The 22nd Anniversary of ‘Black Hawk Down’: The price of action and inaction

Zachary Barker - Regular Columnist

At first the United States of America was welcomed in Somalia for it’s military deployment there in 1992 to support the UN humanitarian operation UNOSOM (which was succeeded by UNISON II). Aid agencies in the country praised the arrival of potential protectors of their operations. Many ordinary Somalis sick of the continuing violence caused by the feuding clans amid Somalia’s Civil War welcomed the prospect of restored law and order. On 9th December 1992 the US Military made a carefully stage managed and dramatic night time amphibious landing on the beaches of Somalia, not to be met by fearsome opponents but by dozens of members of the international media. It seemed to be an unsubtle way of sending the message “never fear, America is here”.

The honeymoon period was however squandered by the US troops who instead of using the goodwill they had at the time to start disarming the militias, largely allowed them to carry on as before, fighting and pillaging food aid. The paranoia of one of the country’s main warlords Mohamed Farah Aidid, the gung-ho instincts of the US Commander Admiral Howe and a misunderstanding between the two lead to the US forces all but declaring war on Aidid and his militia, which was mostly based around his Habar Gidir clan. Meetings of the Habar Gidir hierarchy were used as opportunities for bloodily wiping them out in a few shots, even though at least one of those meetings were convened for the purposes of re-establishing dialogue with US forces. One of these attacks which involved a Cobra gunship attack which killed the 91 year old leader of the clan (not Aideed) and according to US Chief of the Joint Chief’s of Staff General Colin Powell “Made me so angry, I had to be screwed off the ceiling”. And then came the Battle of Mogadishu otherwise known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident. From 3rd October 1993 until the 4th a planned hour long snatch and grab operation in the middle of Aidid controlled Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, of some of Aidid’s top advisers turned into a 15 hour bloodbath. At the end of the ordeal 18 US soldiers were killed and 73 wounded and 1 captured while hundreds of Somalis (one estimate says nearly 1,000) perished. During this ordeal 2 US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by militia members trained by Al Qaeda, who taught the militia how to fire their rockets at the back blind spot into their rear steering rotors.

US President Bill Clinton’s response was to call time on the US involvement in Somalia which was wrapped up in 1994. The UN involvement in Somalia wrapped up soon after this leaving the country to spiral into chaos. The US public and military were shocked at such a defeat at the hands of ragtag militias after their stunning victory over the Iraqi Army during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. “Mogadishu Syndrome” was mentioned as being as powerful as “Vietnam Syndrome” on the US psyche, giving them a negative view of projecting US hard power abroad. And yet not everyone appreciated Clinton’s handling of this incident. In Mark Bowden’s book about the Battle of Mogadishu “Black Hawk Down” he mentions how many US Military personnel who survived the incident felt Clinton had wrapped the mission up too quickly. If their friends had died, perhaps it would have been better to honour their memories by trying harder to make the mission a success? In fairness the failure of the greater UN mission was not solely the US’s fault. The UN Secretary General at the time who pushed for the mission was Boutros-Boutros Ghali, a former Egyptian Foreign Secretary who had a close relationship with the former dictator of Somalia Syiad Barre, who was Aidid’s adversary. The UN mission was also plagued by blue sky thinking, calling for the complete rebuilding of the Somali state without the resources and practical ideas to make it happen. What came after the collapse of the UN mission also calls for reflection. Today Mogadishu is under the tenuous control of the Provisional Government while the Al Qaeda allied Islamist militia called Al-Shabab controls much of the country. But arguably Mogadishu Syndrome contributed to the US, as well as other countries, refusing to act against a crisis that was just around the corner.

Bill Clinton | Image: Tim Hamilton
Bill Clinton | Image: Tim Hamilton

As early as 1993 UN Human Rights investigators had given specific warnings in their reports about the possibility of a “genocide” occurring in Rwanda. A tenuous peace agreement had kept the mainly Tutsi Rwandan exile Patriotic Front (RPF) forces away from and temporarily at peace with the Hutu extremist dominated government under the dictator Habyarimana. It was up to the undermanned, underfunded and under-supplied UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to hold the tenuous peace together. Reports sent to the UN HQ in New York by the UNAMIR’s Force Commander Romeo Daillaire speaking of intelligence citing the establishment of arms caches under the control of Hutu extremists were ignored. The assassination of President Habyarimana which occurred when his plane was shot down shattered the fragile peace. Hutu extremists blaming this act on Tutsis, whereas a later investigation holds Hutu’s extremists responsible, used the assassination as an excuse to unleash a wave of genocidal violence on the Tutsis in April 1994. Meanwhile the P5 members of the UN Security Council including the US, far from calling for reinforcing UNAMIR advocated it’s withdrawal. During the Security Council debates the US went to ridiculous lengths to avoid mentioning the word “genocide”, which would obligate the council members to act under the terms of the Geneva Convention Against Genocide. While all of this happened around 800,000 Rwandans were killed according to one estimate. While no country on the UN Security Council pushed for military intervention, apart from New Zealand, western nations carried out swift military operations to get their citizens out of Rwanda. All this happened while the genocide carried on uninterrupted under their noses.

America has often been mocked and resented as the gung-ho “World Police”. But often as with the case with the US intervention in Somalia, the wrong lessons are learned. Libertarians and anti-war activists often disguise their moral cowardice and narrow self-interest by deterring intervention by saying “it is not in our place”. This author for one thinks Albert Einstein got it right when he said “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”. The US does not get everything right but often it has deployed force when other nations, with little excuse, have refused to do anything at all. But this author is convinced that the US is too readily criticised by many people, particularly those on the left wing, and not often given credit for acting virtuously. Speaking frankly people should shut up about the Iraq War and look at the US in context. Those that criticise a world led by the US have not seriously thought through the implications of a world ran by Russia or China. The lesson to learn from the US intervention in Somalia is not that it shouldn’t have happened the first place. It is to consider what the US (and not in the least the UN) could have done differently. One thing is for sure, Somalia as it is now definitely needs the most advanced military in the world on it’s side.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles

Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol’s Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1