Today marks the 20th anniversary of The Battle of Mogadishu, and Benjamin Runkle shares some of the lost lessons of “Black Hawk Down”:
Technology Does Not Guarantee Success
The Centra Spike signals-intelligence team was pulled off the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in order to assist the search for Aideed.
These highly sophisticated technological assets were ultimately ineffective because they could not pick up the lower-level technology used by the Somalis. Aideed communicated with his militia with couriers and dated walkie-talkies too low-powered to be detected by America’s sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment.
In Manhunts, the Decisive Terrain is the Human Terrain
The original plan had called for the CIA’s top Somali informant — a minor warlord loosely affiliated with Aideed — to present the warlord with an elegant hand-carved cane with a homing beacon embedded in the head. The plan seemed foolproof, until LTC Danny McKnight — commander of the 3/75th Ranger battalion and the task force’s intelligence chief — burst into Garrison’s headquarters at the Mogadishu airport on their first day and exclaimed: “Main source shot in the head. He’s not dead yet, but we’re fucked!” The top Somali CIA informant had apparently been mortally wounded in a game of Russian roulette. By the time Task Force Ranger arrived in Mogadishu in August 1993, the Intelligence Support Activity (Delta Force’s special intelligence cell) and the CIA had completely lost track of the warlord, who had not been seen for a whole month.
If the targeted individual is perceived as a hero or a “Robin Hood” figure, the protection offered by the local population will thwart almost any number of satellites or elite troops. Somalia’s social fabric of interwoven clans, tribes, and warlords proved a particularly formidable intelligence-gathering challenge. Somalia’s racial heterogeneity made it impossible for Task Force Ranger elements to freely collect HUMINT: using an agent outside his own clan territory rendered him suspect, and using an agent from within his own clan risked disinformation.
The Importance of Perseverance
Tactically and operationally, the Battle of Mogadishu was a victory for Task Force Ranger, which had raided into the heart of the adversary’s stronghold in broad daylight and seized 24 prisoners, including the two HVTs they were after. Although the cost was steep, the Somalis had fared much worse, suffering an estimated 500-1,000 fatalities. Many families aligned with Aideed had suffered casualties, and local spies reported some of Aideed’s strongest clan allies had fled Mogadishu fearing the seemingly inevitable American retribution. Others were sending peace feelers, offering to dump Aideed to avoid further bloodshed. Both General Garrison and UN envoy Jonathan Howe believed Aideed had been struck a mortal blow and pressed their respective superiors to finish the campaign.
But back home, the perception in Washington was shaped by the horrifying television images of dead and naked bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. President Clinton asked his staff, “How could this happen?” and many in Congress demanded an immediate withdrawal from Somalia.
What Happens in Mogadishu Does Not Stay in Mogadishu
A week after “The Battle of Mogadishu,” the USS Harlan County withdrew from the Haitian harbor of Port-au-Prince due to an orchestrated riot by fewer than 200 hundred lightly armed demonstrators. The Clinton administration later declined to intervene to prevent repeated atrocities in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda due to its experiences in Somalia. In a Pentagon study of why America did not seriously pursue Osama Bin Laden prior to 9/11, Professor Richard Schultz concluded: “The Mogadishu disaster spooked the Clinton administration as well as the brass.”
Sometimes the Least Bad Option is Good Enough
There was somebody America could have theoretically backed in Somalia, but it was the man we wound up hunting. Mohammed Farah Aideed was Western-educated and had the most viable claim to post-Barre rule, having held senior positions in the government (when Barre was not throwing him in jail out of paranoia). He led the alliance that overthrew the dictator and retained the most powerful militia, had children living in the United States (including a son who deployed as a Marine reservist during Operation Restore Hope), and was sympathetic to U.S. strategic interests in the region. Aideed offered to help eliminate Somalia’s Islamist militias, who over the next decade-and-a-half would evolve into al-Shabaab. Was Aideed brutal in the internecine warfare within Somalia? Yes, but his brutality was not exceptional in Somali terms (a point thrown into sharp relief by al-Shabaab’s unmitigated barbarism during the recent Westgate Mall attack). Moreover, Aideed’s brutality only began with the civil war, which would have ended much more quickly and to the benefit of the Somalis if the United States had conditioned its support for him delivery of all food shipments, and made future economic aid contingent on human rights observance and gradual political liberalization.