'Conditions for Transition' Met in Thailand, Sri Lanka
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
UTAPAO, Thailand, Jan. 15, 2005 The "conditions for transition" have been met in both Thailand and Sri Lanka, the U.S. general in charge of coordinating relief efforts throughout South Asia said here today.
In Indonesia, U.S. and other international military and aid organizations are still working to deliver critical supplies to people in affected areas, explained Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, commander of Combined Support Force 536.
Blackman delivered this assessment to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Navy Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, while the two were in Utapao today as part of a three-day trip through the tsunami-stricken region.
Blackman explained that the relief mission is "beyond the stop-the-bleeding phase" and is progressing to the point when U.S. military assistance no longer will be needed.
The conditions for transition from U.S. military to host-nation military control of operations in these countries have been met, he said. Blackman estimated that "within the next week or two" the U.S. military presence in these countries will evolve into a more-normal theater-security support posture.
The general credited the long-standing Cobra Gold series of combined U.S.-Thai exercises with allowing U.S. forces to "come in here to Utapao at a tremendous comfort level."
The Thai military's engineering efforts in beginning the reconstruction phase have been "very effective," Blackman said. He added that the Thai military's engineers will continue to receive support from a U.S. forward engineering- support team under the auspices of the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group, which has been operating in Thailand to foster cooperation for several years.
"Encouraging" is how Blackman described recovery and budding reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka. He said the Sri Lankan government is "meeting or exceeding the minimum needs of internally displaced persons."
Sri Lanka is now requesting U.S. logistical support that goes beyond providing the basics -- food, water, shelter, and medical care -- in some areas of the country.
Indonesia is "clearly the most challenging" of the three countries Blackman focused on and that Wolfowitz is visiting this weekend. Blackman said the devastation there is "mind-boggling" after 60-foot waves hit some parts of the country.
"You can't minimize 130,000 deaths on the island of Sumatra," Blackman said.
In trying to describe the devastation on Sumatra, Blackman suggested Wolfowitz "picture a blender" and what it would look like if someone were to put a city in one.
In Banda Aceh, a provincial capital on the northern edge of Sumatra, the first third of the city was "literally swept away," he said. Then another third has serious damage with high-water marks sometimes reaching up to the second and third stories on buildings. "It's sobering," he said.
Blackman said the situation in Banda Aceh gets better every day, but "we're still seeing too much swarming of helicopters."
He showed Wolfowitz a photo of a group of men swarming a helicopter trying to deliver aid supplies. Blackman said this is of particular concern because able- bodied men can get the supplies, but widows and orphans often are left out.
Even though the unique capabilities the U.S. military brings to the table won't be needed for much longer, these efforts are setting the stage for longer-term reconstruction. The international relief agencies "are really stepping up," Blackman said.
But, he added, such efforts can get convoluted and be less effective in the "fog of relief." He said this phenomenon was similar to the fog of war, and this is why it's vital to have strong communication among all parties.
A broad-ranging assessment throughout with region will allow Indonesia in particular to know what its obligations will be when U.S. troops leave. Indonesia has asked that all foreign militaries be out of the country by March 29, three months after the disaster struck.
Such an assessment will leave the Indonesian government in better stead as they prepare to meet the needs of their own people, Blackman said.
The general said he's not surprised by Indonesia's stance regarding foreign military troops. "I see it as positive," he said. "They are saying, 'We are going to do this work by ourselves.'"
Wolfowitz said it's not important that Indonesia has set an arbitrary date for the withdrawal of foreign forces. "I don't think that's really the point," he said. "The point is we're working together to stop suffering and to get host- nation countries in the lead."