By Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman,
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
Proceedings, January 2004
The shoot-down of a Blackhawk helicopter on a mission to eliminate two lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed was only part of the U.S. story in Somalia. For the 10th anniversary, principal players gathered for a conference staged by the McCormick Tribune Foundation and the U.S. Naval Institute.
The U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s remains a distant memory to most Americans. The policy debacle in that impoverished African state is now linked indelibly to Mark Bowden's graphic tale, Black Hawk Down. But much more than the events of 3 October 1993 have relevance to ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a thorough review of the Somalia intervention, the U.S. Naval Institute and the McCormick Tribune Foundation brought military and diplomatic participants to the Foundation's Cantigny conference center near Chicago 7-9 May 2003.
Why Did the United Nations Intervene?
Ambassador Robert Gosende, who served first as the U.S. embassy's information officer and later as ambassador (replacing Ambassador Robert Oakley in Somalia), moderated the first panel, which consisted of retired Navy Admiral Jonathan T. Howe and retired Army Brigadier General John S. Brown.
General Brown, current Chief of Military History for the U.S. Army, placed the Somalia experience in the context of a larger historical process. "The reason we intervened in Somalia was because it occurred at the time it did," he concluded, adding that, "timing is everything." The end of the Cold War was one influence that had been "both a brake and a prism." It imposed a brake against getting involved in events not directly related to our confrontation with the Soviet Union, and it framed how we looked at priorities. The deterioration in the material well-being of the African people while the rest of the world was making significant economic progress was another context. The global information network heightened awareness of the situation by carrying pictures of Somalia's tragedy worldwide. Had the United States not intervened in Somalia, it would have somewhere else for about the same purpose and would have had to acquire the experience that would give it the sophistication to recognize both the capabilities and limits of U.S. power in humanitarian circumstances.
Admiral Howe served in Somalia as the Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General from March 1993 until March 1994; from December 1991 to January 1993 he served on the National Security Council (NSC) staff as the Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and as Chairman for the Deputies Committee. He was serving on the NSC staff when President George H. W. Bush asked, "Can't we do something about this?" The Deputies Committee had been meeting regularly on Somalia but without urgency. Eventually, the President was presented a set of options just before Thanksgiving and approved a proposal that became known as Operation Restore Hope.
Admiral Howe explained how the U.S. commitment was circumscribed to a very narrow mission: "We are going to put a Band-Aid on this thing, basically. We are going to stabilize it." The mission was boxed in merely to feed the starving people, create conditions for relief to flow, and transfer the operation as soon as possible to the UN. Admiral Howe admitted that the United States was "perhaps naïve." It believed, he said, that "the U.S. would be a bridge to kind of a regular peacekeeping group." The UN's shift to create a more lasting political change in Somalia, what Admiral Howe called "put Humpty Dumpty back together again from a failed state," was equally naïve. But fault could not be laid completely on the UN. The United States kept the old commitment— "get in there quick, get out of there, and give it to the UN." When the new resolution was passed, it took a new commitment of nations—particularly the United States, given the stakes it had in Somalia—to back this with the kind of resources, forces, and determination that would make it a success.
Despite his position with the UN, Admiral Howe was surprised at the significant change in mission presented by the 26 March 1993 UN Resolution 814: "To establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia" and "acknowledging the need for a prompt, smooth and phased transition from the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) to the expanded United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II)."
Retired Army Lieutenant General Thomas Montgomery, commander of U.S. forces and deputy UN force commander during the UNOSOM II phase, noted that the interagency oversight mechanism, a crisis action team (CAT), put in place for the initial limited UNITAF Operation Restore Hope phase, was shut down during the switch to the UN in Operation Continued Hope. He recalled the image of the UNITAF staff returning to a well-deserved recognition ceremony on the White House lawn, which made the cover of Time magazine. "The American people thought Somalia was over," he noted, even if it was not true. The lack of coordination and continuity exasperated seasoned diplomats such as Gosende. "One fundamental rule we all thought people would be following is, if there is a place in the world where American servicemen are being shot at and killed, that is the first thing you ought to be discussing every day. That was what was so very hard to grasp."
