-and-out operation and says the best institution to conduct a long-term stabilization and reconstruction mission is the United Nations.
The official sums up by saying the U.S. goal is to support ECOWAS as an interim force that "simply puts a sort of a lid on the situation," allowing humanitarian groups to get back into Liberia and facilitating the flow of food, water, humanitarian aid. The official says the Bush administration views this as a "stop-gap measure" that should lead to an eventual U.N. peacekeeping mission."
The senior Pentagon official dismisses suggestions that the United States has any sort of special obligation to assist in Liberia, a country founded by former slaves. "It is more a perception than a reality that we have some moral responsibility for Liberia," says the official, noting that Liberians "like to feed on this perception."