By Herman J. Cohen
Washington, DC — The arrival of the film “Blackhawk Down” in cinemas in the United States and around the world reminded Americans that Somalia has never been far from the center of Washington’s national security concerns. This vivid memory of the tragedy that befell American soldiers and Mogadishu fighters on October 3, 1993, comes at a time when Somalia is drawing worldwide attention as a potential hiding place for Al-Qaeda terrorists seeking to escape from U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Starting as far back as the Second World War (1939-1945), the United States paid particular attention to Somalia in its Africa policy. Since Italy was an enemy nation, allied with Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in the Second World War, Italian-controlled Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia were early military targets of the United Nations powers. Thanks to British forces based in Kenya, these territories were among the first to be liberated from Axis control in 1942. This was important to the United States because Mogadishu, Asmara and Djibouti were relay stations for U.S. forces operating in the Middle East.
Even before the end of the Second World War, the problem of Somali irredentism caused some friction between the United States and Britain. In August 1944, the British proposed to consolidate all Somali peoples into one nation, including the Ogaden, Italian Somaliland and French Somaliland, which became Djibouti. (Of course, they conveniently omitted the Somalis living in northeast Kenya, a key British colony..)
The United States objected to the inclusion of the Ogaden in Somaliland because Ethiopia had entered the war as an independent state and as an ally of the United Nations powers. For the same reason, the U.S. acquiesced in the amalgamation of the Italian colony of Eritrea with Ethiopia, without consulting the people of Eritrea.
After the merger of the Italian and British Somalilands into one independent nation in 1960, the United States regarded Mogadishu as an important African country given its strategic location next to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Following the military takeover led by Mohammed Siad Barre in October 1969, and his adoption of “scientific socialism” as Somali state policy, Somalia became a pawn in the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. The country’s strategic location made the U.S.-Soviet competition all the more intense.
The essence of Siad Barre’s foreign policy was Somali nationalism and irredentism, with a focus on uniting all Somali people under one flag. This policy constituted a major threat to Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, where the vast majority of the inhabitants are Somalis. The policy also provided an opening for the Soviets, who had no inhibitions about pouring arms into Somalia in order to menace Ethiopia, America’s main ally in the Horn Africa. As part of this process, the Soviets developed an air and naval facility in the port city of Berbera on Somalia’s northwest coast.
With a key communications’ base in Asmara, the United States countered the Somali arms buildup with a major military assistance program to the Ethiopian regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. Armed clashes between Somalia and Ethiopia took place on a regular basis, mainly in the Ogaden region. It was in this area that the first test of American and Soviet air power took place, with Ethiopian F-5 American-built aircraft demonstrating superiority over the Somali Mig-16s supplied by the Soviets.
In 1975, U.S. policy toward Somalia took an ironic 180-degree turn, when a military coup in Ethiopia overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in favor of a Marxist pro-Soviet group known as the DERGUE, under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Merriam. This gave the Soviets an opening to become close to the Ethiopians in order to further undermine U.S. influence and gain control over the Red Sea lanes leading to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. The Soviet aim was to use their friendship with both Ethiopia and Somalia to reconcile the two feuding powers as “Marxist brothers.” However, they failed to understand that in the mind of Siad Barre, the friend of their enemy (Ethiopia) could not be simultaneously a friend of Somalia. For Siad Barre, Somali irredentism was much more important than Marxist scientific socialism.
As U.S.-Ethiopian relations cooled in the aftermath of the 1975 Mengistu coup, U.S.-Somali relations warmed. The United State increased military and economic assistance to Somalia, and the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu became one of the biggest American diplomatic missions in Africa. However, the U.S. faced a dilemma in its relations with Somalia because Washington did not want to be responsible for supporting Somali aggression against the Ethiopian Ogaden. Thus, Washington had to walk a fine line between the supply of defensive weapons to the Somali army, while parrying Siad Barre’s constant demand for offensive weapons with which to attack Ethiopia.
Using offensive weapons purchased from Italy and other suppliers, Siad Barre attacked Ethiopia in the aftermath of the 1975 Mengistu takeover, hoping to take advantage of the disarray in the Ethiopian military. In order to counter Somalia’s initial military successes in the Ogaden in 1977, Ethiopia called for assistance from the Soviet Union, who financed the arrival of 5,000 Cuban troops. The Cubans helped defeat the invading Somali army.
The deployment of Fidel Castro’s Cuban troops to both Ethiopia and Angola in the period 1975-1976 was the major cause of the death of the policy of detente between the U.S. and the USSR. The Cold War had flared up again in Africa, and once again, Somalia was deeply involved.