Retired Army Major General Waldo Freeman offered his perspective from having served as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command (CentCom) during Operation Restore Hope. CentCom was more upbeat about the degree of success achieved in the summer's early humanitarian airlifts. The shift to Operation Restore Hope caught it entirely by surprise, and those involved resisted the mission. "CentCom was very much against the intervention," he recalled. "Even after we developed our plans, we went to the Joint Staff with the position that we don't think this is a very good idea." Once the decision was made, CentCom worked to narrow the mandate. General Freeman reasoned that attempting to disarm the clans, or "do nation-building and that sort of thing," was beyond what the command thought was appropriate. He recalled a "big battle that was actually fought right up to the day the President made his announcement over the exact wording of the mission statement, a battle which CentCom won."
As General Montgomery pointed out, the issuance of UN Security Council Resolution 814, with tacit U.S. support, clearly changed the mission. "For us there was no such thing as mission creep," he pointed out, "because it was very clear at the outset what we were supposed to do." While the resolution was unrealistic and overly ambitious, General Montgomery insisted the taskings in it were clear enough.
The Political Perspective
The panel tackling this aspect of the intervention featured Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Patrick Sloyan, who delivered a slashing critique of administration policy and execution. "I can't come up with an insanity defense for any of the key players in Mogadishu 10 years ago," he said. "Bizarre, certainly. Incompetence, plenty of it. A lack of diplomatic skill, for sure. Mix in old hatreds, tribal and global. Add that major ingredient found in really distinctive disasters—good intentions—and you have a bloodbath on the horn of Africa."
BOTH COURTESY OF THE UNITED NATIONS
UN Envoy retired Navy Admiral Jonathan Howe (left) speaks to a Somali official on the streets of Mogadishu. Admiral Howe and Army Lieutenant General Thomas Montgomery (right) agreed in a conference at the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s Cantigny estate 10 years later that the mission change dictated by UN Resolution 814 had a profound effect on operations in Somalia.
Sloyan attacked both the policy makers around the U.S. president and the civilian diplomatic personnel on site for the worsening situation in Mogadishu. He found inexplicable the dual-track approach the United States was pursuing by September 1993: it would launch an initiative aimed at a political settlement in Somalia that included warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, but at the same time the hunt for Aideed would continue. He roundly criticized then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin for his refusal to provide tanks.
Responding from a UN perspective, Admiral Howe explained, "We had always held out the idea that there could be two tracks from the start, right after the June incident, even before we had made the first move." The UN strategy was not necessarily to destroy Aideed or his people, but to isolate and weaken him, "to remove the ammunition and take their ammunition supplies, which had been part of the inspection that caused the reaction and the ambush of the Pakistanis." The introduction of Delta and Task Force Ranger was to support the 6 June UN Security Council Resolution 837, which called for bringing those responsible for the slaughter of the Pakistanis to justice.
Ambassador Gosende reiterated the deliberate nature of the 5 June attack on the Pakistanis. This "was a pretty telling event. Here we had 24 Pakistani peacekeepers killed in fundamentally three acts of premeditated slaughter." Walter S. Clarke, a senior diplomat in the U.S. embassy, stated emphatically: "The mission changed in Mogadishu. But the decision to change the relationship with Aideed was Aideed's. He was the one who put together the ambushes."
What Went Right, and What Went Wrong?
Clarke moderated this panel and pointed out the need to look at each of the phases in Somalia, "because there are a lot of different Somalias." Dr. Richard Stewart, chief of the Histories Division of the Center of Military History at Fort McNair, focused on the early period from August 1992 to May 1993. He found the airlift of humanitarian aid during Operation Provide Relief from August to December 1992 was successful. But this did not really change the conditions on the ground, Stewart stressed. In fact, "it didn't really help that many Somalis. It was a drop in the bucket."
The deeper problem of unscrupulous warlords grappling for power could not be addressed by air power, "satisfying though the thought of antiseptic aid from the air may be to some," added Stewart. The subsequent U.S.-led Operation Restore Hope introduced substantial military forces—about 38,000 soldiers from 23 nations—into southern Somalia. This operation, in Stewart's view, could be declared a success.
It was successful because it was conducted by "a powerful and multitalented U.S. force acting legitimately under an international mandate and was complemented by numerous coalition partners." Stewart concluded that UNITAF was a success, but a limited one to match the limited mission. He likened the task force's performance to a sheriff's posse. "While the sheriff and his watchful deputies are in town, the local criminals put up their guns and keep out of sight. By limiting the mission in Somalia to establish temporary order, the U.S. got just that." In hindsight, Stewart argued that postponing the broader problem of political order overshadowed UNITAF's success and laid the groundwork for future operational and strategic failures.
