Relief SCENE:Security
Black Hawk Down Redux?
Another Famine, Another War. What Did America Learn From 1993?
Movie Still From Black Hawk Down
Movie Still From Black Hawk Down

Recently a bid went up on the U.S. government site to recreate a diorama of the events now called Black Hawk Down. It's yet another reminder that the U.S. efforts in Somalia were defined by failure, when the opposite is true. The military intervention actually ended the famine in Somalia by allowing aid to get out of the warlord embattled ports and out into the rural areas. Black Hawk Down was simply a two day event that had little to do with the U.S. effort overall but came to define "Operation Restore Hope".

This week's famine announcement brings back echos of the early 1990s, when UN peacekeepers, US Marines, Army Rangers, 10th Mountain Division and Special Operations teams landed in Mogadishu to secure the UN aid effort and stop the then Somali leaders and their militias from defeating the UN's efforts to distribute aid.

Although historically the event is considered a failure, the Mogadishu-based media ignored how many lives were saved by the ill fated intervention and wasn't even around to document the even larger number of Somali's were saved from the abyss. Some like Georgetown's Professor Chester Crocker estimate that although the effort was flawed, over a quarter of million Somalis were kept alive due to the aggressive intervention.

The question that must be posed is; will anyone come to Somalia aid this time? AMISOM is confined to Mogadishu, Ethiopia is diddling along the borders but has a bad taste in their mouth from their three year, U.S. backed stint occupying the south and America is busy backpedaling from their ten years in Afghanistan and 8 years invasion of Iraq. The entire East African and even North African region has it's own larger problems and it seems that even well intentioned public calls for simple financial aid are not doing well.

So with Shabaab flip flopping on aid and regular Somali's choosing to flee rather than wait, will anyone save Somalia?

Black Hawk Down Syndrome

Aerial view of fighting in October 1993
Aerial view of fighting in October 1993

The most famous attempt to intervene in Somali's agony has been reduced in most outsider's perception as simply "Black Hawk Down," a debacle that began with an attempt to secure aid delivery and ended with a bungled attempt to arrest Farrah Aidid that ended with the deaths of 18 American soldiers, one Malaysian peacekeeper and an estimated 200 (ICRC estimates) to 3500 (Amb Robert Oakley estimate) Somalis.

The heroic but catastrophic event will continue to be a popular touchstone for much of the ensuing famine coverage, policy planning and security operations as reporters and governments hark back to the last time the US tried to alleviate famine and bring stability but ended up folding their tents and leaving. It was an event so impactful that it affected US foreign intervention policy until September 11, 2001.

The US and other western nations fatigued by a decade of combat since 9/11 may react with even less enthusiasm as the growing need for security in Somalia brings calls for more robust external assistance.

Author Mark Bowden's best selling book (not to be confused with the UN's current representative Mark Bowden) and Ridley Scott's blockbuster depicted American soldiers suddenly outnumbered and fighting heroically against generic mobs of Somalis. Their depiction of dark evil Somali warlords and under-supported troops are memorable but selective in their focus on just a few hours of Somalia's turbulent history.

Is Somalia Different Today?

The reality of those events, although truthful in the telling, were different in context. Somalia's condition as a functioning nation had been declining since independence, haphazard foreign aid programs, the war against Ethiopia, social engineering and escalating failure of economic growth slowly unwound Somalia's economy and social structure. The UN's intervention and the US action as "Doing God's Work" appeared well after the point of triage. Describing Somalia as "lawless", "ruled by gangs" and "out of control" suited the perception required to render security assistance to the "tragedy in Somalia" and "save thousands of innocents from death". It was estimated that 1.5 million Somalis were at risk of death.

Somalia's post-colonial President Siad Barre, a man who initially championed social reform, was forced out of office in January of 1991 by General Farrah Aidid. Barre's rapid shift from Soviet-era reformer to predator, along with his lack of response to the worsening economy, forced Aideed's hand. When Barre left, infighting between Muhammad Ali Mahdi of the Abgaal clan and Aideed of the Habr Gadir clan began as both proclaimed themselves to be President of Somalia, even though Aidid had won two thirds of the United Somalia Congress' vote. A war between between literally two cousins broke out with Ali Mahdi pushing a western-style government and Aidid advocating a clan-based system. Ali Mahdi was defeated and Aidid also began to war against the remnants of Siad Barre's army. It was also in 1991 that Somaliland chose to breakaway from the southern squabbling. Not surprising since there were at least 27 different factions battling inside Somalia.

