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Somalia Operations:   Lessons Learned


Multilateral peace operations are an important component of our strategy. From traditional peacekeeping to peace enforcement, multilateral peace operations are sometimes the best way to prevent, contain, or resolve conflicts that could otherwise be far more costly and deadly.

The President's National Security Strategy
July 1994

If today you are a soldier, a sailor, an airman, or a marine, then you know in some very personal ways that the world is a changed and changing place. Far from ushering in an era of peace, our victory in the Cold War was quickly followed by combat in Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm. And even as our Armed Forces were being reduced from Cold War levels, they were being committed to a new class of military missions, called peace operations, in Somalia, in parts of the former Yugoslavia, and (at this writing) in Haiti.

Peace operations are unique because they are conducted with the increasing involvement of the international community, usually with mandates from the United Nations and sometimes with the United States as the lead partner in coalitions drawn from a number of different nations. These partnerships can create some real challenges on all sides, but there are two important advantages for the United States to keep in mind. First, we clearly benefit when other nations help shoulder the burden. Second, the voice of the international community is important—just look at the impact of world opinion in building the diverse coalition with which we stood during the Gulf War. The bottom line is that our ability to build and support multinational coalitions is now an important part of our national security strategy in the post-Cold War world.

The significance of this strategic turning point has, for the last 2 years, prompted the National Defense University to study peace operations as part of its mission of extensive research and teaching on national security issues; this book is one of the products of that program. With the cooperation of the Joint Staff, a team at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies examined reports on U.S. operations in Somalia filed in the Joint Universal Lessons Learned System (JULLS), in an effort to relate them to joint doctrinal principles as well as other research on this subject.1 The emphasis throughout this effort has been to focus on the most important lessons at the operational level, primarily those which might be encountered at the joint task force planning level or at the headquarters of its major force components. Because this level is the one that ties together the strategic and the tactical, some of those lessons are relevant here as well, but to help bound the problem, those insights are usually presented as either causes or effects.

What makes the Somalia experience important for U.S. Armed Forces is that it was an operation that went through three distinct phases:

In addition to underlining the complexity of peace operations, these three distinct phases show that, as the level of conflict intensified, some things changed more than others. The specific mission elements examined here also provide a sobering glimpse of the challenges imposed by a country in chaos, where the effects of a harsh natural environment were made even more severe by clan warfare and the absence of government.

As its title implies, this book examines certain operational issues raised by our recent experience in Somalia, especially those involving the teamwork required by joint forces. It is an initial look at those operational issues—not a comprehensive history either of U.S. involvement in Somalia or even of the key functional areas it examines. It is best described as a composite after-action review—a preliminary look at the operation's major insights based on the best data currently available. Where relevant, these insights have been compared to more detailed analyses of various phases of the operation, such as those on UNOSOM II prepared by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, KS, and the United States Forces Somalia After Action Report (Montgomery Report) now being readied for publication by the Army Peacekeeping Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

Because "lessons learned" often tend to reflect what went wrong rather than what went right, it might be possible to think that these operations were less than successful: this is simply not the case. Although they did not carry out the more ambitious goals of U.N.-sponsored nation-building, U.S. forces sent to Somalia clearly did execute their missions successfully, relieving untold suffering through humanitarian assistance and executing their military responsibilities with skill and professionalism. In fact, those skills and can-do attitudes were especially important in overcoming the effects of many of the problems cited here. Those who took such initiatives and provided the "work-arounds" should be the first to appreciate the importance of learning from their experiences.

A final caveat is that Somalia was a mission that occurred under unique circumstances. Future operations under different circumstances will likely produce different results. Common sense suggests that the lessons offered here should be balanced against changing mission requirements and conditions. Future missions, however, are likely to contain enough parallels—of failed states and the hardships brought about by natural and man-made disasters—that the lessons learned in Somalia warrant close attention.

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