Within days of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. military had staged an impressive surge: By the end of January, around 20,000 troops were on the ground, or just offshore, like these sailors from the USS Bataan. More were on the way.
And it looked like they might be there to stay. “Haiti, for all intents and purposes, became the 51st state at 4:53 p.m. Tuesday in the wake of its deadly earthquake,” noted Time magazine. “The U.S. military effort alone will soon have 33,000 troops ashore or in direct support of the relief operations,” predicted the Weekly Standard. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said he was watching to see if there might be an impact on operations in Central Asia and the Middle East.
That didn’t happen. In a bloggers roundtable this week, Army Maj. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, the head of Joint Task Force Haiti, said that only 850 servicemembers were left on the ground in Haiti. And the military task force there, he added, will dissolve at the end of this month.
“We will actually stand down the Joint Task Force on the 1st of June,” he said. “That is when I will take the last elements of United States Army South home and send those sister services personnel back to their home stations.”
What will remain behind: A U.S. Southern Command coordination cell, about eight people in total. They’ll stay on in Port-au-Prince to coordinate with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the lead U.S. government agency for the reconstruction effort. They’ll also help set up an upcoming exercise called New Horizons. It’ll involve about 500 soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard and other units, rotating in and out until the end of September.
U.S. military contingency operations, at least in recent history, have tended to become open-ended commitments: Think here of the peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not so in Haiti. It’s not clear if this is by design, or by necessity. But it does seem to reflect a new reality. As Nancy Youssef notes in an excellent piece today for McClatchy, the U.S. military, faced with tightening budgets and a lingering economic crisis, seems to be quietly stepping away from large-scale commitments that require lots of money and manpower. Smarter and smaller seem to be the new watchwords.
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense