Fallout from Somalia still haunts US policy 20 years later

A group of young Somalis chant anti American slogans while sitting atop the burned out hulk of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia on Oct. 19, 1993. The helicopter was one of two shot down during a firefight with Somali guerrillas in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed along with one Malaysian peacekeeper and 300 Somalis.


By PAUL ALEXANDER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 3, 2013

Editor’s note: Stars and Stripes Pacific News Editor Paul Alexander was the first Associated Press reporter into Somalia after “Black Hawk Down.” On the 20th anniversary of that infamous battle, he looks at the lessons learned — and forgotten.

U.S. and U.N. officials had high hopes for the cauldron of famine, venom and easy death that Somalia had become by late 1992.

First, a U.S.-led multinational military coalition went in to provide security and ensure food relief was getting to the starving. Early success in that United Nations humanitarian mission created a chance to take peacekeeping to a new level, to peacemaking and nation-building. A matrix could be crafted for future operations in other global hot spots.

There were early warnings of impending disaster. Smith Hempstone, the U.S. ambassador to neighboring Kenya at the time, noted in a diplomatic cable that was later leaked to the press that he had heard estimates he did not think unreasonable that it would “take 5 years to get Somalia not on its feet but just on its knees.’’

“I do not think Somalia is amenable to the quick fix so beloved of Americans,’’ he wrote. And he warned of violence to come against U.S. troops.

“If you liked Beirut, you’ll love Mogadishu,’’ Hempstone warned in the cable that ended with this advice: “Leave them alone, in short, to work out their own destiny, brutal as it may be. … Think once, twice and three times before you embrace the Somali tarbaby.’’

In the optimism surrounding the success of the humanitarian mission, the warnings from Hempstone and others fell on deaf ears. Peacekeeping became peacemaking and nation-building in a transformation that became known as “mission creep.” What followed was a few months of peace in the Somali civil war, enforced by U.S. firepower.

“In those five months, it worked pretty well,’’ said John L. Hirsch, an adviser to then-U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Robert Oakley and the U.S. commander of the mission, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston. In the grim memories of what happened, Hirsch, now a senior adviser at the International Peace Institute in New York, said people forget the early successes of Operation Restore Hope to feed the hungry and break the famine.


Conflicts and U.S. intervention since Somalia

After those first few peaceful months, Somalia again plummeted into the abyss. The first blow to the new direction of the mission came in a coordinated June ambush that killed 24 of the Pakistani troops who took over security on the streets of Mogadishu when most American forces pulled out.

Then came the firefight of Oct. 3-4, 1993 — what would be immortalized in the film and book “Black Hawk Down” — when 18 American soldiers were killed as a mission to capture or kill warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid went terribly wrong.

The blueprint for saving the world’s weakest links was shredded. Americans, including the military community, recoiled from the sight of slain U.S. troops being mutilated and dragged through the streets of the Somali capital.

American policy changed virtually overnight.

Gone was the political support and will for the mission — and for any similar humanitarian mission with risks. Then-President Bill Clinton ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, which was completed the following March. Other Western troops followed, leaving Malaysians in charge of the mission.

The genocide in Rwanda began less than two weeks after the last Western troops withdrew from Somalia. There was no political will to intervene, even though it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives from slaughter. The U.N. Security Council, with the support of the U.S., voted not to intervene and to actually withdraw some of the U.N. peacekeepers in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

“In my mind there’s an immediate connection with Rwanda,’’ said Hirsh. “Even though it was never stated, the Clinton administration, having been heavily criticized by Sen. (Robert) Dole and others for the deaths of those 18 Americans … essentially decided not to put U.S. troops in Africa after that.’’

Making headlines

Somalia forced its way into the headlines in 1992 as about 300,000 people died from fighting and famine. Images of starving children mobilized a massive food aid effort, with the U.S. leading an international coalition in December to provide security to get it to the needy.

Clan fighters armed with AK-47s tried to take on the Marines and the other U.S. forces. But they were no match for the Americans’ better weapons. If there’s one thing that Somalis respected, it was force; they mostly backed off and the food started getting out.

Diplomats followed as conditions improved. They banked on a strategy to deal with the warlords called “plucking the chicken.” The theory was to slowly erode the warlords’ clout — one feather at a time so they didn’t really notice — until they could no longer “fly.” The troops, their immediate mission to end starvation successful, found themselves repurposed to support the political nation-building imperative.

It seemed to be working. The local markets, including a notorious, sprawling warren of stalls known as Bakara, thrived. Tribal elders held meetings to work out their differences peacefully. Police stations and courts reopened. Traffic on the streets returned to its normal chaos.

It turns out, the warlords were just biding their time until the main American contingent left and were replaced by Pakistanis, who had been part of an earlier U.N. peacekeeping force that the Somalis perceived as weak. Promised armored vehicles were slow to arrive.

Aidid’s forces struck with simultaneous ambushes on June 4, one on a feeding center where the Pakistanis were providing security, the other on a street that roadblocks and rooftop snipers turned into a killing box for troops in open pickup trucks where the only support was a 7.62 mm machine gun mounted in the back.

