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SOMALIA OPERATIONS:
Lessons Learned

 

I.  THE OPERATIONAL CONTEXT

Peacekeeping isn't a soldier's job, but only a soldier can do it.

Military Sociologist Charles Moskos

The U.N. and Peace Operations

At the end of World War II, the United States helped to found the United Nations and was one of the original signers of the U.N. Charter. Among other provisions, the Charter contains two important sections to help its members "maintain international peace and security." Although the Charter never uses the word, the generic term for these measures is peacekeeping, the kinds of observer or truce supervisory missions that occurred after a conflict, when combatants wanted to have the benefit of a trusted third party to act as a buffer. Traditionally, these missions have been known as "Chapter VI actions," because that section of the Charter deals with the peaceful settlement of international disputes. However, Chapter VII contains the term peace enforcement, referring to military intervention authorized by the U.N. Security Council— blockades, enforcement of sanctions, forceful disarmament, and direct military action. These categories haven't always fit situations that seemed to go beyond peacekeeping but stopped short of actual combat, so an informal term, "Chapter Six-and-a-Half," emerged to describe such activities as conflict prevention, demobilization, cantonment of weapons, and actions taken to guarantee freedom of movement within a country. Mostly because of Cold War rivalries, only 13 U.N. peacekeeping operations were approved between 1945 and 1987. With the winding down of the Cold War, however, 13 new ones (not including the peace enforcement operation in Somalia) were approved between 1987 and 1992. There is another important figure that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever stepped in to break up a barracks fight—during this same time, more than 800 peacekeepers from 43 countries have been killed while serving under the U.N. flag.

There is no doubt that the increasing number of peace operations has strained the ability of the United Nations to manage them effectively. Because it deals more with diplomacy than with control of military operations, U.N. headquarters in New York maintains a relatively small civilian staff to oversee peacekeeping operations. Another independent staff agency has traditionally handled all administrative matters, including logistics. Until recently, the organization also lacked an operations center capable of maintaining 24-hour communi-cations with these worldwide deployments. Not every peacekeeping operation takes place under U.N. control, but those that do have no standard organization or staff structure for field operations. However, they all answer to the U.N. Secretary General and may be headed either by his Special Representative or by a force commander whom he has selected. Because the United Nations also lacks standard doctrine, tactics, and equipment, command and control is a problem for all but small operations in generally peaceful environments.

Problems encountered with the U.N. structure during our operations in Somalia (inlcuding some of those discussed below) contributed to a Presidential Directive in May 1994 pledging U.S. support for reforms in the planning, logistics, and command and control of United Nations-sponsored peace operations. Because these reforms will take time to be agreed upon and implemented, it is especially important to note that the Directive also laid down two basic principles for the future:

Joint Doctrine

Because they are often a central focus of international attention, peace operations have a unique ability to combine the tactical, the operational, and the strategic levels of war. A single unwise tactical move by a soldier on patrol can instantly change the character of an entire operation and, when broadcast by the ever-present media pool, can also affect strategic considerations. In these and other circumstances, the joint perspective is the beginning of wisdom, with joint doctrine providing the "playbook" that allows our Armed Forces to function more effectively as a team. Although American forces began their operations in Somalia without the benefit of a standard peacekeeping doctrine, that experience suggests that the following joint doctrinal publications are especially relevant for future missions:

Objective. A clearly defined and attainable objective—with a precise understanding of what constitutes success—is critical when the United States is involved in operations other than war. Military commanders should also understand what specific conditions could result in mission termination as well as those that yield failure.

Unity of effort. The principle of unity of command in war is difficult to attain in operations other than war. In these operations, other government agencies may often have the lead, with nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian relief organizations playing important roles as well. Command arrangements may often be only loosely defined and many times will not involve command authority as we in the military customarily understand it. Commanders must seek an atmosphere of cooperation to achieve objectives by unity of effort.

Security. Nothing about peace operations changes the moral and legal responsibility of commanders at every level to take whatever actions are required to protect their forces from any threat. Inherent in this responsibility is the need to be capable of a rapid transition from normal operations to combat whenever the need arises. However, what makes this responsibility especially challenging in peace operations is the balance that must be struck with "restraint."

Restraint. Because the restoration of peace rather than a clearly defined military victory is the basic objective of these operations, military force must be applied with great caution and foresight. The restraints on weaponry, tactics, and levels of violence that characterize this environment must be clearly understood by each individual service member. Rules of engagement (ROE) are standard military procedures, but in peace operations, they will often be more restrictive, detailed, and sensitive to political concerns than in war: they may also change frequently.

Perseverance. Peace operations may require years to achieve the desired effects because the underlying causes of confrontation and conflict rarely have a clear beginning or a decisive resolution. Although this is a principle often tied to debates about U.S. long-term commitments, its operational application is that commanders must balance their desire to attain objectives quickly with a sensitivity for the long-term strategic aims that may impose some limitations on operations.