General Montgomery stressed the unique aspects of the intervention, the first UN peace-enforcement mission since the Korean War and the first to be transferred to the sole leadership of the UN. He observed that the two major phases of the intervention operated under different leadership, with distinctly different mandates. Substantive disagreements erupted between the United States and the UN over the latter's mandate. This caused a delay in the transition between UNITAF and UNOSOM II, with U.S. forces already withdrawing. The transition itself did not go well. UNOSOM II on 4 May had only 28% of its staff in place when it took over from UNITAF. Its mandate had not even been settled by this time.
Before he left Washington, General Montgomery received an explicit charge from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that his mission was to "make sure that the UN is a success, but don't let it become a U.S. mission." But it could not possibly be a success.
Task Force Ranger, 3-4 October
Retired Army Brigadier General David Grange, a distinguished special operations veteran and now Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, moderated a panel that addressed what went wrong on 3-4 October 1993. Retired Army Colonel Larry Casper commanded Falcon Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, which was the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) between September 1993 and March 1994 in Somalia. The author of a highly regarded book that covers the actions of his command in Mogadishu, Colonel Casper explained what happened along with his impressions of that chaotic day a decade ago. Casper arrived in Somalia in late September, and was on the ground only 10 days before the events of 3-4 October, having assumed command only three days prior. He reported to General Montgomery as commander of the QRF, which consisted of an infantry battalion task force, an aviation battalion task force, and a support battalion.
Both Colonel Casper and General Montgomery had been outside the city visiting a German contingent when they started receiving radio traffic: "We got the word ‘Blackhawk Down,' and my first reaction was, ‘Which Blackhawk is it?'" It was not one of Colonel Casper's birds, but his command was soon involved deeply. The QRF already was activated when Task Force Ranger began its mission, standing by with one of the rifle companies on one-hour alert. An initial relief force under Army Lieutenant Colonel Bill David, his command group, and Charlie Company was dispatched to the scene and met stiff resistance.
Realizing piecemeal responses would result only in a bigger disaster, General Montgomery withdrew the QRF. At this time, the Pakistanis and Malaysians were asked to provide assistance. General Montgomery explained these efforts and extolled their cooperation. Colonel Casper recounted the reluctance of the allied contingents to come to the aid of the beleaguered Rangers but explained this was partly owing to their lack of night-vision equipment. "They had nothing," he explained, "and they ended up doing it with white light." When Colonel Casper began to supervise the relief column from a command helicopter, the city of Mogadishu appeared to be a darkened mass until he flew over the first crash site. "The perimeter's being inundated with fire. It's going in and bunches were coming out," he recalled, "It was absolutely an amazing sight to see from the sky, because I mean it was nothing but tracers."
Former Ranger Michael E. Goodale reflected on the training and cohesion of his unit. Before 3 October, "we had been on six other missions," he noted. "So for the most part our task force really believed that we were basically invincible." The complex mission went off without a hitch until the first aircraft went down. "At that point, our mission changed," he quipped, "and we did what our training told us to do." In retrospect, Goodale admitted some decisions made that day were not optimal. He attributed some of these to a sense of complacency, because the previous missions had not met any serious resistance. One of those soldier-level decisions was the choice not to carry night-vision goggles on a short daylight mission. In retrospect, Goodale admitted, it was "a bad choice."
General Montgomery pointed out that while he was the U.S. Force Commander in Somalia, Task Force Ranger did not work for him. Generally, he stated, no intelligence was shared between Task Force Ranger and U.S. Forces Somalia, and rehearsals and coordination between Task Force Ranger and the QRF were minimal. While admitting that the Special Operations Forces (SOF) were elitist and did not like to coordinate very much, he thought the coordination was acceptable and his relationship with Major General William Garrison, the SOF commander, was a strong one.
General Grange pointed out numerous units were on the ground: Delta Force, Rangers, and a QRF infantry company. But it was not apparent who was in charge of the target site on the ground. One of the ground combatants, another Ranger by the name of John Belman, noted that "there wasn't any one person in charge. Everything seemed to self-organize fairly well, at least where I was. But there was no one person making decisions as far as I can tell."
General Grange termed Special Operations Forces as "very aloof . . . don't want to work for other people." He stressed that the issue has to be forced to the front, or it would violate unity of command. Army Chief of Military History General Brown echoed this concern, adding that "it's going to continue to be dysfunctional until we wrestle it to the ground."