All sides were bloated with weaponry and supplies from the war against Ethiopia. When the UN intervened, it was its position that there was no government (due to the coup and infighting) and essentially began to run Somalia. Ali Mahdi's western view was more acceptable and the UN ignored clan elders. The clans banded together and began to war against the foreigners, who they accused of indiscriminate slaughter and a dictatorship type rule.

Images of war, and famine soon began to be broadcast from Somalia. It is estimated that 300,000 Somalis died in this dark period and it wasn't until March of 1992 that the UN brokered a tenuous cease fire. A tiny contingent of UN military observers paved the way for the delivery of humanitarian supplies but this quickly broke down into fighting. The UN urgently appealed for help.

On December 5, President Bush used a folksy TV announcement to order 25,000 US troops into Somalia to secure the ports and the delivery of aid. The use of the US Air Force since August was not working. The president's concern that aid was blocked in the harbor and needed outside troops to provide security sounds very familiar. On December 8, Dan Rather of CBS, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Ted Koppel of ABC left for Mogadishu. CNN broadcast live coverage of what they labeled "Saving Somalia".

Four days later, Marines stumbled onto the beaches and were blinded by the dozens of camera crews waiting for them. America's high moral purpose contrasted with the violence they encountered delivered an ominous feeling that this highly publicized humanitarian action was not going to go well. Another 3,252 Americans were put under UN command and a support contingent of contractors arrived. The idea was to open the supply routes and create a short term presence to hand over to the UN. "We will not stay one day longer than absolutely necessary," was the promise President Bush made.

What America was not told was that General Farah Aidid saw the UN control of Mogadishu and the U.S. arrival as a direct threat to his control of the region. He pledged to actively combat the foreign forces in Somalia who were viewed more as interlopers than liberators.

The Tipping Point.

The critical point of Operation Restore Hope is that 30,000 U.S. troops and international intervention ended the mass starvation by March of 1993. Much of this convoy protection and aid delivery took place far away from the media coverage of Mogadishu.

Operation Restore Hope
Operation Restore Hope
It was not the U.S. that fired the first shot. There were complaints on indiscriminate shots, civilian casualties and deaths but Aideed used the intervention to further his political and military agenda.

On June 5, 24 Pakistani UN soldiers were ambushed, killed and mutilated during an inspection of arms depot. Although Aidid was not directly implicated, it was clear that he had declared war on the UN and US. A UN resolution to arrest Aideed and his top aides, which was revealed on June 27. It took until August to get a special operations group positioned in Mogadishu to go after Aideed but military operations began to kill or capture Aideed began immediately. This was not in the original plan and had direct political impact on the UN and U.S. position in Somalia. In a country that supposedly had no government or army, outside forces found themselves at war with a politician and army that had deposed the sizable forces of Siad Barre.

Although Aidid is portrayed as a ruthless warlord he was in fact a trained accountant turned general and had been educated in Italy and Soviet Russia. He served as the ambassador to India and the head of intelligence under Siad Barre. In addition, the ramshackle bloodthirsty militia portrayed in the film were part of a seasoned fighting group that had deposed Siad Barre in 1991. It was Aidid's and to a certain extent popular support that provided much of the friction to the presence of the UN and US forces.

A successful humanitarian operation was being suddenly being hampered by an internal conflict. A robust mission to take out Aideed was mounted.

On July 12, US helicopters fired 20 TOW missiles and over 2000 rounds of 20mm cannon rounds into the offices of Abdi Hassan Awale Qaybdiid. A newspaper announced there there was a meeting of Aidid's elders to come up with a peace deal with the UN, but Aidid and Qaybdiid were not there because he had been tipped off by the Italians. The summer was full of attempts to destroy Aidid-related strong points, including his radio station. In August, Special Operation troops arrived, but without armor and heavy air support.

"Task Force Ranger arrived in Somalia by 28 August. The task force consisted of special operations ground forces, special operations helicopters, U.S. Air Force special tactics personnel, and U.S. Navy Seals. During August and September 1993, the task force chalked up six successful raids inside Mogadishu including the September 21st capture of Aideed's advisor, Osman Ali Atto. Faced with increasing pressure, Aideed's milita began fighting back harder.

The real Black Hawk that started the violence was actually downed before the famous event as laid out by another author, Scott Peterson, who wrote "Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda".

