Narratives can be useful, but they become dangerous when serious journalists buy into the mythic portions and their stories become part of the debate. This is the case in a Washington Post article on 20 July of this year that stated - “In 1992, hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death, prompting a U.S.-led peacekeeping force to intervene. Within months, the force was engaged in an intense operation to uproot Somali warlords. It eventually withdrew after 18 American soldiers were killed in a battle the following year, an incident portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The statement is simply wrong, and this kind of sloppy reporting only muddies the debate.
OPERATION RESTORE HOPE lasted from 9 December 1992 to 4 May 1993. The U.N. sanctioned, U.S. led operation succeeded through a deft combination of negotiations and intimidation, to protect the delivery of millions of tons of food and other relief supplies. By April the famine crisis was over, and the U.S. turned over operations in Somalia to the United Nations.
Black Hawk Down, formally known as the Battle of the Black Sea Market, occurred nearly four months later on 3 October, 1993. It was the climax of OPERATION CONTINUE HOPE, the U.N. mission to restore governance to Somalia. It did indeed fail, and American led forces evacuated the U.N. Staff and Peacekeeping force in early 1995.
Today, the problem is similar. The Somali famine if the early nineties was bad, but there were adequate relief supplies available among the U.N. and private aid organizations. The disaster was caused by the actions of Somali clan militias that were hijacking the supplies and using them for their own gain.
The Americans succeeded in RESTORE HOPE through a combination of skilled negotiations and overwhelming, if very precise, firepower. Its success was not rocket science. I was involved in the planning for RESTORE HOPE and involved in the fighting in CONTINUE HOPE that led to the Blackhawk Down disaster. I can assure the reader that they were two very different operations.
In RESTORE HOPE, the U.S.-led coalition sent a simple message to the clan leaders using public diplomacy and skilled negotiations led by Ambassador Robert Oakley, an old Africa hand much respected by the Somalis. The ground rules were clear. Anyone impeding the relief effort by armed force was going to die. The clans agreed to this. When rouge elements within any given clan violated the rules, they got evaporated. However, in the Somali cultural tradition, once the shooting stopped, Oakley and his Marine Corps counterparts would sit down with the clan leaders involved, and explains why it happened and what could be done to prevent a recurrence. The mission was simple; “stop the dying and set conditions so it won’t start again after we leave”.
Unfortunately, the CONTINUE HOPE follow-on mission was more open-ended. It started out to be a peacekeeping mission, but a theory evolved that only the re-imposition of a stable central government could prevent future humanitarian disasters. The sentiment, while noble, was poorly thought out. The U.N. lacked the resources and the will for such a long term undertaking. To make matters worse, the U.N. planners failed to include the powerful Somali clans as part of the process and ignored the cultural nuances associated with conducting operations in Somalia.
The Somali narrative that grew out of CONTINUE HOPE is wrong, but it persists and it has done much damage. It paralyzed the Clinton administration from taking strong actions to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. The situation in Somalia today is similar to that of 1992. Today, the al Qaeda franchise al Shabab has replaced the clans as the source of the crisis as their fighters are blocking aid eforts. We don’t need an American led force to protect the aid. An African Union led force backed up by attack helicopters and fighter bombers from any neighboring Gulf State could ensure aid shipments, but blind adherence to the narrative is not helping the debate.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine infantry colonel, is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Relations, and has contributed chapters to two academic studies of the Somalia interventions