PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - For hundreds of thousands of Haitians whose homes were pulverized in the Jan. 12 earthquake, the next three months may well shape the success - or failure - of long-term recovery.
Spring in Haiti will see the onset of the rainy season, the waning of interest by donors and the gradual departure of U.S. troops. Of these three inevitabilities, the last is most worrisome.
It's the robust and visible presence of Americans in uniform that allows relief agencies to deploy their limited resources efficiently in the logistical labyrinth of Port-Au-Prince. And with thousands of families still living in makeshift tents of bed sheets and blankets, dealing with the aftermath of the rains will require the skill, training and temperament of American men and women in boots and utes.
Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week that military planners are being "very deliberate" about their departure from Haiti. Already, the number of troops has dropped by roughly half from its post-quake peak of 20,000. But for Haiti to have an honest chance of rebuilding, U.S. troops will be needed for much longer. Leaving too quickly could doom Haiti.
Over two trips to Port-Au-Prince and the surrounding camps, I have seen first-hand the difference U.S. troops make in a country where the economy is crippled, the government ineffective and the people reeling. The soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are the threads that stitch together the patchwork of civilian and governmental relief efforts in Haiti. They are a reassuring presence to Haitians and relief workers alike. They magnify the effects of relief efforts by providing the framework that allows doctors to focus on medicine and engineers on rebuilding. They make good things happen by clearing roadblocks, both literally and figuratively.
And good things are happening. On my most recent visit last Friday, signs of life were returning to the streets of Port-Au-Prince. Street vendors crowded the sidewalks. Shops were open. Life in the camps, although still unhealthy and utterly unsustainable, was noticeably more organized and sanitary. Children flew kites and jumped rope.
But the situation remains precarious. Life is barely tolerable in the camps because relief supplies are still relatively abundant and the weather is still dry. But Saturday's earthquake in Chile shows how global attention - and, indeed, generosity - can shift quickly.
No one wants the United States to become a permanent presence in Haiti. It's unaffordable and unrealistic. The military is already stretched thin between Iraq and Afghanistan. The federal budget is swimming in red ink. And the U.S. military has a spotty record in Latin America and the Caribbean. Despite the good feelings toward soldiers now, planners worry that as the initial shock dissipates and frustration grows, Haitians will begin to resent foreign soldiers called in to keep peace. This may be particularly true as the initial influx of food and supplies tapers off.
As Americans coordinate their departure, the UN force overseen by the Brazil is ramping up. But my personal experience leaves me worried whether the UN is really ready for what it is going to confront in Haiti.
I was in Bosnia when the UN arrived with bureaucracy and protocols that rendered them ineffective in protecting innocent civilians from Serbian attacks. Thousands died needlessly. My brother was one of them. Thousands more were made refugees - myself included. I respect the UN and its work around the world, but the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers provide less reassurance than the unadorned cammies of American troops.
U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten assured me in a meeting last week that the Obama Administration is committed to ensuring long-term recovery in Haiti. Accomplishing that, though, is likely to require keeping service personnel on the ground longer than the Administration currently plans.
Haiti was one of the poorest, most dysfunctional nations long before the quake wiped out vast sections of its capital, killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than a million. Even for a developed nation, that would be devastating. For Haiti, it could prove fatal without an unprecedented amount of external aid.
That aid will dry up if Haiti becomes too difficult to work in. The consequences of a failed state will be felt far beyond Haiti. Right now, the U.S. military is the single most effective tool to prevent that. We should move slowly in considering any withdrawal so that the next three months lay the foundation for a new Haiti rather than send it deeper into despair.