Legitimacy. Legitimacy is a function of effective control over territory, the consent of the governed, and compliance with certain international standards. Each of these factors governs the actions not only of governments but also of peacekeepers—whose presence in a country depends on the perception that there is a legitimate reason for them to be there. During operations where a government does not exist, peacekeepers must avoid actions that would effectively confer legitimacy on one individual or organization at the expense of another. Because every military move will inevitably affect the local political situation, peacekeepers must learn how to conduct operations without appearing to take sides in internal disputes between competing factions.

If there is a common though unstated thread running through these joint doctrinal principles, it is that diplomatic, military, and humanitarian actions must be closely integrated in any peace operation. When correctly planned and executed, each of these actions should reinforce the other: well-conceived humanitarian actions, for example, will win friends among the local populace in a way that will improve the security situation and make military tasks easier. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see that operations in Somalia were successful when they recognized this trinity of diplomatic, military, and humanitarian actions— and remarkably less so when they did not.

The Effects of the Operational Environment

The difficulties of geography, transportation, and political conditions combined to pose operating challenges for American forces in Somalia.

Geography. As shown by figure 1, the countryis located on a geographical feature known as the Horn of Africa on the northeastern coast of that continent. The region's remoteness from established U.S. operating facilities—24 hours by air and several weeks by sea from the United States—was further complicated by the country's size, a land mass of almost 250 million square miles, nearly the size of New England. The terrain looks much like the low desert regions of the American southwest—dry with sparse vegetation and an annual rainfall of less than 20 inches. The drought that has plagued East Africa for much of the last decade has been especially severe in Somalia, with food and water supplies scarce or, in some areas, nonexistent. Consequently, peacekeepers were forced to bring with them most, if not all, of what they would eat and drink.

Lines of Communication. The limited, 2,600-km network of paved roads runs mostly among the main coastal cities of Mogadishu, Merca, Kismayo, and Berbera; however, this network had fallen into disrepair. Interior roads are mostly unpaved, and grading and other maintenance are haphazard. Mogadishu has the country's main international airport, although there are seven other paved airstrips throughout the country. Cleared airstrips in the back country are the only other complement to the limited air transportation network. Somalia has a long coastline, but harbor facilties are either undeveloped or have fallen into disrepair. Mogadishu, Kismayo, and Berbera have only limited cargo handling facilities. Because widespread civil unrest made normal maintenance and repair impossible, there was no functioning telephone system in Somalia. The combined effects of these factors made mobility and communications consistent problems for peace operations— especially when measured against the need to help feed thousands of starving people. fig1.jpg (84210 bytes)

Political. Although drought conditions were partially responsible for this situation, civil war had devastated this already threatened country. Since 1988, this civil war has centered around more than 14 clans and factions that make up Somali society, all of which fought for control of their own territory. Their culture stresses the idea of "me and my clan against all outsiders," with alliances between clans being only temporary conveniences. Guns and aggressiveness, including the willingness to accept casualties, are intrinsic parts of this culture, with women and children considered part of the clan's order of battle. Because the area was for more than a decade a focal point for Cold War rivalries, large amounts of individual and heavy weapons found their way from government control to clan armories. After the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the political situation deteriorated, with the clans in the northern part of the country trying to secede. With drought conditions worsening everywhere, clan warfare and banditry gradually spread throughout Somalia. By early l992, these conditions brought about a famine of Biblical proportions: more than one-half million Somalis had perished of starvation and at least a million more were threatened. Somalia had become a geographical expression rather than a country—but whatever it was called, the scale of the human suffering there had now captured the attention of the international community.

U.S. involvement in Somalia proceeded through three stages: Operation Provide Relief, a humanitarian assistance mission; Operation Restore Hope, an operation that combined humanitarian assistance with limited military action; and UNOSOM II, a peace enforcement mission involving active combat and nation-building (figure 2). From the beginning of the effort to relieve the suffering in Somalia, however, there were two basic problems: moving enough food, water, and medicine into the country, and providing security to protect the relief supplies from theft by bandits or confiscation by the clans and warring factions. In April 1992, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 751, establishing the United Nations Operation in Somalia—UNOSOM— whose mission was to provide humanitarian aid and facilitate the end of hostilities in Somalia. The 50 UNOSOM observers sent in did not make a noticeable difference in either ending hostilities or securing relief supplies but in July, the United Nations asked for increased airlifts for food. President Bush responded by ordering U.S. forces to support Operation Provide Relief from 15 August 1992 through 9 December 1992.

Organized by CENTCOM, the mission of this operation was to "provide military assistance in support of emergency humanitarian relief to Kenya and Somalia." Among its objectives:

During the 6 months of Operation Provide Relief, a daily average of 20 sorties delivered approximately 150 metric tons of supplies; in total, more than 28,000 metric tons of critically needed relief supplies were brought into Somalia by this airlift.

