Tuesday October 2, 2018
The image of the bodies of US soldiers being dragged through a street in Mogadishu after their Black Hawk helicopter was shot down are seared into the memories of a generation.
The notorious “Black Hawk down” incident, which became the basis of a 2001 hit film, was a disastrous moment in US foreign policy, the result of a botched military operation to arrest a war lord.
It happened in Somalia, on October 3, 1993, 25 years ago today. The one-hour plan to snatch Somali general Mohamed Farrah Aidid, went horribly awry and resulted in a pitched battle that lasted into the next day. The US suffered a humiliating defeat that led to the withdrawal of troops and has affected US foreign policy ever since.
The US troops were part of a UN peacekeeping force in Somalia, which was beset by famine and civil war. The war was a power struggle in the wake of the ousting in 1991 of dictatorial president Siad Barre, who had come to power in 1969.
Barre had implemented socialist policies, trying to modernise the country, relying on a cult of personality, violence and oppression to keep order. But his disastrous military campaign in Ethiopia and his economic tinkering stirred a popular uprising in January 1991.The US had been supporters of Barre’s regime since 1989 after Barre switched his allegiance from the Soviet Union, but America had been too busy with other foreign wars to restore Barre to power or to restore order. But as the famine worsened and the civil war intensified, there were calls for international action to relieve the suffering of the Somalis.
With Barre gone, two powerful generals, Mohamed Farrah Aidid of the Somali National Alliance (SNA) and Ali Mahdi Muhammad of the Somali Salvation Alliance (SSA), fought for dominance. The civil war disrupted food production, exacerbating the effects of a drought that had already hit the major grain-growing regions.
In April 1992 the United Nations Operation Somalia (UNOSOM) was deployed to try to bring peace to the warring factions. But after their mission failed the US initiated Operation Provide Comfort to deploy troops in December 1992 as part of a UN-approved multinational effort (which included Australia) known as the Unified Task Force (UNITAF). This effort stopped the fighting in the civil war for long enough to allow aid to get through.
But UNITAF was only a transitional body and in March 1993 a UNOSOM II was created, with increased powers, to take over from the US-led task force.
However Aidid felt marginalised by the head of UNOSOM II, ambassador Jonathan Howe, and began to agitate against the UN presence. He made broadcasts against the new mission. In June 1993 when a group of Pakistani peacekeepers were sent to his radio station to search for weapons, Aidid assumed they were there to close the station down. A firefight ensued resulting in the deaths of 24 Pakistanis.
The UN passed Resolution 837, authorising the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the deaths. Several failed attempts were made to capture Aidid, including placing a reward on his head, but they only antagonised Aidid and the SNA who increased attacks on US troops. On September 25 a US army Black Hawk was shot down killing three US soldiers.
On October 3, 1993, the US began Operation Gothic Serpent to arrest Aidid, involving members of Delta Force, an elite army special operations unit, along with tanks, ground troops and helicopters from the 75th Rangers, part of Task Force Ranger (TFR).
The US military received intelligence that Aidid would be meeting at a house near the Bakara market in Mogadishu. The plan was to drop Delta Force troops around the house to create a defensive perimeter, while Aidid would be captured and a ground convoy would take him away. But from the start things went wrong as the helicopters came under intense fire.
Four aircraft were shot down. US troops tried to secure the crash sites but one site was overrun by Somalis. Pilot Mike Durant had been in a Black Hawk that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He survived the crash but was captured by Somali militia. (He was released 11 days later.)
US troops securing the other crash site held off Somali attacks through the night, until a relief convoy could be organised the next morning. When the battle was over, triumphant Somali militiamen dragged the dead bodies of US soldiers in the streets. All bodies were later recovered, but it was a sight that shocked the world, along with the death toll of 19 Americans. It led to the US government beginning the process of withdrawing its troops. The last ones left in 1995.