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Mission Impossible

1.

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, October 3, 1993, nearly one hundred elite American soldiers slid down on ropes from Black Hawk helicopters into a part of Mogadishu controlled by the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. They were supposed to abduct two of Aidid’s top lieutenants and return to base overland. The mission was intended to take one hour. Instead, the task force was pinned down and fought for their lives throughout the night. Two of the Black Hawks were shot down in Aidid’s territory and two, badly damaged, had to crash-land at the base. When the force was finally extricated early the next morning by a multinational UN group led by Malaysians and Pakistanis, eighteen of its members were dead and seventy-five wounded. For every American killed or wounded there were at least a dozen Somali casualties; conservative estimates reckoned there were five hundred Somali dead and perhaps one thousand wounded. The figures were probably higher. It was the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since the war in Vietnam.

In Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden has reconstructed this extremely violent episode with amazing vividness and detail. The reader can visualize the action, smell the dust and sweat and the reek of explosives, and even enter into the exultation, fear, rage, pain, confusion, and exhaustion of the combatants. Bowden never loses sight of the human qualities and reactions that are, in the end, decisive in battle. Because he was able to interview survivors on both sides relatively soon after the action, Bowden’s story has a vitality and freshness usually lacking in accounts of combat. He has written an extraordinary book. It is also a shocking one.

How could the efforts of the United States to help the long-suffering people of Somalia possibly end in this way? In the autumn of 1992, President George Bush’s last grand international gesture as president had been Operation Restore Hope, a task force headed by a large contingent of US Marines and soldiers. Its mission was to provide a safe and secure environment for the distribution of relief supplies to the starving Somali people after a catastrophic famine. Relief supplies had been regularly held up or stolen by members of the various factions fighting for power in Somalia, and the various organizations engaged in humanitarian aid needed protection. The strictly humanitarian mission, under US command, would last just a few months. It had no political objectives. The task force arrived in Somalia in December 1992.1

From the start there was a misunderstanding, which soon developed into a disagreement, between the United States and the UN secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, about the tasks and objectives of the mission. The secretary-general was convinced that disarming the Somali factions and setting up a civil administration and police force were essential to establishing the “secure environment” that was the principal aim of the mission. The Bush administration was unwilling to consider disarming the factions and was skeptical of anything that hinted at “nation-building.”

In his campaign for the White House Bill Clinton had tried to distance himself from what he termed Bush’s inaction in places like Bosnia, and he had come out strongly for a UN rapid reaction force as a part of a more assertive multilateral style in US foreign policy. When, in the spring of 1993, the time came to set out the procedures by which UN forces would take over peacekeeping responsibility from the United States in Somalia, the Americans and the UN agreed that a sizable American presence would still be required to carry out the task that the Security Council had given the mission. This now included “the rehabilitation of the political institutions and economy of Somalia,” i.e., “nation-building.” “By adopting this resolution,” Ambassador Madeleine Albright told the Security Council,

we will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations. This is an historic undertaking. We are excited to join it and we will vigorously support it.2

About 4,000, mostly logistical, US troops were to remain in Somalia. There was also a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of 1,300 Marines under US command. A retired American admiral, Jonathan Howe, was appointed as the secretary-general’s representative and head of the UN mission.

The change in the nature of the Somalia mission was bound to create a more abrasive relationship with the various Somali factions, and especially with General Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the ambitious leader of the Somalia National Alliance. Aidid had been the rival of the former president Siad Barre, and evidently saw himself as the rightful future president of the country. The various factions had their own militias, primitively armed but skillful fighters. Many of them were to be seen on the streets of Mogadishu in the so-called “technicals”—trucks with machine guns mounted on them. The factions also commanded the clan loyalty of many others who, though less well trained, were potential fighters when the clan was threatened.

The Clinton policy of “assertive multilateralism” was also a factor in this new relationship, especially when violence in Mogadishu increased and began to involve UN soldiers. On June 6, twenty-four Pakistani soldiers, part of a group believed by Aidid to be moving to close down his radio station, were killed in an ambush. The Security Council, in a tensely emotional session, quickly passed a resolution calling for the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the killings.

Both the rhetoric and the action on this occasion were a radical departure from the cautious and carefully calibrated approach to peacekeeping crises in the past, when it had been considered both improper and unwise to risk intense popular hostility by attacking local leaders, however obnoxious. Traditional peacekeeping forces were not supposed to have enemies. There was no such caution on this occasion, and Aidid was officially proclaimed the enemy.

In Mogadishu efforts to carry out the Security Council resolution inevitably led to more frequent confrontations with Aidid’s militias, as the UN soldiers tried, without suc-cess, to catch him. There was heavy pressure on the UN representative, Admiral Howe, both from the US and from Boutros-Ghali, whose patronizing attitude to Somalis and longstanding hostility to Aidid and the Habr Gidr clan, of which Aidid was chief, had shocked some of his staff. Howe put a price of $25,000 on Aidid’s head, a sum which the Habr Gidr clan members found insultingly small. He refused to talk to Aidid or his representatives.

