Somalia has become synonymous with well-meaning but ill-fated humanitarian intervention. Live television footage of American soldiers being dragged in the streets by the very insurgents they hoped to defeat in the Black Hawk down incident disillusioned Americans from the concept of nation-building abroad. Many credit the U.S.’s embarrassment in Somalia to the international community’s failure to intervene during the genocide in Rwanda and in more recent humanitarian crises such as Syria. The situation in Somalia has undoubtedly created a legacy of hesitation in international intervention and heightened the role of the media’s “CNN effect” on U.S. foreign policy.
The crisis began after the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. Over half of the population were in severe danger of starvation and malnutrition-related disease; some 300,000 died outright in the early months of 1992 and another million fled the country as refugees. The UN Security Council responded by creating the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) to send in humanitarian supplies; however, most of that was stolen by local warlords, who often exchanged it with other countries for weapons. President George H.W. Bush then announced in August 1992 that U.S. military transports would support the relief effort. Attempts by the UN to broker reconciliation among warring factions collapsed in May 1993 when General Muhammad Aideed aggressively opposed the UN and started attacking its peacekeepers. On September 25, 1993, Aideed’s men shot down a Black Helicopter and killed three American troops near Mogadishu which had been dispatched to arrest Aideed.
George Ward held the position of principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs from 1992-1996. He outlines his own skepticism over the fate of the Somalia intervention. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in April 2001. Smith Hempstone, Jr. served as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya; he was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in May 1998. Ann Wright staffed the office of Admiral Jonathan Howe, the Chief of UNOSOM and discusses the phenomenon of “mission creep” and attempting to simultaneously disarm Somalian warlords and rebuild a collapsing nation. She was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in May 2003.
“It was an ill-conceived operation that became a watershed for U.S. policy on peacekeeping”
George Ward, Principal Deputy Secretary for International Organizations
WARD: There was a real watershed on U.S. attitudes towards peacekeeping that’s often forgotten. President [George H.W.] Bush gave a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 1992 in which he outlined a fairly ambitious approach to peacekeeping, making clear that the United States was willing under certain circumstances to contribute troops to peacekeeping operations, something that had not in the past been the case. He also tightly limited the circumstances in which we would participate. But the same address also contained proposals for increasing the efficiency of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. It was a step forward in peacekeeping that was later picked up by the Clinton administration.
Later, after that speech, the emergency in Somalia became front-page news. There had been a small United Nations peacekeeping operation of about 500 Pakistani soldiers in Somalia prior to the major intervention around November 1992, but those soldiers were basically stuck at the Mogadishu airport and couldn’t be effective in their role, which was to protect the food convoys. The food convoys weren’t getting through. The warlords were looting them.
This became a major story on television. Pictures of starving children and suffering motivated the U.S. and others to do something. So, we in November 1992 formed a coalition and sponsored a Security Council resolution that authorized the coalition to intervene under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, that is, with the right to use force. That coalition force landed in Somalia during the Bush administration.
I believe that the charge of mission creep is justified in the case of Somalia. We went there with a mission to deliver humanitarian supplies. That later, during the Clinton Administration, turned into a mission to effect a change in the political dynamics by hunting down the leader of one of the principal clans there, Mohammed Aideed. It seems to me that there was an incrementalism that could be thought of as mission creep, one mission sliding into another.
Now, the question of nation-building is more or less a canard. In any peacekeeping situation, what you are doing is trying to build a capable state. If you’re going to call that nation building, so be it. But, in fact, peacekeeping is about putting things back together, taking states that are failed or divided or in conflict and helping end the conflict and then putting a society back on its feet. Unfortunately because of Somalia, nation- building has become a very negative term. Even today, I find that when people want to say it in meetings, they’ll call it by another word or apologize for using the term. But in fact we are doing nation-building in Kosovo and in Bosnia. (Photo: Defense Visual Information Center)
Somalia ran off the tracks early in the Clinton Administration, when the operation came under UN control. In June 1993, Pakistani soldiers attempted to seize a radio station that was being used by [Somali General ] Aideed as a propaganda mechanism. They took some fairly serious casualties. That led to a couple of things. First, we reinforced the UN presence in Somalia. This included the insertion of both Ranger forces and the so-called Delta force. It also started a debate over whether there should be heavy armor in the UN force. It led to a de facto war against Aideed, which became the driving spirit of the UN operation.
The Somalia operation began to get more complicated and more violent. We started to take more casualties, and in October 1993 we lost 18 U.S. soldiers in a pitched battle on the streets of Mogadishu. It was an ill-conceived operation that became a watershed for U.S. policy on peacekeeping.