The panel moderated by Dr. Ahmed I. Samatar, a native Somali and a professor at Macalester College, was charged with addressing how the experience changed subsequent U.S. policy.
Retired Navy Vice Admiral Lee Gunn provided an operational overview of Operation United Shield, which extracted the remaining UN force from Mogadishu. He had served as the deputy commander of the combined task force that conducted the operation, led by then-Lieutenant General Anthony Zinni. This operation, related Admiral Gunn, had all the potential to be the first amphibious withdrawal under fire since the Korean War.
The first hurdle was the complexity of the planning effort, since the coalition fleet comprised 21 ships, additional support vessels, and ferries from several countries. France, Italy, Malaysia, and Pakistan sent substantial contingents. The ferry boat contracted by the UN to provide troop transport was a "a bucket of rust with a drunk captain." Ultimately, a Navy repair team fixed the ship's most immediate shortfalls, and then stayed on the vessel to ensure the 4,000 UN peacekeepers made the trip from Mogadishu to Mombasa. General Zinni's leadership in pushing a gun-shy administration to participate and his strong diplomatic effort with clan leaders ensured success. Admiral Gunn concluded the operation was carried off well, but it would have been much less complicated had it been done only by U.S. Marines and sailors.
Adam Siegel, a naval analyst with extensive experience studying complex contingencies in both the Middle East and Europe, was critical of the haphazard approach the U.S. military has taken with lessons learned from its small wars, calling it "lessons identified versus lessons learned." Siegel accused the U.S. government of taking away many of the wrong lessons.
Professor Samatar ended the session with his own cogent set of lessons: First, the United States "is condemned to deal with these global problems one way or another." He stressed the importance of early warning, long before implosions take place. He also faulted U.S. policy makers for not understanding how deep the self-destruction of the Somali society was, and for not appreciating the sustained effort needed to help the country fix itself. The combination of the dilution of civic order and the tribalism of Somali culture became "a cocktail of enormous firepower" that was never grasped fully. Mixing force and diplomacy intelligently —"the essence of politics," he said—was a serious shortcoming during the intervention.
Strategy/Resources Mismatch. In a concluding session, General Freeman, who had been involved extensively in CentCom's planning for Operation Restore Hope, stressed "interests, ends, means, all three have to be in balance" in any future intervention of this type. The resources to execute the strategy were never balanced in Somalia.
While the UN Security Council was interested in helping Somalia climb out of its abyss, it never gave commensurate resources to UNOSOM II to accomplish the mission. "This was the huge frustration we had out in the field," claimed one participant. "‘Give us the tools,' we cried. And it wasn't that I wasn't asking for them constantly."
With regard to military input at the national level, General Montgomery added:
I think it is the responsibility of senior military people to tell the policy level what it is they need in terms of military means to do the job and not to try and pre-guess what will fly politically or not. You need to say, "Here's what we need to do the job." And let them say yes or no before you start deciding what might fly politically.
Comprehensive Planning. A corollary of balancing ends and means is the need for detailed campaign planning, including collaborative discussions with all participants and explicit metrics for success and exit concepts. For the United States, the exit concept seemed to be minimizing forces required in Somalia until the entire mission could be handed off to the UN. "We weren't out, but we pretended like we were out," noted General Freeman.
General Montgomery observed the need to recognize that "there is not one separate end state in an operation or a campaign. There are a whole series of end states." While acknowledging senior military people always should press for a clear definition of the end state, he also noted that "we will never see one, because it's subject to political negotiation"—and consensus, if it involves the UN or NATO. The roundtable also observed that policy makers resist goals and milestones for political reasons.
General Freeman explained the utility of what are called "discourses" up and down the chain of command to facilitate comprehensive and collaborative campaign planning. These are useful when no clear definition of end state is in place and when the combatant commander has to interact with "the political/military level to answer hard questions, ask hard questions, and force, at least try to force, the masters at that level to give you answers to the questions about the end state." Success in Somalia required this kind of discourse, Freeman admitted, "but I think we failed in that."
Unity of Command. This is the by-product of clear authority and effective planning. Widely understood mission statements, distinct lines of authority and responsibility, and appropriate resources were troublesome aspects of almost all the operations in Somalia. Military veterans continued to point out the split in command channels and confusing authorities between the UN forces, the U.S.-led QRF, and the SOF forces in-country. Several conference participants saw the failure to conduct adequate planning and rehearsals as contributing to the confusion on 3 October.