FIGURE 2: Three phases of U.S. involvement in Somalia

Operation

Dates

UN Security Council Resolution

U.S. Commander

Provide Relief
(UNOSOM I)
15 Aug
1992-
9 Dec
1992
UNSCR#
751
dtd 24 Apr 1992
(HAST-then
JTF)BG Frank
Libutti, USMC
Restore Hope
(UNITAF)
9 Dec
1992-
4 May
1993
UNSCR#
794
dtd 3 Dec
1992
LTG Robert
B. Johnston,
USMC
USFORSOM
(UNOSOM II)
4 May
1993-
31 Mar
1994
UNSCR#
814
dtd 26 Mar
1993
MG Thomas
M.
Montgomery,
USA

Despite the reinforcement of UNOSOM throughout the next several months, the security situation grew worse. In November, a ship laden with relief supplies was fired upon in the harbor at Mogadishu, forcing its withdrawal before the badly needed supplies could be brought ashore. In the United States and elsewhere, public distress grew and, on 4 December 1992, President George Bush announced the initiation of Operation Restore Hope. Under the terms of U.N. Resolution 794 (passed the previous day), the United States would both lead and provide military forces to a multinational coalition to be known as the United Task Force, or UNITAF. This force would bridge the gap until the sitation stabilized enough for it to be turned over to a permanent U.N. peacekeeping force. The U.N. mandate implied two important missions: to provide humanitarian assistance to the Somali people, and to restore order in southern Somalia. Because of the implicit requirement to use force in establishing a secure environment for the distribution of relief supplies, it is significant that the mandate referred to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

The CENTCOM mission statement clearly reflected these objectives: "When directed by the NCA, USCINCCENT will conduct joint/combined military operations in Somalia to secure the major air and sea ports, key installations and food distribution points, to provide open and free passage of relief supplies, provide security for convoys and relief organization operations, and assist UN/NGO's in providing humanitarian relief under U.N. auspices. Upon establishing a secure environment for uninterrupted relief operations, USCINCCENT terminates and transfers relief operations to U.N. peacekeeping forces."

During its existence from 9 December 1992 through 4 May 1993, UNITAF ultimately involved more than 38,000 troops from 21 coalition nations, including 28,000 Americans. It clearly succeeded in its missions of stabilizing the security situation— especially by confiscating "technicals," the crew-served weapons mounted on trucks and other wheeled vehicles. With better security, more relief supplies were distributed throughout the country, staving off the immediate threat of starvation in many areas. However, plans for the termination of UNITAF and an orderly handoff of its functions to the permanent peacekeeping force, christened UNOSOM II, were repeatedly put off. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali urged delay until U.S. forces could effectively disarm the bandits and rival clan factions that continued to operate throughout Somalia. In addition, he proposed to rebuild the country's fragmented institutions "from the top down"—an exercise akin to nation- building.

These disagreements delayed but did not ultimately prevent the formation of UNOSOM II, officially established by Security Council Resolution 814 on 26 March 1993. The Resolution was significant in several ways:

These far-reaching objectives went well beyond the much more limited mandate of UNITAF as well as those of any previous U.N. operation. To implement them, a full U.N. peacekeeping structure was set up in Somalia, headed by retired U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Howe as Special Representative of the Secretary General with Turkish Lieutenant General Cevik Bir as force commander of the U.N. multinational contingent.

Rather than being in charge, U.S. participation in this operation was primarily conceived in terms of logistical support, with over 3,000 personnel specifically committed to that mission. Significantly, however, the United States was also asked to provide a Quick Reaction Force—some 1,150 soldiers from the US Army's 10th Mountain Division—that would operate under the tactical control of the Commander, U.S. Forces, Somalia. The mission of the 4,500 American forces supporting UNOSOM II from 4 May 1993 to 31 March 1994 was as follows: "When directed, UNOSOM II Force Command conducts military operations to consolidate, expand, and maintain a secure environment for the advancement of humanitarian aid, economic assistance, and political reconciliation in Somalia."

The ambitious U.N. mandate as well as the continuing presence of the multinational contingent ultimately threatened the Mogadishu power base of one clan warlord, Mohammed Aideed. The crisis came into full view on 5 June 1993, when 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an ambush by Aideed supporters. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 837, passed the next day, called for the immediate apprehension of those responsible—and quickly led to U.S. forces being used in a highly personalized manhunt for Aideed. After a series of clashes involving U.S. Rangers and other units, a major engagement occurred on 3 October in which 18 Americans were killed and 75 wounded—the bloodiest battle of any U.N. peacekeeping operation. Shortly thereafter, President Clinton announced the phased withdrawal of American troops that would end by 31 March 1994. U.S. forces largely were confined to force protection missions from this change of mission until the withdrawal was completed.

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Last Update:  October 1, 2002