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Friday, December 27, 2002

Of all the things to do on Christmas Day, I watched Black Hawk Down. (I also saw The Fellowship of the Ring, which was wonderful; I will probably venture to see The Two Towers in the next couple of weeks.) BHD got me to thinking about war, nation-building, and a little about the all-but-inevitable conflict in Iraq next year. I have yet to come to any conclusions on Iraq, but I do have a few thoughts.

Black Hawk Down, based on the newspaper serial and subsequent book by Mark Bowden, describes the clash in Mogadishu on 3-4 October 1993 between United States forces and the militia of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid--a clash that left eighteen U.S. personnel dead and seventy-eight wounded, along with over one thousand Somali casualties. Public outcry in the United States contributed to the decision to withdraw U.S. forces in March 1994. The film is worth watching simply to understand the events of that day, and the cost of an apparent "victory"--the U.S. forces had actually succeeded in capturing the two Aidid functionaries they were after.

I had read a lot about the film before I saw it, though I have yet to read the book. One get the impression, though, of hubris on the part of the mission commanders. The original Somali relief mission, Operation Restore Hope, started in December 1992; this was aimed at suppressing clan violence in Somalia, which interfered with international famine relief efforts in the horn of Africa. The Federation of American Scientists notes, though, that "the US failed to acknowledge the political dimensions of the situation at the highest political levels". This early effort, though, is still regarded as a success; the FAS, for instance, notes that:

By March 1993, mass starvation had been overcome, and security was much improved. At its peak, almost 30,000 US military personnel participated in the operation, along with 10,000 personnel from twenty-four other states. Despite the absence of political agreement among the rival forces, periodic provocations, and occasional military responses by UNITAF [the unified task force], the coalition retained its impartiality and avoided open combat with Somali factions--blending its coercive powers with political dialogue, psychological operations, and highly visible humanitarian activities.


On May 4, 1993, Operation Restore hope was succeeded by the second United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II), which as the FAS describes, became "a badly flawed peace, with military forces which came to be seen by parties to the local conflict as co-belligerents rather than impartial peacekeepers." The failure to acknowledge the political dimensions is illustrated by Bowden's description of the escalating tensions between the US-Un forces and Aidid:

It didn't take long after arriving in Mogadishu in the spring of 1993 for [UN Special Representative, retired US Admiral Jonathan] Howe to conclude that Aidid had no interest in power-sharing. Aidid's army had overthrown longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre two years earlier. He and his clan felt that it was now their turn to rule Somalia. They had purchased that right with blood, the ancient currency of power.

With 20,000 Marines patrolling the city, Aidid didn't dare confront the United Nations, but when the Marines pulled out on May 4, the situation deteriorated. Howe was stuck trying to advance a more ambitious UN agenda at the same time that the United States was scaling back its military muscle.


The United Nations official history of peacekeeping, The Blue Helmets, states

. . . it became clear that, although signatory to the March [Conference of National Reconciliation] Agreement, General Mohammed Farah Aidid's faction would not cooperate in the Agreement's implementation. Attempts by UNOSOM II to implement disarmament led to increasing tensions and, on 5 June, to violence. In a series of armed attacks against UNOSOM II troops throughout south Mogadishu by Somali militia, 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed, 10 were reported missing and 54 wounded. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General [Howe] stated that the soldiers were "murdered as they sought to serve the neediest people in the city". (UN italics)


After the attack on the Pakistani peacekeepers, Howe and his UN forces started a manhunt for Aidid, The Blue Helmets states that "UNOSOM II removed Radio Mogadishu from the control of the United Somali Congress/the Somali National Alliance (USC/SNA) (General Aidid's faction), and disabled or destroyed militia weapons and equipment in a number of storage sites and clandestine military facilities." These efforts culminated in a July 12, 1993 attack on on ``Abdi House,'' after Aidid's self-styled interior minister, Abdi Hassan Awale. In the second floor on that house was a meeting of elders and statemen from Aidid's Habr Gidr clan was taking place. Washington Post journalist Keith Richburg describes what happened (as quoted by Mickey Kaus):

[I]t was a slaughter. A half-dozen Cobras pumped sixteen TOW missiles and two thousand rounds of cannon fire into the house with deadly accuracy. First they blew away the stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping. … A video taken just after the attack showed the mangled bodies literally blown apart in the attack—the religious leaders, the elders, even the women in their colorful wrap dresses who were always on hand to serve the tea.