Admiral Howe stressed any coalition has difficulties, but the participants must "have a unity of values, hopefully, but at least purpose," and that in Somalia there were too many countries with separate agendas. "When we came to the turn in the road after the assaults of 5 June," he stated, "you started to see the true colors of the various nations that were there."
Limitations of the UN. One of the grave difficulties posed was the UN culture, which disdains collection of intelligence and proper security of classified material. Participants felt the UN culture of transparency must adapt, that much more must be done within the UN, and that it was not sufficient for U.S. cells inside UN task forces to develop "work-arounds" to make intelligence actionable.
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (RANDY MALLARD)
Marine Lieutenant General Anthony Zinni listens to a briefing on Operation United Shield that, under his command, withdrew UN peacekeepers from Mogadishu. Many credit General Zinni’s strong leadership and diplomacy skills with ensuring the success of this operation.
This issue reinforced a conclusion drawn by numerous participants: the UN was not then and is not now capable of conducting peace-enforcement operations. While it is capable of planning and supervising traditional Chapter VI peacekeeping missions, the UN falls short at more complex situations. Some attendees, however, were willing to concede that in the rush to push the mission over to the UN and pull back U.S. resources, the UN "was doomed to failure, . . . we undercut our own effort in the UN." Admiral Howe added, "Sometimes in the United States we spend more time beating the United Nations up than we do figuring out how we can influence it and make it a more capable organization."
Force Multipliers. Numerous participants echoed the comments of retired Army Colonel Charles Borchini, who had served as the psychological operations (PsyOps) task force commander during Restore Hope, on the importance of force multipliers such as PsyOps, intelligence, and civil affairs. UNITAF had a PsyOps capability that worked. The leaders in Mogadishu—Ambassadors Oakley and Gosende and Generals Robert Johnston and Zinni—were familiar from past experience with what PsyOps could do and gave appropriate latitude to their task force. It shaped information positively to counteract Aideed's own rudimentary but effective program. Borchini recalled General Charles E. Wilhelm, who commanded the Marine division during Restore Hope, as saying, "Your PsyOp loudspeaker teams were a combat reducer. They reduced the incidents of combat, and saved the lives of my Marines and the lives of the Somalis as well." Yet, when the U.S. mission transitioned to UNOSOM II, the UNITAF PsyOp task force had nobody to make the transition.
Interagency Education. Comprehensive and collaborative interagency planning and execution cannot be expected in the absence of training and education. One proposal would adapt the National Defense University into a National Strategy University and broaden its mission as a center of excellence for senior government employees. One commentator stated that "effective fusion of all instruments of national power, at the operational level, cannot be expected in the absence of any understanding of the culture and capabilities of all the participants."
Lessons Learned. A critical insight made by many military participants was the need for a more systemic lessons-learned process. The Army has the Center for Army Lessons Learned, and the joint community has a rudimentary system. Several panelists cited the formal After Action Review conducted by General Montgomery after Somalia, which was suppressed for a decade because of political sensitivities. The interagency process needs such a mechanism to preclude future debacles. As Dr. Stewart noted in his earlier presentation:
No one likes to remember failure. It's very uncomfortable. But failure should be remembered. It can and should be learned from. This is the role of the historian, to turn down the microscope deeper and deeper so that we can look into all the different aspects of the operation, the mixture of successes and failures that make up any military operation.
Many conferees believed the lessons generated in this discussion should be exported to the national security community. General Montgomery captured this best:
In the United States, the aftermath of the failures in Somalia, as we all know, has haunted U.S. foreign policy to this day. And if you're reading the press on Afghanistan and Iraq, the ghost of Mogadishu on 3 October 1993 looms very large even today. It certainly looms large in the minds of many of our soldiers in the field.
The fact that potential lessons from Somalia have not been shared widely was an explicit concern for many who realized that complex contingencies and failed states have great salience today. Having lived through the dark and brutal night depicted in Black Hawk Down, the veterans of Somalia wanted their experiences disseminated to avoid the need for young Americans in the future to relearn them the hard way—on the battlefield.
Retired Army Colonel Charles Borchini, a conference participant, assisted materially in preparing this article. Both he and Colonel Hoffman work at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at Quantico, Virginia.
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