Somalia Operations: Lessons Learned
The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits.
The basic challenge confronting those who commit U.S. forces to peace operations is knowing how to get them in effectively when the situation warrantsand how to get them out once their mission has been accomplished. While recognizing the importance of "perseverance" in operations other than war, the real test of this principle is to ensure that the United States remains able to project its power when neededand avoids indefinite commitments at the expense of its other responsibilities worldwide. By itself, our operations in Somalia did not seriously interfere with those reponsibilities, but the record of our intervention into that most unfortunate country teaches us that there must be limits to the commitment of American military power. That experience also suggests the existence of certain "bright lines" in peace operations indicating when those limits are being reached. One of them involves the use of military forces in nation-building, a mission for which our forces should not be primarily responsible. While military power may well set the stage for such action, the real responsibility for nation-building must be carried out by the civilian agencies of the government better able to specialize in such long-term humantiarian efforts. Another "bright line" is any action in a peace operation that effectively takes sides between factions engaged in internal civil strifeclearly as much of a problem for U.S. troops in Somali as it was for an earlier generation of American soldiers in the Dominican Republic and Lebanon. Such actions certainly include coercive disarmament of a populace, an act that is qualitatively different from simply controlling or confiscating the arms which may overtly threaten the peacekeeping force. The reason: In societies where peacekeeping may be needed, the distribution of arms reflects internal power structures (political, cultural, ethnic or even tribal) that can be expected to fight to maintain their position. If the disarmament of the population becomes an objective, then there should be no mistaking the fact that the troops given this mission have been committed to combat.
The uncertainties surrounding the Somalia operations also underline the importance of understanding the strengths and limitations of the United Nations and other international institutions. In the case of the United Nations, this means ensuring that its mandates are precise and fully reflect a clear understanding of a given situation and its military implications. The importance of this principle cannot be understated; the Somalia experience shows just how directly the changing mandates of the United Nations shaped the different missions of the military forces sent there. Future American policymakers familiar with this record will have strong incentives to ensure that changes in any future U.N. mandate are fully reconciled with the specific military capabilities required to execute them. That experience suggests as well why the Presidential Directive of May 1994 stated that U.N. command would not be the tool of choice in future peace enforcement operations. The larger point here, however, is not whether U.S. soldiers should serve under U.N. control: No soldiers of any nationality should be expected to serve under the U.N. command structure in any combat setting until the reforms called for by the President in PDD-25 have been put in place. At a minumum, such reforms must achieve more effective means than those demonstrated in Somalia for commanding, controlling, coordinating, and communicating with multinational forces committed to peace operations.
These limitations should not blind us, however, to the great strengths which U.N. agencies and humanitarian relief organizations bring to the international arena. Some of the most valuable contributions by U.S. and coalition troops in Somalia were digging the wells, grading the roads, and working side by side with many of the agencies listed in appendix B, agencies that are the real peacekeepers and peacebuilders. But we should understand that their perspectives reflect permanent commitments, while military perspectives are necessarily shorter. Even more important is the recognition that the careful integration of diplomatic and military activities with humanitarian actions not only contributes to the overall success of the mission but also reduces the potential for casualties.
The need to work effectively with coalition partners also highlights the difficulty of exercising unity of command in anything like the classic sense. Unity of effort, or at least unity of purpose, is a more realistic goal in coalition operationsas it has been since the Peloponnesian Wars. However, there is no reason why we should settle for anything less than unity of command over the American forces that may be committed to peace operations or, for that matter, any other joint operation. The three chains of command running during UNOSOM II underline the importance of a lesson that should be adapted from Murphy's Laws of Combat: If it takes more than 10 seconds to explain the command arrangements, they probably won't work.
The way in which command was structured by the U.S. forces sent to Somalia also deserves some careful attention in the future because of the persistent problems in organizing joint task forces. While there is lively debate about whether the unified commands should organize "standing joint task forces," there should now be little doubt that the organization of the headquarters for those task forces is an issue that should no longer be left to last-minute arrangements. More specifically, it helps if any joint headquarters is built around a nucleus of people already accustomed to working together, and it helps even more if that nucleus reflects solid expertise in joint and combined operations. There should be no question that developing and broadening this expertise is a fundamental requirement for the American military establishment. During UNOSOM II, for example, U.S. forces were also engaged in 12 other major operations requiring the formation of joint task forcesoperations ranging from patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq to providing flood relief in the American Midwest. Far from being unusual or extraordinary events, it should be recognized that the formation of joint task forces has now become "business as usual" for the Armed Forces of the United States.
