Top Pentagon officials said Friday that the U.S. military responded to the Haiti earthquake as quickly as it could and promised that as many as 10,000 American troops would be in-country and off-shore by the weekend.
WASHINGTON - Top Pentagon officials said yesterday that the U.S. military responded to the Haiti earthquake as quickly as it could and promised that as many as 10,000 American troops would be in-country and off-shore by the weekend.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he anticipated that U.S. ground forces, including soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the Marine Corps, would take a key role in helping distribute relief supplies.
U.N. forces, led by Brazil, will take the lead in security.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military would help with that effort but focus on humanitarian assistance.
"Getting the relief help out there is what we are focused on right now," Admiral Mullen said. "The initial intent is to strategically place some of our soldiers so they can help with the relief distribution."
The U.S. deployment includes 4,000 to 5,000 sailors on ships at sea, plus 3,000 soldiers and 2,000 Marines on the ground.
Admiral Mullen said Coast Guard helicopters and cutters had begun evacuations within 24 hours of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.
Mr. Gates said the pace of the U.S. response has been hindered by the collapse of infrastructure, problems at the airport, and the time it takes ships to travel.
"I don't know how this government could have responded faster or more comprehensively than it has," Mr. Gates said.
Admiral Mullen said the military ruled out air drops of troops or supplies.
Mr. Gates said such an action could have led to riots.
"That seems to me is a formula for contributing to chaos rather than preventing it," Mr. Gates said.
While there has been some scavenging for food and water, Mr. Gates said the security situation remained good.
But he emphasized that the military was focused on speeding up supply distribution to maintain that order.
"The key is to get the food and the water in there as quickly as possible so that people don't in their desperation turn to violence or lead to the security situation deteriorating," Mr. Gates said.
The size of the U.S. force could be increased if commanders on the ground determine that more troops are necessary.
Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen dismissed suggestions that the forces flowing into the country could be seen as occupiers.
"Given the role we will have in delivering food, water, and medical help to people, my guess is the reaction will be one of relief of seeing Americans providing this kind of help," Mr. Gates said.
U.S. forces sent to Haiti are operating under what two military officials said is an adaptation of standard military rules of engagement that allows for self-defense, even though the Pentagon does not expect a need for it.
The Pentagon is planning for both a short-term relief mission and the possibility of a longer-term role supporting 9,000 U.N. security forces but not supplanting them, officials said.
The United States has the flexibility to assume a much larger security role, but the Obama Administration so far is downplaying the chance of one.
Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he saw no reason the United States would have to take over security, or that such an expansion would mean a long-term commitment of forces.