The military mission was supposed to be fast. A small number of helicopters would fly into the target zone, the soldiers on board would arrest or otherwise neutralize their two targets and load them into ground vehicles, and the whole expedition would return to safety within a matter of hours. On October 3, 1993, 14 years ago today, the United States was about to learn just how badly such a well-laid plan could go.
|A triumphant Somalian stands next to an armored personnel carrier that was wrecked during an attempt to rescue American soldiers in Mogadishu, October 3, 1993. Photo-|
Operation Gothic Serpent was supposed to take out two top lieutenants to Mohammed Farah Aidid, a warlord caught up in his native Somalia’s bitter civil war. But Aidid’s gunmen shot down a pair of American MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and the American operation became a fight for survival on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city. By the time the battle ended, early in the morning of October 4, another two helicopters had crash-landed, and 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis were dead. One American pilot, Michael Durant, had been taken hostage by Aidid’s men.
The American military had not originally gone to Somalia to fight Aidid or any warlord in particular. United States forces had been an important component of an international peacekeeping mission that had begun in August 1992. The previous year, in January 1991, Somalia’s dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre, had been deposed and sent into exile. In his place, a loose group of clans and warlords—including Aidid and his principal rival, Ali Mahdi Muhammad—had seized power. This new junta was not a cohesive governing body, and its members struggled violently with one another for power. When Somalia was hit by massive starvation later in 1991, this government was in no position to provide aid to the Somali people. The United Nations undertook a major relief operation, but warlords like Aidid and Muhammad pilfered the U.N. food supplies before they ever reached their intended recipients.
Relief workers and peacekeepers came into direct conflict with Aidid after an international military force 38,000 strong was deployed to Somalia at the end of 1992 to enforce a ceasefire between the country’s warlords and ensure the safe delivery of food supplies. From the beginning, Aidid and his Somali National Alliance distrusted the United Nations. The U.N.’s secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had been the Egyptian foreign minister throughout the 1980s, and in that capacity he had worked against Aidid to support Siad Barre. And Aidid was not the only warlord reluctant to lay aside his ambitions at the U.N.’s request. In June 1993, the Somali National Alliance escalated the tense situation in Mogadishu by killing 24 Pakistani peacekeeping troops and mutilating their corpses. In response to this drastic provocation, the U.N.’s representative in Somalia, the American Adm. Jonathan Howe, issued an order for Aidid’s arrest and placed a $25,000 bounty on his head.
It was several months later, in an increasingly violent atmosphere, that the Battle of Mogadishu took place. The armed engagement has been documented in great detail, most famously by Mark Bowden in his book Black Hawk Down, which was made into the movie of the same name. There is still disagreement about how, exactly, Operation Gothic Serpent went from a quick extraction mission to a gory street fight, but a few contributing factors were obvious right away. First, the operation took place in the daytime, rather than at night, when the American forces would have possessed more distinct offensive advantages and many of Aidid’s men would have been reeling in drug-induced stupor. Second, the flawed available intelligence about Aidid’s forces seriously underestimated his stock of rocket-propelled grenades. The U.S. Army Rangers who flew into Mogadishu were surprised by the vigorous counterattack against them. They certainly did not anticipate ending the operation with 18 fatalities and with images of brutalized American soldiers beamed all across the world.
Even more stunned were the United States government and its citizens. Immediately after the Battle of Mogadishu, the Senate hauled in numerous Clinton administration officials to explain the embarrassing turn its humanitarian mission had taken. Robert Byrd, the long-serving Democratic senator from West Virginia, vented his frustration by declaring that the United States should abandon its “cops-and-robbers operations.” John McCain, the Arizona Republican and celebrated Vietnam veteran, announced his own recommendation for the American forces: “Clinton’s got to bring them home.” President Clinton did not resist this course of action. After Aidid’s men released Mike Durant, the pilot who had been taken hostage, the administration agreed to a ceasefire Aidid suggested and announced plans for a fast drawdown of its troops in Somalia. In November, the United Nations rescinded Admiral Howe’s order for Aidid’s arrest. The warlord showed his face publicly for the first time in months and exulted, “Today is a day of victory, and it was achieved by the hard struggle of the SNA [Somali National Alliance] people.”
As its actions demonstrated, the immediate lesson drawn by the United States was of the need for humility in international affairs. Robert Oakley, the lead American envoy in Somalia, told the press after a meeting with Aidid that “the U.S. realized we made a mistake getting involved” in the hunt for Aidid. Largely lost in the outcry over the news of American fatalities was the fact that the Rangers had actually accomplished their mission on October 3, capturing Omar Salad and Mohamed Hassan Awale, two leaders of Aidid’s clan. But the capture was not much of a step toward calming Somalia’s strife. The whole affair, Mark Bowden wrote, was “another lesson in the limits of what force can accomplish.”
This was not a bad conclusion for Americans to reach, but it was perhaps not the only one worth reaching. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States reported that Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network had been involved in the downing of the Black Hawks in Mogadishu. The 9/11 Commission Report situated Mogadishu in a gradually intensifying, two-decade-long series of terrorist attacks, beginning in 1983 with the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and culminating with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Americans did not understand it at the time, but the men who shot down their helicopters in Somalia were using weapons and techniques passed on by a far more dangerous network of terrorists. When President Clinton swiftly drew back from Somalia, he hardened Bin Laden’s dim view of American resolve.
Whether it would have been worth the cost, in blood and money, for Americans to stay in Somalia, keep fighting Aidid, and try to bring about some semblance of stability in that country is a question that can never be resolved. It is possible that the American mission there was doomed from the start and that withdrawal was the best option available. But by withdrawing so quickly, in the wake of such humiliating losses, and at a moment when Aidid was actually vulnerable, the United States did not escape the hazards of Mogadishu. It helped ensure that other Americans would face them on a later day.
—Alexander Burns, an undergraduate at Harvard College, is a frequent contributor to AmericanHeritage.com and is editor-in-chief of The Harvard Political Review.
Source: AmericanHeritage, Oct 3, 2007