What American's Didn't See

On September 25, Somali militia men shot down a Black Hawk helicopter, killing three Americans, mutilating and decapitating one American and charging the curious money to peek inside the "Gift of the USA" flour sac. This barely publicized event led directly to the mission to get Aidid on October 3, which saw 19 helicopters, 12 vehicles, and 160 men were sent to capture him in a building next to the Olympic Hotel. But Aidid and Qaybidiid were late and arrived as the attack began. Some say it was a deliberate set-up based on their experience with the July 12 ambush. Delta snatched 24 of Aidid's men who surrendered peacefully then led them down to the street for transport. Army Rangers had been dropped to provide perimeter security and when a Black Hawk crashed near Bakara market, the chaos began. Aidid had planned for this and his men set up withering crossfire inside the warren of buildings. Despite the initial rush of around 100 US troops shooting over 60,000 rounds in less than 30 minutes, the relief effort was called back.

The 90-minute operation turned into a two-day long battle. The ensuing television coverage of American bodies being desecrated resulted in the loss of popular support for the US mission and eventual pull out. Rarely is the peaceful lull that broke out after the violent incident reported.

Newly elected President Clinton, not wanting to absorb the political damage created by his predecessor George Bush Sr., ordered a full withdrawal by 31 March 1994 and all foreign troops, support contractors and UN workers were gone by March of 1995 when Aidid declared himself president. He was wounded and died in 1996 and in an odd twist of fate his son, Hussein Mohamed Farrah, who had immigrated to US at 17, was chosen to succeed his father as President. The irony was that Farrah was a US Marine who served in Somalia as a translator during Operation Restore Hope.

Although the fighting in Mogadishu was primarily between the SNU or Aidid's Habr Gadir clan and Ali Mahdi Mohamed's USC, and despite either the militias never hearing of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, the event was used by Bin Laden to show that local fighters can defeat the world's most powerful army.

Even today, the condensed popular view of the event is a major consideration in the deployment of ground troops to any region. Although people initially are moved by scenes of suffering and starvation, political and popular support rapidly erodes when gruesome images of dead Americans are front and center as they were broadcast on television on October 5, 1993. The fact that they actually stopped the famine is long forgotten.

Is There Popular Support For Intervention?

A rearview mirror, war weary look of the event would lead most to believe that America wanted out, Clinton’s decision was not supported by the majority of US people. A poll taken by ABC and CNN/USA Today right after the horrific images were broadcast showed that only 37% to 43% of Americans supported the immediate withdrawal of US troops. These (and five other polls taken at the time) showed that 55 - 61% of Americans polled supported sending in more troops. an ABC poll recorded that 75% supported sending in a major military offensive to get Aidid and to release Mike Durant, the then kidnapped American pilot.

Gothic Serpent was turned into a best selling book in 1999 and a hit film by Ridley Scott in 2001 and documentaries provide a lasting reminder to be made.

Although polls showed that US support of the US being involved in peacekeeping dropped from 70% to 40%, it rebounded to 70% when other nations were included in the survey. Polls by Time on Bosnia showed 68% of Americans polled supported using US troops to support peace agreements.

To the casual observer, it seemed that America's good intentions had backfired, but in reality polls taken in February by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland specifically about US troops in Somalia showed that 84% of Americans supported UN peacekeeping and only 13% were opposed. In July of 1994, PIPA found that 73% supported the use of American troops in peacekeeping. This misreading of the public mood led to Clinton doing nothing during the massacres in Rwanda and to a tepid approach to Bosnia.

The polls also clearly showed that Americans clearly understood the difference between bringing in relief to Somalis versus solving their political problems for them. 60% felt "the U.S. did the right thing".

There has yet to be a poll on whether America opinion on intervention in Somalia but a recent Harris poll shows a much more cautious country. In this poll on general intervention, 22% or more of Americans more are not sure whether or not it was right to intervene in six countries where U.S. troops or airplanes have been used. About half or 47% are unsure about Somalia.

47% to 27% plurality believes that intervening in Afghanistan was the right thing to do the opinion is evenly divided on U.S. intervention in Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Kosovo. Where actual ground troops are not used there is actually more confusion: 53% are not sure about past intervention in the Ivory Coast. When asked about whether they support U.S. non lethal activities in Darfur and Rwanda, 45% of those polled are simply not sure. The obvious answer is most Americans simply don't have a clear idea of what their nation is doing overseas and even less about the end benefit or penalty. The truth? Most young people get their TV news from comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Despite half a decade of U.S. troops in country, in 2006 nine out of ten Americans polled by National Geographic couldn't point out Afghanistan on a map. There is little hope for Somalia.