In 1979, U.S. relations with Somalia took another turn after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. military analysts feared that the invasion was just the beginning of a major Soviet military push into Iran and the Persian Gulf oil producing areas. President Jimmy Carter reacted to this analysis by ordering the State Department to negotiate military base rights and facilities in the Gulf region. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states surrounding the Persian Gulf said they wanted American protection from the Soviet threat, but preferred that U.S. military components remain “over the horizon”, and out of sight. The logical alternative to bases directly in the Gulf countries was to have facilities in East Africa. Thus, between 1979 and 1980, the U.S. negotiated to take over the former Soviet naval and air facility in the Somali port of Berbera and proceeded to upgrade the runway and docks in a project costing $35 million.
With Berbera becoming a key component of U.S. military planning in the defence of the Persian Gulf region, U.S.-Somali relations became even more important to Washington. This created yet another dilemma for U.S. policy, because the Siad Barre dictatorship became increasingly harsh, repressive and corrupt during the decade of the 1980s. Human rights groups in the U.S. and elsewhere criticized the American policy of providing military support to the Siad Barre regime. There were efforts in Congress to cut off military assistance to Somalia. These succeeded in 1989, so Washington had to maintain relations with Siad Barre solely through the supply of humanitarian and economic assistance.
During the second half of the 1980s, Somalia sank more and more deeply into civil war and lawlessness, as various clan groups armed themselves in opposition to Siad Barre’s murderous regime. In 1990, Siad Barre’s military had lost control of most of the country and was reduced mainly to defending Mogadishu.
Throughout this period, the United States continued to maintain good relations with Siad Barre because of the overriding imperative of maintaining military access to Berbera. In mid-1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, setting off a major security crisis in the Persian Gulf. It was for such a contingency that the U.S. had maintained strong ties with Siad Barre, despite his invasions of Ethiopia and his despicable human rights record. But in an irony of ironies, the American military suddenly found itself welcomed to the Persian Gulf and was able to base its fighting units inside Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in preparation for the fight to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Thus, the United States did not need Berbera in the Gulf War, and the reason for the friendship with Siad Barre fell away.
By early 1991, Siad Barre had been driven out of office and out of Somalia by his clan enemies, the Cold War had formally ended, and the Dergue regime in Ethiopia had been defeated and replaced by Tigrayan and Eritrean guerrilla armies. Unlike Ethiopia, where a new government was able to restore order and take control expeditiously, Somalia fell into a state of anarchy after Siad Barre’s departure. Mogadishu was especially hit by clan warfare, lawlessness and banditry. The newly constructed U.S. Embassy was invaded by bandits, with the entire American staff and diplomats from other nations escaping on helicopters sent by the American military operating in the nearby Gulf war. Thus, in January 1991, it looked as if the United States had reached the point of forgetting about Somalia, which in strategic terms had reverted to being just another troubled backwater.
But Somalia could not be forgotten. By early 1992, in the absence of a central government, the country’s humanitarian situation was becoming disastrous. This was especially true in southern Somalia, where marauding clan armies were fighting over the different quarters of Mogadishu, as well as the cities of Baidoa and Kismayu. With the security situation so dangerous, farmers were unable to plant and harvest. Efforts by the United Nations and private relief organizations to deliver food to the hungry were thwarted by warlords who were using relief goods as bargaining chips for money and power.
By mid-1992, the UN was reporting growing starvation in southern Somalia, with infants, nursing mothers and the elderly as the chief victims. Thus, Somalia again became a major policy issue for the United States government.
Efforts by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutro-Ghali to persuade the UN Security Council in early 1992 to consider the use of peacekeepers to help alleviate starvation in Somalia were blocked, mainly by the United States. The U.S. military were reluctant to start a process whereby American forces might be called upon to engage in combat in a lawless situation. But the so-called “CNN effect” that showed starving Somali mothers and babies on American television daily had a strong impact. Congress was inundated with mail calling for Washington to do something to stop the suffering.
In August 1992, as the U.S. presidential election campaign was beginning, President Bush ordered the U.S. military to begin a humanitarian relief airlift to Somalia. The airlift was based in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, and was successful in alleviating food shortages around some of the major Somali airports such as Baidoa. However, in situations of major famine, airlifts are invariably insufficient because of the cargo limitations of aircraft. It was clear that the only solution to the problem of mass starvation (5000 Somalis were dying per week as of October 1992) was massive delivery by ship and overland truck transport. This could only take place, however, with military protection of the shipments against the predatory warlords who controlled Mogadishu’s seaport and airport.
In November 1992, after he had lost the election to Bill Clinton, President Bush asked the State Department for recommendations with respect to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Somalia. The Department recommended that the United State propose a UN-led military enforcement operation to open the way for food deliveries, without the use of American troops, but with the logistical support of U.S. military airlift. The Pentagon expressed the view that it would take at least six months for the United Nations to mount such an operation, and only the United States military had the capability of moving quickly.
