The Black Hawk Down Effect

We all know what went wrong the last time the international community tried to end a crisis in Somalia. But we've forgotten what went right.


This month has seen some of the grimmest news in years out of Somalia, a country that has become shorthand for despair. Since a famine began sweeping the war-torn country in July, tens of thousands of Somalis have died of starvation, and many more have sought refuge elsewhere. On Aug. 8, the U.S. government announced that it was pledging another $105 million to alleviating hunger in the Horn of Africa, bringing total U.S. support during the famine crisis to more than $500 million.

But one thing no one in the United States is talking about is repeating the country’s actions 20 years ago, when the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre’s 21-year military rule and the ensuing civil war prompted a similarly dire famine crisis in southern Somalia. U.S. troops were dispatched to smooth the way for aid delivery, and the effort to alleviate the famine is mostly remembered in the United States today for how it ended: a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade over Mogadishu and the body of a U.S. Army soldier* aboard dragged through the city’s streets.

As an advisor to the initial U.S. mission in Somalia, I remember the affair differently. "Black Hawk Down" may have been a disaster, but the U.S.-led relief effort that preceded this event was not; Operation Restore Hope, as it was called, saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives.

Many observers have drawn the wrong lesson from Somalia: that all interventions in anarchic places, no matter how well-intentioned, are riskier than they are worth. Today, faced with a new catastrophe in the Horn of Africa, we need to draw the better lesson. Another military intervention is not the answer, but by treating the famine as a political problem with potential solutions rather than a hopeless lost cause, the United States can help stop a tragic situation from becoming even more so.

Somalia had been deteriorating since the mid-1980s, but matters came to a head in January 1991, when a broad alliance of clan-based insurgents under the umbrella of the Somali National Alliance closed in on Mogadishu, finally forcing Siad Barre to flee the capital on Jan. 27. As the government collapsed, fighting broke out among clan factions — led by rival generals Mohamed Farrah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed — for local and regional control. Siad Barre’s forces tried to fight their way back to the capital, and the battles that ensued forced virtually the entire civilian population to flee the "triangle of death" between Kismayo, Bardera, and Baidoa. The scorched-earth policy of the combatants destroyed the livelihoods of nomadic herders and sedentary farmers alike. More than half a million Somalis sought refuge in neighboring Kenya, and an equal number scattered farther from their homes. Many barely survived in camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu, where fighting broke out between the two warring factions for control of the port and airport.

Throughout 1992, global television coverage of starving women and children — similar to scenes on today’s screens — highlighted the immensity of the suffering. The U.N. Security Council struggled to deal with the situation, initially dispatching 50 unarmed observers and deploying 500 Pakistani peacekeepers to the airport as well as authorizing an emergency U.S. airlift from Mombasa, Kenya, to southern Somalia. But it was all to little avail. Finally, in mid-1992 U.S. Sens. Paul Simon and Nancy Kassebaum visited Somalia to assess the situation, and together with humanitarian aid agencies they appealed to President George H.W. Bush to intervene to end the famine. He did so shortly after Thanksgiving, offering U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali a U.S.-led peacekeeping force to manage the situation until the United Nations could mobilize its own larger force. Operation Restore Hope was born.

Under the leadership of Ambassador Robert Oakley and Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, the operation quickly brought an end to the famine crisis. The Americans convinced the warlords to open supply routes for delivery of humanitarian assistance, setting in motion the transformation of the civil war into a political process. Governance was re-established at local levels pending national reconciliation. The U.S. peacekeepers pledged to avoid the use of force except in self-defense. On Dec. 11, 1992, less than a week after the first Marines arrived, the two warlords had agreed to a cease-fire, the opening of the roads, and the removal of armed vehicles from the main roads. A Conference on National Reconciliation in Somalia was convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, four months later.

