US Forces Prepare to Finish Aid Work
16 January 2005
Three weeks after the tsunami devastated shorelines across much of South Asia, the American military is preparing to wind up its relief operations in the region, military officials said Saturday. The intention is to hand off the next phase of assistance to other American and foreign government agencies, and to international aid organizations.
In Thailand and Sri Lanka, where those governments and relief groups are now providing food, water and other basic needs to tens of thousands of people uprooted by the calamity, direct American military aid will probably last two more weeks, said Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr., who leads the American relief operations hub at the Utapao air base in Thailand. Military engineers in Sri Lanka are still clearing debris and knocking down buildings that are damaged and hazardous.
Here in Indonesia - the hardest-hit nation, where more than 113,000 people died - the situation is more complicated and will take more time. American military officials declined Saturday to set a schedule for withdrawing most American forces other than to say it would be done long before the March 26 deadline that Indonesia set this week for foreign militaries to leave.
After surveying the wave-pummeled coastline from a Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopter, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz expressed shock on Saturday at the extent of the damage and said the quick response of the American military probably saved thousands of lives. But he also said the United States would transfer relief authority when Indonesia was ready.
"We don't have a plan other than to work as quickly as we can to hand over responsibility to others, and especially to the Indonesian government," he said. "Our goal is to put ourselves out of business as soon as possible."
The Pentagon is performing a delicate balancing act in one of its largest relief efforts in 50 years. Mr. Wolfowitz said the United States was acutely aware of Indonesia's sensitivity to foreign troops operating in its territory, and does not want to overstay its welcome.
But some top American officials privately express concern that the military may leave before the Indonesian government and aid groups develop a long-term plan to sustain the recovery efforts, and in particular to supplant those efforts being shouldered by a fleet of helicopters from Navy ships offshore that are the only means to reach many remote provincial villages.
Adm. Thomas Fargo, the head the Pacific Command who joined Mr. Wolfowitz, said he was stunned to see that giant waves had simply wiped out quarter-mile stretches of roadway. Rebuilding could take years, he said, though alternatives like pontoon piers could be installed to allow boats to supply the isolated hamlets.
The military will continue to play some role in the region's recovery and reconstruction, but American officials say those longer-term tasks are better suited to civilian American agencies and aid groups. That is why officials from the State Department and the Agency for International Development in Washington, as well as the American ambassador to Indonesia, B. Lynn Pascoe, were traveling with Mr. Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia.
The Pentagon is also worried about the toll of large-scale relief operations beyond 60 days on an American military already stretched thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need to be ready for contingencies on the Korean peninsula. The United States now has more than 16,000 troops - mostly aboard 25 Navy and Coast Guard ships in the region - as well as 42 cargo and surveillance planes, and 57 helicopters, supporting tsunami relief operations.
Mr. Wolfowitz hopscotched across the stricken region on a 17-hour visit to inspect relief work, and determine how to make a smooth transition to the next phase. He met with Thai officials in Bangkok, expressing condolences and thanks for allowing Utapao to be opened quickly as a regional emergency relief headquarters. He visited General Blackman and his staff drawn from eight countries, before flying here on a C-17 aircraft loaded with aid supplies. He then was taken by helicopter back to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.
There, he praised the crew as "angels of mercy" for cutting short a port call in Hong Kong and steaming to the Sumatra coast within a week. Since arriving here on Jan. 1, helicopters have delivered more than 1,100 tons of food, water, medicines and other supplies.
"It's all so overwhelming, we almost didn't know where to begin, the need was so great," said Lt. Ken Velez, 31, an EA-6B radar-jamming plane navigator who helped coordinate aid deliveries with Indonesian authorities.
Pilots reported that jubilant crowds had swarmed onto helicopters that landed with supplies, raising concerns about "women, children, those who are injured and widows, who are at the back of the line," General Blackman said.
To better understand and document the needs of these villagers cut off by washed out roads, the World Health Organization is using the Lincoln as a base from which to send experts into remote coastal areas over the next week to assess public health and infrastructure shortfalls. "We still have trouble understanding the exact impact," said Rob Holden, one of the health organization's planners.