Another basic insight coming out of the Somalia experience is that the new emphasis on peace operations has not rescinded the fundamentals of military operations. As always those missions must begin with a strategy that focuses on long-term interests. The lack of a consistent "big picture" focus was clearly one of the things that complicated the transitions between the various phases of the operationthe relative success of UNITAF making the task of UNOSOM II more difficult. Equally fundamental military tasks are those that must be developed from a clear strategy: mission analysis and operations plans leading to clearly defined objectives. While those tasks were certainly undertaken in Somalia, the record of what we did there also contains a clear warning for the future: Beware of the temptation to do too much.
Giving in to that temptation is an occupational hazard in an institution built around can-do attitudes and the expectation of success. All the more reason, then, to insure that the analysis of any peace operation includes the selection of those indicators that can best measure mission accomplishment. What signs, for example, would show if the levels of violence were increasing or decreasing? How should these things be measured and by what part of the command? Such an unconventional approach to mission analysis may also help to focus on something clearly missing in Somaliaemphasizing single operations rather than focussing on the continuity of the mission as a whole from the overriding perspective of U.S. interests. It is this perspective that should guide the determination of entry and exit strategies, as well as fix our position at any moment on the line between them.
Three other issues arise from the Somalia experience that may have equally lasting significance because they show how U.S. military power is adjusting to the realities of the post-Cold War world:
In deployment patterns, for example, we have long excelled at quickly moving large numbers of forces, supplies, and equipment overseasprecisely as we would have done in the event of a NATO reinforcement. In peace operations, especially those where the major function is disaster relief or humanitarian aid, we will certainly need to be able to fine tune those deployments. Rather than massive airlifts, for example, it may make more sense to put a future JTF commander in on the ground as early as possible and allow him to tailor the package as needed. This will certainly mean adjusting JOPES and TPFDD procedures to allow the additional flexibility. Conversely, it will also mean even greater emphasis on user discipline, because JOPES, in particular, is the common link among the CINC, the components, the supporting commands, and the deploying forces.
The second issue is the understanding of the world at large that the professional military brings to its preparations for operations ranging from peacekeeping to general war. It used to be that most of this expertise was centered on the Soviet Union, Western Europe, or Korea, for obvious reasons. Now, however, the importance of more broadly focused "area studies" has increased, despite the fact that acquiring this expertise has not been a traditional milestone on the path to higher level command, advancement, and promotion. The Somalia experience underlines the importance of knowing the country, the culture, the ground, and the language as a pre-condition for military operations, with improvisations in this instance making notably good use of the expertise brought by Reserve Component personnel. Another recent example of the particular strengths of having a commander schooled in a local culture was provided by General Norman Schwarzkopf. Although his exposure to Middle Eastern culture came primarily from his boyhood experiences in the region, this expertise was especially valuable in leading the Gulf War coalition. Insuring as a matter of policy that the future officer corps will have similar strengths is an issue that must be carefully addressed within the military educational establishment.
The third issue is one that is quickly summed up: Peace operations such as those in Somalia show how the training and professionalism of the men and women in our Armed Forces are as important in adapting to the requirements of new, nontraditional missions as they are in carrying out the demands of more conventional scenarios. For those forces likely to be deployed as peacekeepers, supplementary training is always a good ideafor situation-specific orientations, for familiarization with typical operational tasks, and especially for building the staff competencies required by joint or multinational environments.
There is, however, an important sense in which the most basic qualification of our Armed Forces to act as peacekeepers rests upon their credibility as warfighters. Their technical competence and physical prowess allow our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to prevail in any operational environmental: but their record of going in harm's
way in the cause of peace is one that preceded our intervention in Somalia and that will endure long after the controversies surrounding it have faded. President Clinton surely spoke for the American people when he welcomed home the 10th Mountain Division after their redeployment from Somalia in March 1994:
If there are any debates still to be had about our mission in Somalia, let people have those debates with me. But let there be no debate about how you carried out your mission. . . . You have shown the world what Americans are made of. Your nation is grateful and your President is terribly, terribly proud of you.
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Last Update: October 1, 2002