U.S. War Crimes in Somalia
Published on: Feb 28, 2007

By Alex de Waal

From the New Left Review, 30, 1998, 131-144.

In his foreword to Mogadishu!: Heroism and Tragedy, Ross Perot wrote: ‘Read this book carefully. Never forget its contents as you watch the TV docu-dramas of smart bombs going down air shafts, where war is presented in a sterile, sanitized environment. Remember, war is fighting and dying.’1 Notable by its absence from the final sentence is the verb ‘killing’. Careful readers will find, for example, that U.S. helicopters fired off no fewer than 50,000 Alpha 165 and 63 rockets on 3 October 1993 in the course of the battle near the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu, in which eighteen U.S. soldiers died and one was captured. The book lauds ‘the world’s most highly trained and effective military “extraction unit”’, that gained more decorations than any other American flying unit in U.S. military history for a comparable size of operation.2 But there are only hints at the carnage among the Somali civilians who lived—and all too commonly died—in this closely packed residential quarter of the city.

The importance of this inglorious episode in American military history lies not only in the as-yet-undocumented carnage among the residents of Somalia’s capital city, but in what it tells us about U.S. military doctrine. It also casts light on some of the reasons behind the U.S. Administration’s efforts to block the creation of an independent International Criminal Court with universal jurisdiction to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.S.’s stated objection, voiced in the negotiations leading up to the vote in Rome to create the Court on 17 July this year, was that universal jurisdiction would open the door to malicious prosecutions against American peacekeepers. An analysis of the evidence from the Mogadishu war suggests that the reasons may be rather deeper.

Operation Restore Hope was launched in December 1992 amid shocking—and carefully orchestrated—images of anarchy and starvation in Somalia, with the mandate of ‘creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian relief’. Eight months later it turned into the greatest U.S. military humiliation since Vietnam. In three months of urban counter-guerilla warfare against the unpaid, irregular but resourceful militia of General Mohamed Farah Aidid in Mogadishu city, U.S. military doctrines of overwhelming force and near-zero American casualties came unstuck. The culmination was the 3 October battle, after which pictures of a dead U.S. pilot being dragged through the streets by a jeering crowd and the plight of another taken prisoner of war—‘hostage’ in the White House’s preferred terminology—forced a truce and U.S. withdrawal.

The humanitarian garb of Operation Restore Hope was superficial from the start. Launched in December 1992 just as the famine was waning, the dispatch of troops had more to do with testing the newly emerging doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ than saving Somalis. An independent review by the U.S. Refugee Policy Group concluded that the operation saved between 10,000 and 25,000 lives rather than the two million initially advertised.3 This sober reality was noted at the time, though few chose to listen amidst the hype generated among the media, the UN and the Pentagon. Much more modest forms of relief aid could have achieved exactly the same result.

The relief specialist, Fred Cuny, had proposed a smaller, more flexible and better targeted operation in the ‘famine triangle’ which would have avoided the perilous vortex of Mogadishu. The plan was the subject of serious discussion in Washington. But, in the words of the then assistant deputy secretary for defence for African Affairs, this option ‘died because it failed to meet the U.S. military’s new insistence on the application of massive, overwhelming force’.4 So a huge logistical operation was mounted through Mogadishu, and the U.S. had to grapple with the political ambitions of General Aidid, the faction leader who controlled the airport, the main routes out of the city, and most of the heavy weapons.

Lost Opportunities

In the early days, given the prestige and sheer number of the U.S. forces, they could have begun the hard work of disarming the Somali factions and negotiating an inclusive peace deal, but the prime task of U.S. Special Envoy Robert Oakley was to get the boys back home safely—and that entailed leaving the tough issues for later. So Oakley cosied up to General Aidid. For example, Oakley chose to rent his house from Aidid’s chief financier, Osman ‘Ato’, use Aidid’s moneychangers for the lucrative business of converting U.S. dollars to Somali shillings, and gave the General a series of public relations coups by heralding ‘breakthroughs’ in peace talks that had in fact been negotiated by UN diplomats some months earlier.5