If there is a direct threat of a terrorist attack Americans rebound to early 90's level of approval. 79% support military intervention to prevent attacks on the U.S. or to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. 74% if a strong and friendly ally is attacked and 55% - 66% support using troops if a dictator is killing large numbers of their own people, to overthrow a dictator who is very hostile to the U.S. and only 33% agreed with the use of U.S. military to change a dictatorship into a democracy. The prognosis for intervention to simply provide security for aid delivery is not even on the survey. 67% to 11% strongly believe that the U.S. should not be the world's policeman.

The Future for Somalia

Today's Somalia is much different, the fighters of al-Shabaab are poorly trained, the undermanned but professional Ugandan and Burundian soldiers of AMISOM are in control of much of Mogadishu and the famine is caused more by natural and economic reasons. It would be important to go past the cliche and Hollywood imagery and look at what actually occurred during the early years of the UN in Somalia.

AMISOM has shown that with tiny incremental troop increases it can expand its hold on Mogadishu, Ethiopian forces pushed out al-Shabaab fighters and the last remaining military opposition is finding itself being resented and tested by even the Somalis eager to see foreign influence leave.

The idea of khat-fueled Somali militiamen lurching around Mogadishu on technicals along with a hatred of foreign forces is not entirely true, either in the past or in any future attempts American's might make to help Somalis.

For now countries like the U.S. simply will not go against the polls and continue to funnel funds into less functional activities allowing them to claim compassion but not take the political risk associated with direct intervention. There will be much hand wringing at corruption, incompetence and failure but the media friendly spectre of Black Hawk Down will ensure that the public will remember "Operation Restore Hope" as a failure rather than America's intervention actually ending the famine.

Addendum: The Popular Version

Despite the need for clear thinking in the wake of yet another African disaster the perpetuation of "BHD syndrome" continues. A diaroma of that event will be built at the Fort Benning Infantry Museum and a bid went up on the U.S. government bidding site for the USA ACC MICC Fort Benning requires the following items, Purchase Description Determined by Line Item, to the following:

LI 001, Eight mannequins a.. Panama Era Ranger Rifleman as per RSOP of period.

b.. Panamanian Defense Force Soldier

c.. Somalia Era Ranger Rifleman as per RSOP of period

d.. Somali Farrah Aidid Gunman

e.. OIF Ranger Rifleman as per 2003 RSOP

f.. Iraqi Conventional Soldier

g.. OEF Ranger Rifleman as per current RSOP Al Qaeda/Taliban Terrorist, 8, EA; LI 002,

Dioramas include:

a.. Panama Rio Hato Airfield Seizure depicting six Rangers landing on the northern portion of the airfield.

b.. Panama Ma Bell mission depicting 3 Rangers, Ranger Jeep (RAV) and Panamanian Cuartel commander and PSD surrendering his command. Spectre gunship flying in distance.

c.. Somalia Depict three Rangers fast roping to provide security around target building.

d.. Somalia Super 6 - 1 crash site at the time SSG Eversman found it. Includes portion of Blackhawk, portion of crew and six rangers. e.. Somali Farrah Aidid seven man gang contingent.

f.. OIF 2003 Haditha Dam depicting GMV on top of dam with five rangers securing area.

g.. OIF MH6 lip landing of four rangers on two-story building with two insurgent inside.

h.. OIF King's Crossing eliminating top AQI insurgents. Depicts four rangers setting charge over spider hole entrance.

i.. OEF KG Pass Rangers clearing through insurgent lay-up station. Includes pass, thatch huts, six rangers, six insurgents, sleeping area, space blankets

j.. OEF Palm Grove being cleared by six Rangers and scout dog. Includes palm orchard with palm/bushes, bordered by mud wall, six rangers, scout dog, resting place, motorcycle, insurgents., 10, EA; LI 003, installation and set-up, 1, EA;


UN Operations in Somalia


The U.S. Army in Somalia

"Black Hawk Down" Mark Bowden's original Philadelphia Inquirer Series

Sony Pictures Black Hawk Down

Journeyman Films Documentary on Mogadishu

Dramatized History Channel Version

Video Game Documentary

Raw footage shot by Somali Cameraman

Two Perspectives In On Interventions and Humanitarian Operations (After Action Report by Amb Oakley)