Twenty Years After Black Hawk Down, What Lessons Have Been Learned?


This week marks the 20th anniversary of Black Hawk Down, an American military operation on October 3-4, 1993 in which 18 American soldiers and over 500 Somalis were killed, and 78 Americans and thousands of Somalis wounded, in an attempt to capture top lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.

Black Hawk Down brought to an end the American engagement in Somalia, and opened the way for the international abandonment of Somalia from 1995-2007. Furthermore, Black Hawk Down had major ramifications for the Clinton administration’s Africa policy, including the decision six months later not to become engaged in preventing the genocide in Rwanda. This 20th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned about American military interventions in far away countries.

American efforts to assist the Somali people in coping with the man-made famine crisis precipitated by the fall of Siad Barre in January 1991 and the ensuing civil war were well intentioned. Appeals by American humanitarian organizations and Senators Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum led outgoing President George H.W. Bush to offer Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali an intermediate US-led peace operation (the United Task Force–UNITAF) before a second UN force (UNOSOM II) could be stood up in early 1993.

The US intervention, led by Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston and Ambassador Robert Oakley (the latter had been US Ambassador to Somalia from 1982-84), took a conciliatory and cautious approach, underscoring that the Somalis had to decide their own destiny. The warlords were assured that UNITAF’s role was solely to assist in alleviating the famine crisis. Ambassador Oakley urged Somali leaders to enter into political dialogue to establish a new Somali government. They succeeded in persuading the warlords to set aside their “technicals” and open the roads to the delivery of relief supplies. A Civilian-Military Operations Command (CMOC) was set up as a unique and highly successful initiative whereby UNITAF forces accompanied delivery of relief and medical supplies by humanitarian agencies to the afflicted regions in the South. The humanitarian crisis was quickly mitigated if not totally resolved.

On January 3, 1993 during Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s visit to Mogadishu to review the security and humanitarian situation, Aideed organized a peaceful demonstration against him and his party accusing the UN of planning to impose a trusteeship on the Somali people. While the demonstration ended peacefully, Boutros-Ghali felt that the UN had been humiliated. In retrospect, this probably contributed to his willingness to see Aideed captured by Delta forces. Later, Republicans were to blame Boutros-Ghali for the deaths of the Delta forces.

At the transition from the Bush to the Clinton administration in January 1993, the political situation changed quickly, although on the surface it seemed relatively stable. In preparing for a successor peacekeeping force, the US Representative to the UN Security Council, Ambassador Madeline Albright, described the UN plans for Somalia as “an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country.” The international community was going to re-build a “failed state.” This was the beginning of peacebuilding.

The US pursued plans to set up a new more robust UN peacekeeping force (UNOSOM II) without a US military presence, but offered Admiral Jonathan Howe as the new SRSG. This was to assure continued American engagement.

In March 1993, the Security Council adopted Resolution 814, urging Somali leaders to cooperate with Admiral Howe and UNOSOM II Force Commander Cevik Bir in setting the stage for election of a new national government. The Somali warlords were called on to carry out a disarmament program.

The main flaw of Resolution 814 was its adoption without any consultation with the concerned parties, especially the warlords. It was an act of hubris (“assertive multilateralism”) which assumed that the Security Council could decide the fate of a country without taking the views of the warlords who held de facto power into account. Aideed quickly realized that the UN’s real goal was to marginalize him. Relations quickly deteriorated; Howe and Aideed never met.

When the Pakistani peacekeepers arrived on June 3 to shut down Aideed’s radio station, they were unprepared for resistance; 42 of them were killed. Without an inquiry, the Security Council, in another unreasoned moment, found the Somali National Movement responsible, and offered a $25,000 reward for Aideed’s capture. Suddenly, what had started as a humanitarian operation had become a war. Ironically, only a former US military officer could have gained access to the Pentagon leadership, precipitating the Black Hawk Down catastrophe. Howe persuaded the Pentagon leadership to deploy a specially trained Delta Force team to capture Aideed. Helicopter gunships were brought in.

Unfortunately, the Delta leadership had no political context, did not understand the extent of support for Aideed nor the animosity their presence engendered. Over the summer, several further attempts to capture Aideed failed; Somali civilians, innocent bystanders, and journalists were killed. While the Black Hawk Down mission “succeeded” in that several of Aideed’s top aides were captured, the disastrous and unexpected loss of American lives in the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3 and 4, 1993, came as a shock both to President Clinton and the Congressional leadership. Overnight, Black Hawk Down was the end of the road for US military engagement in Africa.

How could a humanitarian deployment turn into warfare? The underlying answer is the lack of basic understanding of Somalia’s history, political culture, and clan-based society. In the first half of 1993, key decisions were made in Washington DC by officials in the Pentagon and the State Department who had minimal or no experience in Somalia. They wildly over-estimated the effectiveness of first world military capacities in a third world context, lacking basic knowledge of the difficulties of military operations in Mogadishu. They completely underestimated the extent of popular support for Aideed. His defiance of the UN enhanced his stature.

Moreover, American officials were unaware of the limitations of their own knowledge and experience. They assumed that there was a military solution to the political crisis in Somalia, and that the UN (i.e., the P5) could impose its will on the Somali warlords and people. Subsequent transitional administrations in East Timor (now Timor Leste) and Kosovo have been somewhat more sensitive to public opinion, but they also suffered from some of the same problems.

This unhappy history is pertinent to ongoing efforts to craft a viable political future for Somalia. As is now widely recognized, the Somalis have to decide their own destiny. The new government led by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and other leaders in Mogadishu and the regions must be actively involved in negotiating a new constitution. The 17,000 strong African Union Force (AMISOM) remains essential to strengthen security against the continued predations of al-Shabaab. The attack on the Westgate Mall has underscored that its militants remain at large and can be brutally effective.

But there is no outside military solution for Somalia. The US, the EU, and the regional states have to be cognizant of Somali culture and values as well as its recent history. Black Hawk Down reminds us that peacebuilding cannot be imposed; it can only be built from within, with the full acceptance of the Somali leadership and people.

John Hirsch is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. A former US ambassador to Sierra Leone, he was a political adviser to the commander of UNITAF, General Robert Johnston, and deputy to President Bush’s Special Envoy, Ambassador Robert Oakley, from 1992-1993.

About the photo: Super64, the second helicopter to crash during Black Hawk Down, heads out over Mogadishu, October 3, 1993. (Credit: USASOC)