The multinational coalition struck back quickly, led by U.S. airpower. Choppers buzzed across the sky by day, their machine guns rattling against Aidid’s forces, and heavily armed AC-130 gunships pounded them at night.

Gone within days was the sense that Somalia was headed in the right direction.

Little had changed by Oct. 3, when the mission to finally take out Aidid was launched. The U.S. troop presence was much smaller, mostly a quick-reaction force. The armor was gone.

Suddenly, a rocket-propelled grenade took out one Black Hawk helicopter, and the assault turned into a complicated, extremely dangerous rescue mission through the Bakara market.

American soldiers died as the day turned to night, then back to day. An estimated 1,000 Somalis also were killed, and no one knows what the count might have been if the U.S. troops hadn’t run low on ammunition. Two Medals of Honor were awarded for the battle.

U.S. forces returned in strength to Somalia — even Abrams tanks — but they weren’t looking for much of a fight, largely confined to bases to avoid casualties.

Then they were gone, and Somalia went on in its peculiarly dysfunctional way.

Lessons learned

The lessons about mission creep — how people can bite the hands feeding them and the difficulties of imposing foreign values and systems on such an unruly and dangerous society — clearly had an immediate impact.

“The punch in the nose that we got — the loss of 18 soldiers in Somalia — basically set us back on our heels as a country,’’ said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who served in Somalia and on later humanitarian missions. He is now an analyst with the National Security Network think tank in Washington. “It contributed to a reluctance to engage for purely humanitarian reasons when there was a reasonable risk of combat.”

When Rwanda’s genocide began days after the last U.S. troops left Somalia, the U.S. and U.N., stung by the recent failures and unwilling to undertake such a massive operation again so soon, hesitated to intervene in tribe-on-tribe slaughter. It wasn’t until the worst was essentially over, with 750,000 to 1 million dead, that anything beyond a token foreign military presence was authorized.

America continued to hesitate as Bosnia’s civil war raged on, serving only in a support capacity to a U.N. peacekeeping force that seemed powerless to end ethnic cleansing in the middle of Eastern Europe. Some American peacekeepers took part in the U.N. contingent after the Dayton peace agreement was signed, but they were in Tuzla, away from the hotter spots. Washington finally took a more leading role in the area over ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but it wasn’t with ground troops; air power was used to pound Serbia into submission.

When the United States did commit ground troops to Bosnia and Serbia in the aftermath of the wars in both former Yugoslav states, leaders heeded the lessons of Somalia, where the morphing of the mission from purely humanitarian to more political in nature created a bad situation, Eaton said.

“We learned: You go in very heavy, don’t take sides, stick to your humanitarian mission, and don’t play politics,” he said.

Those same lessons may have created a hesitance to act on opportunities to stamp out other brushfires in other hot spots, and potentially save lives or head off larger conflicts. One of those was in Afghanistan, where the Taliban was imposing its severe form of Islam and letting extremists like Osama bin Laden set up terrorist training camps. Another was in the Darfur region of Sudan where the U.S. condemned the genocide but did not intervene.

Joe Davis, now chief spokesman for Veterans of Foreign War, served with the Air Force in both Somalia and Rwanda. He said staying neutral in conflicts is a challenge — and a risk that America became unwilling to take.

“I can see our military’s reluctance to insert itself into the middle of a civil war. It forces you to take a side, and then the nation-building mission creep sets in,” Davis said.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, and everything changed again.

This was an attack on America itself. There were no questions about national interests, and the public was galvanized in going after those responsible for the death and devastation.

The first target was Afghanistan, where the Taliban was routed quickly. A new government headed by Hamid Kharzai was installed by Christmas.

Then came Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Another military rout followed.

But those military victories each turned into a morass not unlike Somalia, with mission creep again leading to troops being repurposed into support for political and social goals. U.S. support waned, just as it had in Somalia and Vietnam before that, as coffin after coffin was shipped back to the States.

Governments have been installed and the immediate crises were eased but the peace continues to be tenuous. Local resentment grows with civilian casualties. There is a sense that security is crumbling, that the gains won with blood could be lost.

The protracted deployments have once again made Washington, weary of war, hesitant to send troops to Syria or anywhere else. Once again, air power seems to be the only option on the table as the military regroups and shrinks amid budget cuts.

Different strategies have been employed in the Philippines and Indonesia, sites of a number of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s, to keep them from becoming terrorist havens. Instead of leading the ground battle, the U.S. military has played a quieter role, providing counterterrorism training, logistical support and hardware to enable local forces to take the lead.

And Somalia?

Twenty years later, little has changed. Attempts to build a central government inevitably collapse into fresh clan fighting, and Somali pirates have terrorized commercial ships. And concerns circulate that al-Qaida or other extremist groups may be using the lawless country to regroup and plot attacks.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report. alexander.paul@stripes.com

Marine Lance Cpl. Orlando Wilkins, right, of Detroit, searches through his Somali phrase book to speak to a young refugee boy as PFC David Wilson of Phoenix, Ariz, looks on at the Lafoole refugee center near Mogadishu, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 1993. Three weeks into the mission, some African-Americans hear the echoes of their origins and feel a strong bond.