Picking Up the Pieces After Black Hawk Down
The State Department dispatched Richard Bogosian to Somalia to repair political and diplomatic damage following an attempt to rescue crews of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters. The military aircraft were shot down during a fight between forces loyal to Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and U.S. Army Rangers October 3-4, 1993. The operation to secure the crew turned into the Battle in Mogadishu, resulting in serious American losses: 18 deaths, 73 wounded and one captured. It marked the first time in American broadcasting history that networks showed footage of battered corpses of U.S. soldiers on television, an event portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down.
The political crisis raged on despite the best efforts of the United Nations, but the United States continued to respond to the humanitarian needs of the Somali people, providing a significant source of bilateral aid.
In an interview conducted by Vladimir Lehovich in April 1998, Bogosian recalls his work to oversee the peaceful exit of U.S. troops, rebuild confidence in the United Nations and implement a lasting democratic solution to the on-going civil war in Somalia.
“There were men with machine guns pointing in each direction protecting me”
Now this was a very brief but extremely intense assignment, and it was unlike anything I’d ever done…. We landed at the airport, which is on the beach, and all of a sudden I realized I was in a highly military environment, not just our troops – we had 20,000 in Somalia – but all kinds of other troops.
There were men with machine guns pointing in each direction protecting me. I immediately had a helmet and a flak jacket put on me, and the next thing I knew I was in a helicopter and we were going to the compound.
So when I got there, it was the largest deployment of U.S. troops in the world at that time. Among the people there was General [Thomas M.] Montgomery, who was the deputy commander of UNOSOM [United Nations forces in Somalia] and the head of U.S. forces, which for legal reasons was not part of it [Joint Task Force] because they had to be under U.S. command. The actual commander was a Turkish person.
The other key person, who was the senior UN person there, was Admiral Jonathan Howe. Now Jonathan Howe is an American, and he was at one time the head of the Political-Military Bureau, but in Mogadishu he was the senior UN man. So there was no question that the Americans were kind of running the place.
This was, again, like I say, unlike anything I’ve ever done. Now since then, of course, we’ve had the different operations in Haiti and Bosnia and so forth, and maybe there’s more institutional understanding of how this is done, but back then this was a rather unusual arrangement. ..
In the field, what you have is a situation where an ambassador does not have authority over troops that are under the command of a theater command. So certainly Montgomery didn’t answer to me, but as a practical matter, I looked to him for advice on the military situation, and he looked to me for advice on the diplomatic situation, and we worked very closely together. I found him to be one of the finest people I ever came across.
Now the interesting thing is Montgomery was supervising other generals who didn’t have as complete an understanding of the political realities as Montgomery did. Now I may have mentioned previously that in a place like Niamey, it wasn’t me against the AID [Agency for International Development] director; it was the AID director and I against AID Washington. So, often it was Montgomery and I who understood a situation, whereas his generals didn’t; and Montgomery had to kind of sit on them, and occasionally they wanted to end-run him and talk to me.
And to give you a specific example, we had some really heavy equipment there. We had Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, and these things can blow you to kingdom come, and there was one general there, whose name I forget, who said, “All right, you got a problem with Aidid blocking this road? We’ll open it up for you.”
And Montgomery said, “Wait a minute,” and he referred to collateral damage, because essentially they were talking about the equivalent of a city, not a street so much as an avenue. But, you know, in my continuing education, I had never been exposed to this before.
“…for the first time in my life I was asked to issue an order to kill…”
We actually sat down and you had to do military planning. The embassy compound was separated from Aidid’s neighborhood by a field. And we had what are called “fast Marines,” 40 of them, who were under my command, there to protect us, and Aideed’s people could shoot at us.
And there was one incident while I was there where they came to me, and I forget the specifics, but for the first time in my life I was asked to issue an order to kill. And I said, in so many words, “If the situation is as you describe it, and you need to, go ahead, shoot to kill.” And for our garden-variety Foreign Service Officer who’s never been in the military, that’s a rather sobering responsibility.
What I would say is when I got there in those early days of November and December, there were three or four things going on….
When I got there, at the beginning, this was the largest military operation in the world. It was the largest UN program in the world. We were continuing a major relief program. That still was going on. At the time, we had the only U.S. police assistance program, outside of Latin America. Mind you, we were beginning to try to facilitate national reconciliation. I’ll talk a little bit more about that later.
But almost from the day I got there, we were also withdrawing U.S. troops, and the idea was not to have any accidents, any sniping, anything like that going on. And the hope was we could get a government reestablished.
So part of it was just reacting to this radically new and different environment. Part of it was trying to understand our military’s needs and to make sure that to the extent I could help, they could get out of there all right. And keep in mind that it was a multinational operation and there was a UN angle and there were Pakistani troops and Egyptian troops and so on and so forth. And very often I was involved with them in one way or the other.
“Now any time you sit down with someone who’s been demonized, you expect to meet a demon.”
But the other thing that happened which gave that initial period some of its character was that, for all the trouble with Aidid, the decision was made that we should sit down and talk to him. So within a week of my arrival, Robert Oakley arrived and we had our first meetings with Aidid.
Now any time you sit down with someone who’s been demonized, you expect to meet a demon. And on the one hand, we had all these soldiers and marines and ships off the coast and everything else, and on the other hand, when we went to have our first meeting with Aidid, we drove…
You know, when I traveled in Mogadishu, the whole time I was there, if I left the compound on land, as distinct from by helicopter, I had three armored personnel carriers (APC) protecting me. And not to mention driving in an armored station wagon.