Worse, when the intervention faced its first major challenge in mid-February 1993, the U.S. decided on the soft course of doing nothing. Militia forces loyal to faction leader General Mohamed Hersi Morgan attacked and overran the city of Kismayo, until then controlled by Aidid’s Somali National Alliance (SNA) forces.6 The UN forces supposedly controlling the city, mostly U.S. and Belgian troops, sat in their sandbagged emplacements, doing nothing. True, intervention would have meant killing or wounding Somali fighters and taking casualties, but U.S. inaction was hardly an encouraging precedent. When the attack was announced on the BBC, crowds in Mogadishu spontaneously demonstrated against the U.S. and UN, and peacekeepers opened fire, inflicting some casualties. Oakley stayed in his headquarters, making no attempt to reassure the crowds who interpreted U.S. inaction as support for Morgan.7

Just as it became more urgent to take hard decisions about intervention, and the militias had learned that they could continue to fight without provoking action from the international forces, the U.S. handed over the operation to a less well-equipped and poorly coordinated UN force. Security Council Resolution 814, passed on 26 March, was drafted by the U.S. and gave the UN far-reaching powers under Chapter VII of the Charter to rebuild the nation of Somalia. It was an experiment in pushing the limits of UN action. An American—indeed a former national security adviser—retired Admiral Jonathan Howe, was put in overall control, while a U.S. Quick Reaction Force (QRF) under Major General Thomas Montgomery remained in reserve in Mogadishu.

The UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) was mandated in May 1993. At exactly the same time, a new political strategy emerged: to marginalize Aidid, rather than appease him. But Aidid had seen the U.S. and UN fail their first tests of courage, and was not to be deterred by political posturing by a weaker UN force.

On 5 June, confrontation duly occurred, after a UN raid on a designated weapons storage site at Radio Mogadishu, which resulted in an ambush in which twenty-three Pakistani troops were killed. The next day the UN Security Council hastily—but almost certainly correctly—ascribed blame to General Aidid, and resolved to punish him. The Security Council passed a resolution (Resolution 837) authorizing ‘all necessary measures’ to apprehend those responsible for the attack on the Pakistanis.

On the Carrollian principle of ‘sentence first, verdict later’, the investigation—carried out by a U.S. professor Tom Farer—did not take place until July. It consisted almost entirely of interviews with UNOSOM personnel, and failed to address the central, sensitive question of the UN’s political intelligence which had led it to try to search the radio station. Attempts to capture this same station had twice been the spark for major conflict in Mogadishu in 1991, and in the weeks before the UN action in which the UN had become increasingly and openly exasperated with Aidid’s (fairly mild) anti-UN broadcasts.8 Conflict was almost inevitable once the intention to search the radio station was announced, and indeed the aide who received that notification, Abdi Kabdiid, told the UNOSOM officers so. There then followed three months of urban warfare, described by Somalis as ‘high-tech search, low-tech hide’ as the U.S. brought all its resources to bear on locating the fugitive general and destroying his militia.

This operation, in which humanitarian principles were wholly jettisoned, had more to do with upholding the status of the UN in a world where its credibility was severely compromised—notably because of events in Bosnia and Cambodia—than with seeking solutions to the problems of Somalia. Having set out to prove that it could rebuild the nation, the UN was now testing the limits of Chapter VII, which also authorizes the use of force.

At times the operations descended into farce. After a month of failure, the U.S. army brought in its renowned special operations units, including the Rangers. But rather than striking fear into the hearts of Somalis, at first they only brought black humour: one of their earliest operations involved descending from helicopters to raid an ‘Aidid stronghold’ that turned out to be a house rented by the UN Development Programme, where they held UN staff at gunpoint and forced an Egyptian diplomat, in her negligée, to lie down on shards of broken glass.

The Showdown

The full story of the skirmishes, ambushes, raids, killings, demolitions and battles of this period is too long to attempt here. Four U.S. personnel were killed by a landmine in August. A military disaster was narrowly averted on 9 December when a tank was ambushed. A U.S. helicopter was downed on 26 September and three of its crew killed—though this incident was hushed up at the time. Thus casualties mounted.

The showdown came on 3 October, with an attempt by U.S. Rangers and special forces to snatch two senior Aidid aides near the Olympic Hotel. Resistance was fierce. Two U.S. helicopters were shot down; a third just made it back to base before crashing. An armoured rescue column was ambushed and partly destroyed.