Why Somalia Twenty Years Ago Matters for Syria Today
Now that President Obama has called on Congress to deliberate and decide on the use of force in Syria, the public should use this time to reflect on another foreign intervention nearly twenty years ago: Somalia. The October 1993 Battle of Mogadishu was a watershed moment in US military action abroad. An operation to arrest two key lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid was estimated to take 30 minutes, but broke down into an overnight urban firefight in which eighteen US soldiers were killed, seventy-three wounded, and one taken prisoner.
Most Americans know the event as “Black Hawk Down”, for Mark Bowden’s book and the 2001 Ridley Scott film adaptation. The title refers to two enemy-downed UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that drew mobs of enemy combatants and civilians. Stranded in his downed helicopter, pilot Michael Durant struggled to hold off Somali fighters streaming towards the crash site.
Two elite Delta snipers, Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart volunteered to be inserted at the site by another Black Hawk, knowing help was far away down the hostile, roadblocked avenues of Mogadishu. Their choice saved Durant’s life — he was captured, held by Aidid’s men for two weeks, and eventually released. After a long and heroic defense however, Shughart and Gordon were overrun and killed. Their bodies and the bodies of the Black Hawk crewmembers that died in the crash were dragged through the streets for American audiences to see. Their remains were all eventually recovered, but the graphic images made US intervention in Somalia hugely unpopular back home. Two days after the event, President Clinton directed military leaders to cease all actions against Aidid and engage only when required for self-defense. We were out of Somalia six months later.
With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently crossing the Red Line of chemical weapons use, the United States now faces the choice of crossing the Mogadishu Line, a term stemming from the 1993 Somalia action that refers to the point in a foreign intervention when diplomacy or humanitarian aid shifts to combat operations. Regrettably, there has been little humanitarian or diplomatic action of consequence in Syria thus far. But military action now looms just beyond the horizon.
Though still used in international relations circles, the term “Mogadishu Line” has lost some of its potency over time. It signifies a strategic decision in resolving conflict abroad, but it also implies the tremendous risk of intervention — political risk to the elected officials making the decision and physical risk to the military personnel executing it.
But Syria is different, right? The US won’t ever have “boots on the ground” as we did as a part of the UN mission in Somalia? Well, yes and no. In the climate of the last decade, the notion of US soldiers entering a Middle Eastern nation is so unpalatable to Americans and Middle Easterners alike that it’s tremendously unlikely to happen, let alone conclude well. Intervention requiring less risk, however, often comes at the cost of precision. This exchange is one we’ve made in the broader war on terror: al-Qaeda targets are eliminated from unmanned drones rather than high-risk raids like the one that took out Osama bin Laden. Targeting technology is powerful, but also unresponsive to changing circumstances. Beyond our modern use of drones, missile attacks have not been a low-impact form of intervention. Poor intelligence or the inherent imprecision of massive explosives have led to innocent deaths that turn the opinion of civilians or key players against the US.
Examples abound throughout modern military history. Drone strikes in Pakistan have led to civilian casualties that may increase anti-American sentiments. According to the Columbus Dispatch the 1999 Kosovo campaign led by NATO and the US “exposed the flaws in the arguments of those who favor surgical strikes aimed at military targets. U.S. and NATO planes, flying from Italy and Germany, killed at least 500 civilians in the former Yugoslavia, and five U.S. bombs accidentally struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese nationals.” China saw massive anti-American demonstrations after the bombing and questions about the incident still engender distrust in the relationship between the world’s two largest economies (and militaries).
Somalia also offers a telling example. Several months before “Black Hawk Down”, US forces attacked a compound believed to hold Aidid, sending sixteen TOW missiles into the safe house. The warlord was nowhere to be found though and the assault led to a disputed death toll of between 54 and several hundred people. Undisputed though is the serious damage it did to local support for the intervention in Somalia — many observers mark this event (later called “Bloody Monday”) as a turning point in Somali opinion of the US. Four journalists arriving to cover the event were killed by a rioting mob, much as Shughart and Gordon were overrun in the infamous October operation. Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down”, writes that the earlier assault was a “tragic mistake [that] resulted from poor intelligence and the frustration and impatience of bloodied U.N. and U.S. forces who had been unable to bring Aidid to heel. It had the effect of firmly uniting the southern half of Mogadishu behind Aidid. [Author Scott] Peterson writes, correctly I think, ‘For them Bloody Monday became the turning point — the day that Somalis turned almost unanimously against the UN missteps.’”
And so, when intelligence on Aidid’s top lieutenants’ location arrived the afternoon of October 3rd, US personnel opted to send 160 soldiers to capture them in a high risk / high precision operation in contrast to the comparably lower risk / lower precision July operation that so deeply undermined local opinion of the United States. The pain of the first attack’s imprecision informed the ultimately regrettable choice to trade risk for precision in the second attack.
The attack on Syria currently at issue brings to mind this first assault, as well as other ‘surgical strikes’ launched on targets in Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. We don’t want the political and personal risk of boots on the ground, but this choice carries an imprecision that can in turn commit us to even greater risk down the road. Should we send soldiers into Syria then? Should we stand by while a tyrant massacres his people? Should we scale down a retaliation that already amounts to what Slate’s John Dickerson called a “cruise missile parking ticket”? No. There are no good choices in this conflict. No good sides to take or good outcomes to aim for with any real confidence.
What we can do is twofold: First, spend the time needed to be certain of the intelligence. While time undermines the urgency of the response and “telegraphs” the attack to the Syrian government, the cost of collateral damage or lingering questions of legitimacy is far too high. Second, maximize the political buy-in — internationally, but even more importantly, domestically — for military action. The more stable and complete political support is for intervention, the more prepared we are to respond to the unpredictable outcomes of engaging our armed forces.
These decisions refract and magnify in a political climate, echoing through future conflicts in ways that we could never predict. The painful experience in Somalia was a key factor in the Clinton administration’s lack of response to what became the Rwandan genocide. It was only six months after the bodies of US soldiers had been dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and the wounds were simply too fresh for a return to conflict in East Africa. As a former deputy special envoy to Somalia put it: ”The ghosts of Somalia continue to haunt US policy. Our lack of response in Rwanda was a fear of getting involved in something like a Somalia all over again.”
In turn though, the memory of standing by during the genocide in Rwanda hastened Clinton’s decision to intervene in the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo five years later. At a statue dedication in Kosovo ten years after the 1999 NATO operation there, Clinton expressed regret for “missing” the Rwandan genocide and offered that it “explains why we were so quick to come here.” Later, Kosovo and the perception of its relative success, provided a misleadingly optimistic model for in-and-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these conflicts had an infinite array of other factors of course, but the thread from one missile assault in Somalia through each of our country’s major military operations of the last twenty years underlines how important it is to fully accept the enormity of every foreign engagement, however low-risk one may appear. I’m heartened that President Obama has sought Congress’s approval to step over the “Mogadishu Line” in Syria and hope that any intervention comes with full deliberation and a broad base of support. Whether we proceed or not though, we’ve already crossed a line past which inaction on Syria is still action.
Photo Credit: The U.S. Army (Creative Commons Source)
[NOTE: Originally published on my blog nomnomics — considering transitioning from Wordpress to the vastly more readable Medium. Love to hear your thoughts on such a change.]