Kaus says that "[t]he July 12 massacre caused the entire Habr Gidr clan—and some other clans—to rally behind Aideed"; Bowden says "[f]rom the Habr Gidr's perspective, the United Nations and, in particular, the United States, had declared war." The attacks continued, culminating in the debacle of October 3/4, 1993.

There are several lessons one could conceivably draw from the experience in Somalia. One gives comfort to pacifists by saying that all war is terrible, and as a result it should be avoided at all costs; the loss of the lives of 18 American soldiers, plus the hundreds of Somali dead only highlights this. This position, however, does a tremendous disservice to the earlier Somalia operation, which had successfully created an environment for international famine relief assistance. Another lesson missions of vengeance; as Kaus notes, there is "well-documented tendency of such vengeance missions to get out of control." Does this apply to the policy of regime change in Iraq as well?

The most important lesson, in my opinion, is know who and what you're dealing with. Kaus again says "If you're trying to bring peace to a country, you have to deal with the existing social structures and military powers. Realism please!" The Pentagon was skeptical of the entire operation at the time; Bowden says:

The generals, however, wanted more solid reasons for getting their soldiers killed. Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was skeptical of the whole nation-building effort. He considered Somalia a tribal nation that had been living that way for centuries. Did Howe and the U.N. think they could establish a Jeffersonian democracy there overnight?


The reason why the US has used Afghan proxies, in spite of their dubious nature, demonstrates this. In a seminal post on the subject, Jim Henley notes that

"Why are atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance more acceptable than those committed by the Taliban?" is simple: The Northern Alliance has shown no special interest in killing Americans.

So far. If we make it our business to thwart more warlords, more warlords will make it their business to thwart us.


Henley describes the Somalia operation in terms of the "soft racism of low expectations"--"[t]he racist part is that, as was clear at the time, the idea that the warlords would take exception to [the disarmament operation] took the US government, media and public completely by surprise." In Somalia people were starving because the warlords wanted them to starve--food, or the lack thereof, was a weapon of war; the notion that the arrival of US-UN forces would cause the warring factions to lay down arms is an overly naive one, which fails to account for the "adult power brokers who cared more for their own plans than American ones."

All of this is discomfiting. A lot of people in the current Iraq debate would like to know what will happen in the post-Saddam era--what will the US put in place when it administers Baghdad. In light of the above, a more basic question is should any kind of blueprint be drafted? Any outside plan fails to account for the fact that Iraq has a politics of it own, and that building a pluralistic democracy, especially one imposed from the outside, that respects human rights could take decades, especially as no such Arab state exists. This is one of the reasons why Henley opposes the upcoming war. it is also a reason why, despite minor leaks, no post-Iraq war strategy has been laid down by the Bush Administration. Any such strategy creates promises, which the US would have to deliver. This is why the British government's dossier on Iraq's human rights abuses is cynical--in the end, the people who have the greatest interest in the matter are the Iraqis themselves.

The war, if it happens (a very probable if) can probably only open the possibility of an improvement in the condition of the Iraqi people. There is a lot the West can do, but in the end it is up to them. America is pushing "regime change" to further its own ends, with an active debate as to what those ends are and why they must necessarily be achieved through war. In this case a war and the betterment of the Iraqis, at minimum by the subsequent ending of sanctions, can possibly coincide. On the other hand, they can not. This is something that both those who support the war, and those that oppose it, should keep in mind.