Howe eventually prevailed on a reluctant Pentagon to send out a special force of US Rangers and Delta Force personnel to arrest Aidid. Like the QRF, this group was not under UN command. It took orders from the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida. The UN headquarters in Mogadishu had no contact with the Ranger force and no authority over them. Before taking off on an operation, the Rangers were supposed to notify the Ameri-can deputy UN commander, General Thomas Montgomery, in situations where they might interfere with UN peacekeeping activities.

Their first six operations had been more or less uneventful, although on one occasion they had arrested a group of UN workers by mistake. On another, they had, also by mistake, stormed the house of Somali general Ahmen Jialo, whom the UN was grooming to lead the new Somali police force. They had taken no casualties nor had they been given any reason to doubt their complete military superiority. For the most part they attacked targets on the basis of information from local agents.

It was on a tip of this kind that the Ranger task force took off at very short notice on the afternoon of October 3. Ironically, Admiral Howe was returning to Mogadishu at exactly the same time from a visit to Ethiopia and Eritrea to enlist the support of those governments for a peaceful diplomatic approach to Aidid. He took some time to get back to his headquarters, and even longer to discover what exactly was going on.

2.

In 1993 Western countries were still basking in the afterglow of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq two years before. America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen, with their miraculous technology, had acquired a magisterial aura as international policemen. This was especially true of US special forces. Mark Bowden refers to their view of themselves as “the cocked fist of America’s military might…. They were predators, heavy metal avengers, unstoppable, invincible,…shooting anyone foolish enough to fight back.” The average age in the Rangers was nineteen, and they tended to be regarded as trigger-happy teenagers by their far more experienced and mature Delta Force colleagues. They were predominantly white. They were engaged on “what seemed like a simple assignment, capture the tinhorn Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.” They were equipped with the most advanced combat weapons, military technology, and communications. Their helicopters and spy planes photographed Mogadishu night and day.

As Mark Bowden describes them, the young men of the Ranger task force hated Mogadishu, with its unruly and unpredictable people, its grinding poverty, its endless slums, dust, and garbage. They had a sovereign contempt for the Somalis, whom they called “skinnies” or “sammies.” They apparently had little idea of Somali courage or fighting tradition. Somali fighters were famous for braving enemy fire and for almost suicidal frontal assaults. They were ready to die. One hundred years before, after the Mahdi’s forces had annihilated General Charles Gordon and his small force at Khartoum, and the British Sudan Expeditionary force had been sent to redeem the situation, Rudyard Kipling had written, “So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Sowdan;/You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man.” Some of the instructors of the Somali militias were Sudanese.

Most Somalis had at first welcomed the Americans and Operation Restore Hope, particularly for their work in protecting food supplies and their distribution. When the nature of the mission changed to “restoration of an entire country,” however, they became puzzled and anxious. A very bloody July raid with TOW missiles fired from QRF helicopters on a house in which a meeting of Aidid’s aides was taking place had widened support for Aidid in Mogadishu. The incessant helicopter flights over the city, sometimes so low that the powerful rotors created dust storms and blew the tin roofs off houses, infuriated and humiliated the inhabitants. When they complained to the UN they were told that nothing could be done because the Rangers were not under UN command. Some of the armed groups had come to the conclusion that the best way to hurt the Americans would be to shoot down a helicopter, the symbol of American power and Somali helplessness; so they modified their primitive rocket-propelled grenade launchers—RPGs—to enable them to fire at aircraft.

In the first hour of the October 3 raid, the Somalis shot down two helicopters. Thus, although the Delta men had already secured their captives and the force was ready to move out, the entire group was directed to go to the crash sites to protect and recover the helicopter crews.3 The opposition to them soon turned “into something akin to a popular uprising. It seemed like everybody in the city wanted suddenly to help kill Americans.” Deadly ambushes and roadblocks sprang up throughout the city, and the Ranger force was trapped until they were extricated early the next morning by UN forces.

  1. 1

    Michael G. MacKinnon’s forthcoming book, A Fairweather Friend?: US Peacekeeping Policy Under Clinton, shortly to be published by Frank Cass, provides a useful account of the American background of the Somalia mission.

  2. 2

    UN Security Council records, S/PV. 3188, March 26, 1993.

  3. 3

    It was a central part of the Ranger creed not to abandon dead or wounded on the battlefield. In Mogadishu this meant the force staying on when they could have got out. A Ranger sergeant explained, “You can’t know until you’ve been in a situation like that how important it is to know that your buddies will not leave you behind, even if you’re dead. It’s one of those things that enables you to fight.” Ranger Sergeant Shawn Nelson, quoted in Mark Bowden, “The Day of the Rangers,” VFW, October 1998.

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