So we would go with all these APCs to the Ethiopian embassy, where we’d leave them. And they had what they called “technicals,” which were like Toyotas with guns on them, full of these wild tribesmen, who were there to protect us. Now these are the guys that killed our soldiers, and I will just tell you that that takes some internal organizing to deal with emotionally.
The other thing that happened is we went all over this labyrinthine town and got hold of Aidid. Mind you, in the car we had a global positioning satellite mechanism and they knew where we were at every moment, and if need be, they were ready to move; but in fact, our meetings with Aidid were uniformly civil and he had his list of what he wanted to talk about, and he made his points, and we made ours.
The main thing we were saying is okay, let’s talk. And so the whole time I was there, notwithstanding what happened before I got there, we met with Aidid and his people, frankly, routinely, after that meeting.
But that first meeting was one of those electrically charged emotional moments of my career. The other thing about those initial meetings was that, Aidid being the mini-dictator that he was, whereas less than a month, less than two weeks before I got there his people were desecrating American soldiers, he had thousands of his people out there to cheer us as we drove through there….
We had a meeting in Addis Ababa in December, and I think it was at that meeting where Aidid didn’t want to go because he was frightened. And Oakley arranged for the U.S. military to drive him to the airport. This caused an uproar in some quarters of the United States. But Oakley said if it was for the cause of peace it was worth it… [Photo of Aidid and Oakley on the left]
Now there was a lot of criticism of the humanitarian operation – the feeling that too many of these guys spent too much time in Nairobi, but that’s where a lot of the NGO’s (non-governmental offices) and other donors were…
But the third thing was political. And what they were trying to do in their desire to do the right thing was to break the back of these warlords by creating district councils that were democratically put together; and the problem was it wasn’t working. And I think there was a certain level of either hypocrisy, where people said you’ve got to do it, and then when it didn’t work they criticized him for trying to do it.
“It’s a muddle”
One of the dilemmas of Somalia is that the warlords can justifiably be criticized for making the mess, but their argument is you can’t bring peace without us. And we’ve never really been able to work that out. You can’t ignore them, but they’ll undercut you every time. And so I was going to say that when I heard I was going to Somalia.
I was talking to some of my colleagues.,On the one hand a fellow like Joe O’Neill, who at the time was DCM in Asmara said “Dick, Somalia is a poison chalice.”
On the other hand, you had Ted McNamara, who had been ambassador in Colombia. He said, “Dick, you’re going to have a ball.”
And then you had people like Ed Djerejian, who was consoling me. He said, referring to our policy, “Dick, it’s a muddle.” And to some extent that’s true. We never were quite sure what we wanted to do in Somalia…
I was in Somalia really only for about seven months, maybe closer to eight months, from November to June. So in that sense, as I say, it wasn’t a very long assignment, but it was very intense. It had, sort of, four periods to it.
There was the initial period from when I got there in November until January, when we really had, in a sense, all 20,000 or so of our troops. There was still, at least in the early days, serious thought given to what would have been serious military engagements, although in fact, as I pointed out earlier, we never really had any serious military activity after that.
Also, in terms of sheer excitement, that was a particularly creative time. We engaged Aidid; we engaged some of the others. And we pretty much began to rev up the diplomatic track and start talking about winding down the military track.
Then from January to the end of March, the main thing happening was our troops were leaving, and that attracted a lot of media attention, the home town newspapers and so forth, and it was a big logistical exercise for the military. And in fact, it went off without a hitch. But it was a major thing that happened. Over a 20-week period, 20,000 troops left, and the whole atmosphere changed.
The third period in the late winter and early spring was one where we worked awfully hard to see if we could help develop some kind of national reconciliation. It was at that time that we could meet with various groups, either in Nairobi or somewhere else, and one individual, John Howe’s successor, who was a Guinean diplomat named Lansana.
Now Lansana Kouyate was, as I say, a Guinean diplomat. He had been their ambassador in Cairo. He spoke English, French, and Arabic, which made him particularly able to communicate. He simply is a superb diplomat. He was Muslim and, therefore, could relate to the Somalis, but he was from West Africa and so wasn’t a threat. He is presently the Secretary General of ECOWAS, the Economic Commission of West African States, and for a while he was a senior political officer in New York with the UN. And he and I worked very closely with each other, and the whole notion was to try to fashion some sort of political reconciliation among the Somalis.
“…We gave it our best shot; it’s just not working.”
It didn’t happen, but that’s what we were trying to do during that period. And then, by the late spring, it became increasingly clear that they weren’t serious. Now as it happened, Washington had agreed to my leaving in June, and I just rounded out my assignment. My successor, Dan Simpson, concluded that it didn’t make sense to stay there, and shortly after he got there, he recommended that our mission be closed, and that recommendation was accepted.
Keep in mind that when Tarnoff asked me to go out, he said we want you to stay into next summer. And I think what he meant was, we could get our troops out by then (and in fact, they were out by the end of March) and by then it wouldn’t appear that the United States left Somalia with its tail between its legs because of the people who were killed. This gets back to the “no more embarrassments.” By the summer of 1994, the Clinton Administration could say honestly “we gave it our best shot; it’s just not working.”