We’ll Always Have Mogadishu: Reflecting On Somalia
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of the Black Sea Market, better known by its movie name “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia. The battle marked the turning point of the US-UN intervention in Somalia as it convinced President Clinton that nation-building in that war torn country was a potential tar baby. From June to early September in 1993, I acted as the temporary loan military advisor to the US Liaison Office (Ambassador Gosende) to the UN mission, and I was a participant in most of the key events leading up to the final battle of Task Force Ranger. The anniversary gave me a chance to reflect on the lessons of Somalia in light of later events in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As we watched Task Force Ranger make the second of its daylight attempts to capture Aideed from the roof of our office, the Ambassador’s Deputy Chief of Mission made an observation: “I only rose to the lofty heights of lieutenant in Vietnam, but if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, the Somalis will make you pay.” Indeed, from what I had observed the Somali militias had proven to be canny and adaptive urban guerillas. It was becoming obvious to participants that we were in a no-win situation and that Aideed was a symptom of the problem, not a root cause.
By late August, the Ambassador had become convinced that the overly optimistic reports that Central Command (CENTCOM) was sending to Washington were spreading a false sense of complacency. The Ambassador asked me to write a separate assessment of the situation for the Department of State. In the cable, I made two key points:
First, if we wanted to subdue Mogadishu, we would need at least two combat brigades of US or equivalent troops to replace the UN Peacekeepers who were not up to urban combat, which was what the situation had become. Second, since most Americans thought that we had withdrawn our forces in May, it would only take a single mass casualty event - I estimated that this would only take a casualty count of fifteen to twenty troops dead to cause a hue and cry to get us out. At the time I thought it would be a mortar hitting a mess hall.
I don’t remember if it was in that cable or in a separate report where I also noted that the nation-building strategy the US-UN had on paper was beyond the resources available to implement it, and that the liberal western style Jeffersonian democracy that we were looking to build in Somalia was incompatible with the pastoral clan based democratic traditions of the country.
I recommended that if we weren't willing to go all out, we should abandon the enterprise.
I left on September 3d to resume my teaching duties at the Marine Corps University. On my way home, I learned that the CENTCOM Commander, General Joe Hoar had declared me persona non grata from Somalia. Ambassador Gosende wanted to bring me back just to show where his prerogative resided because I worked for the Department of State in that assignment. I talked him out of it as I was due to teach the following week.
I didn’t enjoy being a prophet. I would much rather have had our soldiers back. However, in retrospect I developed some strong feelings on nation building. The first is that you should not impose your norms on a people with cultural traditions of governance hundreds or thousands of years old. The Somalis were grateful for our aid in a time of need, but quickly came to resent being told how to live their lives. It would have been better to try to make the existing clan based governance system work better.
The other observation is to assess the art of the possible in nation building starting with asking whether the task is worth undertaking to begin with. In Somalia in 1993, we made promises that we were not prepared to fund and made threats that we couldn’t back up.
Like Reagan’s Lebanon incursion in the 80s, Clinton’s Somalia adventure did not last long enough for the lessons to sink in. Both presidents were wise enough to cut their losses early, and neither got involved in a quagmire. The downside of that is that we repeated most of the mistakes ten years later in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has served as a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is currently on sabbatical in Afghanistan.