[The original US intervention] worked very well. It was limited in its scope. All we were doing was delivering food to a number of airfields in Somalia where the Red Cross was taking it over as our agent to distribute it. If there was trouble around an airfield, we didn’t go in there that day. We went someplace else. When we did go in, they kept the engine running. They could unload one of those big planes in 20 minutes and get out of there. So, we never lost a life. Material damage was insignificant, a couple holes in airplanes, that’s about all. Then there followed, and that’s when I got really deeply involved, the second phase, which was unilateral American armed intervention in Somalia – 20,000 [troops].
“If you liked Beirut, you’ll love Mogadishu”
Ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone
HEMPSTONE: I had envisaged [greater U.S. involvement] in the sense that it almost always happens that way when you start with food. Whatever you do start with, it tends to expand when the situation does not respond the way you hope it will and it almost never does. I was asked at that time what my view was of an armed unilateral American intervention in Somalia. I said in words that will be engraved on my tombstone, “If you liked Beirut, you’ll love Mogadishu.” That was the so-called “Tar Baby” cable.
That cable of mine was leaked, not by me (although there are people who say I leaked it, but they’re either uniformed or lying), to U.S. News and World Report and published in that magazine. That caused a furor here in Washington. Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defense (at left), got on TV; and Larry Eagleburger, who was Deputy Secretary of State, both spoke out. Cheney was particularly strident, I felt, in his attack on me, since I had been asked for my opinion.
I was so naive, I figured when people asked for my opinions, they really wanted them, that it was not just a cover-your-ass program, which I think it was in retrospect. He said two things that were untrue and make me sore to this day. He said that I had opposed humanitarian aid, which I hadn’t. He also said that I didn’t know anything about Somalia anyway.
Well, I never claimed to be a Somali expert, but I was filing a copy [reporting] out of Somalia in 1957 when Dick Cheney was still in short pants.
“The U.S. dragged the UN into Somalia kicking and screaming”
Mary “Ann” Wright, Staffer for Admiral Jonathan Howe, Chief of UN Somalia operation UNOSOM
WRIGHT: As I went into that office the first troops were going into Somalia in late December of ’92. They were finding that as they would move food through the country there would be Somalis that would say, “You’ve got to do more than just move food. You’ve got to help disarm the warlords.”
My particular role on that team was to convince the UN they should continue the help the U.S. was giving to reconstitution of the former Somali police force. U.S. troops had already found a lot of Somali police coming back onto the streets in Mogadishu saying to the soldiers, “We will help on the streets to help direct traffic; we’ll help keep order in the neighborhoods. If you’ll just keep the warlords off our backs then we’ll help with just ordinary law and order.” That was exactly where our troops needed some help.
So our U.S. military had sent back word that they needed funding to buy some uniforms for these police guys, to pay them somehow. But when we wanted to turn the program over to the UN, we wanted to make sure the UN would continue this critical program. I went to the UN with the statistics on how many people we needed and what we were “paying” at the time. I got to go to Somalia to look at the police program and took with me members of the FBI’s International Criminal Investigative and Training Assistance (ICITAP) program to evaluate what else the U.S. should be doing with the police.
The UN professional staff was very wary of the U.S. dragging the UN into Somalia. The U.S. dragged the UN into Somalia with the UN kicking and screaming. I guess that was the first time we dragged them in and I predict we continue to drag them kicking and screaming in Iraq.
In the beginning, the UN staff said it was the U.S. unilateral decision to go in and help on the humanitarian side and that the U.S. constructed a coalition of fifteen countries to do this operation and you got yourself into all of this and you should continue it – and not the United Nations. Then the U.S. pushed hard and ultimately the Security Council authorized that the United Nations would go ahead and take over the operation.
But it was a very difficult one for the UN to take over because at that point the Department of Peacekeeping Operations was truly peacekeeping; it was not peacemaking. This was the first Article 7, or peacemaking operation, that had been authorized by the Security Council. The forces that went in under UN auspices would go in with the authorization to use force to maintain control. They wouldn’t be peace observers and just be able to shoot if shot upon, but they could go out and disarm people.
At that point the Department of Peacekeeping Operations was very, very small. In fact they had no operations center; they had no military staff, they had a very, very tiny, little office in New York. After the Somalia experience…our U.S. military went up to New York, along with military representatives from other countries, to help them set up a twenty-four hour operations center. At the time the UN had no ability to go out and search for countries to fill such a huge role. The U.S. and its coalition members had over 30,000 military that went into Somalia. The UN had never mounted any military operation with any number close to that before. So we, the U.S., particularly the Office of International Security Operations, asked many countries to contribute troops to this coalition, a process that has been used endless times in the last ten years.
When I first got there the security environment was pretty good. The warlords had accepted the fact that there was a huge U.S. and coalition presence. They were not challenging in any way the U.S. military. They were allowing the military to escort the food convoys that were going out all over the country to feed the starving. We from the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs were urging the Department of Defense to disarm the warlords right then. We figured that was the time to disarm the bad guys when we had so many U.S. military in Somalia and the warlords had backed off. But the decision was made by our government that that U.S. forces would not disarm the warlords. We would leave it to the UN to later disarm them.