All this was possible because Oakley, Johnston, and Gen. Anthony Zinni (later head of the U.S. Central Command) communicated directly with the warlords. The United Nations, however, didn’t — and things went downhill in a hurry once its peacekeeping force arrived. Operating without consultation with or consent of the warlords, U.N. forces quickly found themselves at war with Aidid after his forces on June 6, 1993, killed 43 Pakistani peacekeepers. The denouement began on Oct. 3, 1993, with "Black Hawk Down," a failed attempt to capture Aidid that led to the death of 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis in an overnight firefight. Eighteen months later U.N. forces withdrew, and Somalia descended into the nightmare that has engulfed the country ever since.

But let’s revisit the tentative success that came before the catastrophe. The key to the success of Operation Restore Hope, as noted above, was the twofold policy of a major military deployment and the establishment of lines of communication to the warlords. With U.S. troops on the ground in significant numbers, Aidid was eager to avoid confrontation. Meetings between Oakley and Aidid were easily arranged, and so-called misunderstandings — e.g., over shelling the U.S. mission’s compound — were quickly resolved; humanitarian food convoys moved safely to the most affected areas. The U.S. military established the Civil Military Operations Center, which facilitated unique cooperation with humanitarian aid organizations.

The current situation is clearly different. Aidid and Ali Mahdi were interested in asserting their clan interests and gaining power. Al-Shabab, in contrast, promotes an extreme anti-Western ideology. But the possibility of a two-pronged approach involving force and dialogue is nevertheless conceivable. The reported withdrawal of al-Shabab from Mogadishu on Aug. 6 gives African Union and government forces a new opportunity to restore order and take control of the city’s port and airport, the vital logistical lines for the delivery of humanitarian aid. They should be supported in doing so.

In the meantime, the most severe famine is in southern Somalia. The USA Patriot Act has established penalties for the provision of any material assistance to al-Shabab, but recent statements by Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and other government officials have indicated that the State Department will not impose penalties on agencies seeking to provide assistance to the famine-stricken as long as they pledge to combat attempts by al-Shabab to hoard aid or collect taxes. Further clarity would be useful. In addition to providing funds to the World Food Program and the United Nations, non-U.S. and non-U.N. avenues for providing humanitarian assistance — such as Islamic Relief, which is currently operating in the zone — should be identified and supported.

Communicating with al-Shabab is also crucial, whether it is done directly or indirectly through intermediaries like the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international association of Islamic states. A first step would be to identify moderate elements of al-Shabab who have reportedly facilitated humanitarian relief. It would be important in these discussions to seek commitments to both ensuring the safety of the humanitarian aid workers and preventing or at least minimizing the diversion of food supplies to al-Shabab’s fighters.

The lesson of Operation Restore Hope, and of the Balkan conflicts that followed, is that humanitarian and refugee crises cannot be compartmentalized from their political causes. The international community, while addressing the immediate crisis in Somalia, needs to keep its focus on a durable political solution that would lay the foundation for economic recovery and development. This can only be achieved by the Somali people themselves. Even if the central government remains weak, viable local governments have been reasonably effective in many parts of the south. The international community can assist them in two major ways: by separating big-picture concerns over "the war on terror" from Somalia’s domestic struggle for national reconciliation, and by persuading neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea to refrain from interfering in the conflict. The focus on training African Union and Somali government forces should not deflect attention by American policymakers to these broader issues.

Operation Restore Hope was not a panacea. But it demonstrated the capacity of outside forces to work constructively with Somalis at all levels to reduce human suffering and open up the prospect of a better future for the Somali people. The fact that this has not yet happened does not mean that it cannot be achieved.

*Correction: This article originally erroneously identified the U.S. casualties in the Battle of Mogadishu as Marines. They were in fact U.S. Army soldiers. The article has been changed to reflect the correction.

John L. Hirsch is a senior adviser at the International Peace Institute in New York. In 1992 and 1993 he served as adviser to Amb. Robert Oakley and Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston. He is coauthor, with Oakley, of Somalia and Operation Restore Hope: Reflections on Peacemaking and Peacekeeping.