On the basis of these recommendations, President Bush ordered a U.S.-led military operation to stop the starvation, provided that (1) the Security Council agreed, (2) there were troops of other countries to accompany U.S. forces, and (3) the United Nations take over the relief operation within six months. With all of these agreements in place, the first American forces arrived in Somalia in early December 1992. A number of other countries also sent troops to Somalia, including Botswana and Nigeria in Africa. In terms of ending the hunger cycle, the operation was a huge success. Within a matter of weeks, relief supplies were flowing smoothly, and the number of deaths from starvation and malnutrition had declined tremendously.
The American-led relief operation was turned over to United Nations control in May 1993, as originally planned. U.S. forces were reduced to 2,500 troops serving in a reserve capacity. Boutros-Ghali appointed retired American Admiral Jonathan Howe to head up the entire operation. With relief supplies flowing and agriculture revived, the UN operation became one of working to restore governmental institutions and basic security.
This prospect became a threat to some of the warlords in the Mogadishu area who feared for their economic interests. One of them, Mohammed Aideed, decided to take action to force the United Nations out. This took the form of guerrilla attacks on UN peacekeepers. In September 1993, his men ambushed and killed 25 Pakistani UN peacekeeping troops.
As a loyal commander, Admiral Howe felt that he had to take action to punish the perpetrators of this atrocity. However, instead of working through UN channels to obtain authorization to use military force, he worked through U.S. channels to organize a raid by American ranger troops on Mohammed Aideed’s compound. This operation resulted in the disaster of October 3, 1993 in which 18 U.S. troops and many hundreds of Somalis died.
As a result of the October 3 disaster, President Bill Clinton decided to pull all forces out of Somalia and to close down the UN operation, thereby fulfilling Mohammed Aideed’s objective. In addition, President Clinton cast public blame on the United Nations for the deaths of American troops, when the United Nations had nothing to do with the operation. This led to a steady decline in support for the UN within the American public and the United States Congress.
Over the years, it has become conventional wisdom in the press, and even in academic circles, to describe the U.S. operation in Somalia a failure because of the tragic events of October 3 1993. However, this is not the case. President Bush’s objective of bringing a halt to the massive starvation caused by the warlords’ interference in food distribution was fully successful. The operation was turned over to UN control as planned. It was only after the official U.S. handover of control that the tragedy with U.S. combat troops took place. It was a tragic occurrence, but the success of the U.S. operation to stop starvation cannot be disputed. President Bush senior deserves credit for this success.
In 1993, once again, the United States Government thought it was saying goodbye to Somalia, hoping never to have to deal with that troubled, failed state again. But, alas for Somalia, the events of September 11, 2001 led to a search for Al-Qaeda terrorists and their bases of operation throughout the world.
It was known to American intelligence agencies that Osama Bin Laden had sent Islamic “missionaries” to Somalia from Sudan in 1991-1992. These missionaries organized a Somali welfare organization called “Al Itihad”. In addition to traditional work to establish clinics and schools, Al Itihad also organized armed militias designed to attack enemies of the Islamic revolution as defined by Bin Laden. These militias, based near the confluence of the Somali, Kenyan and Ethiopian borders, made guerrilla attacks inside Ethiopia. The Ethiopian army, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, reacted strongly to these attacks, invading Somali towns to find and root out the Al Itihad fighters and administrative structures. By the mid-1990s, the Ethiopians had succeeded in doing significant damage to the Al Itihad organization.
Because of the history of Al Itihad, and its ties to Osama Bin Laden, the American government naturally looked at Somalia in its worldwide survey of Al-Qaeda operations. The fact that Somalia remained an anarchic state raised suspicions that Al-Qaeda was actually operating or hiding in Somalia, or that Al-Qaeda fighters escaping from Afghanistan might be trying to go to Somalia in order to regroup and continue the war against the United States from there. Hence, there is currently a great deal of attention being paid to Somalia as the possible “next target” in America’s response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
While still a country without a government, Somalia continues to struggle to survive and restore central authority. It therefore remains vulnerable to external manipulation and penetration, as was Afghanistan during the period of Taliban rule. It is to be hoped that despite their suffering, the Somali people will reject any efforts by Al-Qaeda forces to exploit their weaknesses and use Somalia as a base of operations against the United States and the west. At the same time, the United States government should finally understand that failed states, such as Somalia, cannot be ignored in a globalized world, in which both productive and destructive forces cannot be contained within national boundaries.
Herman J. Cohen is a former American diplomat, who retired in 1993 with the rank of career ambassador after serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the first Bush administration and Senior Director for Africa on President Reagan’s National Security Council staff. He is currently president of Cohen and Woods International, a Virginia-based consulting and lobbying firm.