As we found out, leaving and disarming the warlords to the poorly equipped UN forces didn’t work at all. The moral of that lesson, to me, is that if you’re going to go into situations with warlords, you need to be ready to go ahead and immediately disarm the warlords who are causing the conflict. You cannot dilly-dally around because it won’t get done if it’s not done in the very early days when you have the warlords stunned by your overwhelming presence.
Yes, the police program was the first element of [mission] creep and it crept on us because we needed it. We needed Somali police to relieve our own military of some of the duties that they felt were not theirs, like normal traffic policing. As that program started then the idea of if you’ve got police on the streets and they’re picking up people and could be charged with crimes of burglary or murder or whatever – then you’ve got to have a court system to try them.
Then if you’ve got the court system that tried them, you’ve got to reestablish prisons to put the convicted in. All of a sudden we moved very quickly into reestablishing many types of civil administration institutions. At the same time you had Somalis that were saying, “We haven’t been able to have our schools in operation for a while,” and “We’ve got health clinics that should be patched up so we can use them.” As you would start trying to help these sectors then essentially what you’ve done is created the need for the international community to help monitor or coordinate or organize these systems with the local Somalis.
It goes very quickly from just securing lines of supply to assisting in lots of other areas that have to really be helped. It seems to me that there will never be a military operation that will be neat and clean and without the need for some element of civil reconstruction, unless it’s a strike operation on a nuclear plant and you do it by air. Once you put military troops on the ground, you have created a situation that you’re going to have to do some level of nation rebuilding.
It wasn’t just the UN that was realizing there were too few military to keep adequate security [after the U.S. withdrew]. The warlords had their people at the seaport and airport. They were watching and counting who was coming and going and they saw, particularly General Aideed, very quickly that the numbers of U.S. troops on the ground were fewer and fewer while there were only a small number of UN replacements coming in.
That gave Aideed confidence that he could attack the UN forces. He picked the Pakistanis to ambush because they had been ordered to seize a radio station that Aided had been using to put out all sorts of nasty little propaganda against U.S. and UN forces. Aideed militia attacked them and killed forty-seven of them. With that attack it was war between the UN and General Aideed.
Neither UN nor unilateral U.S. missions to kill or capture Aideed were successful. By the middle of 1994, eighteen months after the U.S. intervention, Aideed had beaten back the U.S. unilateral Delta Force and Ranger operation chronicled in the “Black Hawk Down” movie and had beaten back the commitment of the international community.
[In the Black Hawk Down incident] the U.S. two-star deputy UN military commander was not informed by the U.S. military that they were going to be bringing in special operations troops, Delta troops and Rangers, to mount unilateral U.S. operations against Aideed. In September, the U.S. unilateral mission resulted in two helicopters getting got shot down and pilots killed and dragged through the streets and another taken hostage. The force that went in to rescue the downed helicopter pilots then came under fire with seventeen Rangers killed in the rescue mission.
No one knows the numbers of Somalis killed. By that time I had left Somalia and had come back to Washington to start Russian language training for my onward assignment to Kyrgyzstan. In September, I was sitting in language class when the head of the Russian language training came into our small classroom and said, “Which one of you all is Ann Wright?” and I thought, Uh, oh. This is not really a question that I want to answer. But I said “I am.” And the chief said, “Have you been watching the news?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, there are big problems in Somalia and we’ve just gotten a phone call from Dick Clarke over at the National Security Council. He wants you to come over there right now.” And I thought, Oh, god. Here we go.
It turned out to be the downing of two U.S. helicopters in Mogadishu — the Black Hawk Down incident. So, after the Black Hawk Down incident, the NSC [National Security Council] wanted to talk about the U.S. exit strategy from Somalia. The White House had decided that fully funding the police and judicial programs would be a key part of the U.S. exit strategy. The U.S. would fund these programs, get our troops out of Somalia, and turn the whole damn thing over to the UN because we had lost troops. We would wash our hands of Somalia.
Black Hawk Down was a military and political embarrassment to the United States. Two helicopters were shot down by Aideed’s militia. The warlords were beating our most experienced and talented special operations troops. So the U.S. would back out of this mess and the way we would get out would be to very publicly say that the U.S. is proud to really start pushing the police program as the key to the success of Somalia.
We created a police training academy, we had a judicial program, and cleaned up the prisons a little bit. All of this was in place by March of the next year. I only stayed in Somalia from October until December. By that time we had enough expertise in the country that I could turn my role over to others. Unfortunately trouble continued between the warlords and UN forces.
In April  the international community through the Security Council decided to end its involvement in Somalia. So just as we were getting all those programs going, the international door slammed shut on Somalia.