The reasons U.S. Black Hawks went down

On Oct. 3, 1993, U.S. forces entered the Somali capital of Mogadishu to capture officials of one of the main warring clans and, if possible, its leader, Mohamed Farrah Aideed. The mission was a complete fiasco. Of the 160 Americans involved in the operation, 18 were killed, 75 wounded and one captured. The bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets. Anywhere from five hundred to one thousand Somalis were killed that night.

The event, which is the subject of the recently released Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down,” raises an important question. Somalia is a country characterized by its factionalism. The running joke is if there are four Somalis in a room, there are probably six rival clans present. Yet when the two U.S. Black Hawks went down, an entire city seemed to drop its internal differences and attack the very forces that were there to feed them. Why? Did the Somalis rampage simply out of an inherent hatred for outsiders?

Few populations, least of all among the formerly colonized, warmly embrace foreign involvement in domestic affairs, and the Somalis are no different in this regard. But there were a number of specific factors that set the stage for the distinct fury in Mogadishu that day.

One important factor was the massacre of July 12. Three months prior to the downing of the Black Hawks, the United Nations and the United States decided to put pressure on Aideed by attacking a meeting of his native Habr Gidr clan. The Washington Post described the event as a “slaughter” in which “a half-dozen Cobras pumped sixteen TOW missiles and two thousand rounds of cannon fire” into a gathering of elders, intellectuals, poets and religious leaders, “first blowing away the stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping.”

Aside from being conspicuously bloody, the move was also entirely counterproductive, since the meeting’s purpose was to consider a U.S.-initiated peace plan and to argue against Aideed’s anti-U.N. stance. The brutality of the attack not only unified the Habr Gidr clan behind Aideed but also recruited other clans in a desire for revenge.

Another factor was the United Nations. There was widespread distrust in Somalia of then U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who previously, as an Egyptian official, had been a backer of notorious Somali dictator Siad Barre. Incoming food shipments notwithstanding, many Somalis who had suffered under Barre’s repression could not swallow their distaste for this political tie. Aideed, who had overthrown Barre, was particularly resentful, especially when the United Nations publicly decided to isolate him. The United Nations was right to pressure Aideed, who was causing massive starvation by blocking aid distribution. But the attempt at isolation and the later removal of the leader of one of Somalia’s two most important clans only gave the impression the United Nations wanted to play kingmaker rather than peacekeeper.

The broader context leading up to the intervention is also important to consider. One of the main symbols of the West for average Somalis was the International Monetary Fund. Throughout the 1980s, the IMF attempted to stave off the country’s financial woes by imposing austerity measures. Unfortunately, these measures only dismantled the local agricultural economy, putting the brunt of the suffering on the shoulders of the weakest in society. When farmers were lucky enough to escape drought, they had little market to turn to. Many watched their children starve. As a desperate migration from the countryside increased, young men arrived in cities with little more than an acute sense of anger toward so-called Western solutions.

It didn’t help that the country was awash in arms. In Mogadishu it was and still is almost easier to buy a machine gun than lunch. It’s not uncommon to see ten-year-olds walking the streets with rocket launchers on their shoulders. For years, the United States kept Siad Barre propped up with $50 million in annual arms shipments, of which Barre kept the best hardware for himself while redistributing the rest to the factions he skillfully played off each other. It was these same arms used as U.N. and U.S. forces tried to restore order.

None of these factors lessens the tragedy of the American lives lost when those Black Hawks went down – not to mention the hundreds of Somalis killed that day. None of these factors take away from the bravery shown in that humanitarian mission. However, there might be lessons to learn. Rage such as that seen in Mogadishu is not born from nowhere, and to misunderstand its origin is to guarantee its return. Short-term stabilizing relationships with repressive leaders have long-term destabilizing consequences, especially when these relationships are bought with weapons. Not only should the United States begin taking human rights more into account as it chooses its friends, but it should also begin supporting the United Nations in its efforts at international small- arms controls. This would be a reversal from the role the United States, and the gun lobby behind it, played at the U.N. arms control convention of last year.

The proper debate is not between interventionism and isolationism. When a country is devoid of central government, overrun with rival militias, facing a famine of 300,000 people (mostly children), isolationism is neither moral nor pragmatic. The United Nations, with United States backing, was right to go into Somalia. But waiting until the last minute was a mistake and could only result in counterproductive uses of force, such as the massacre of July 12, or political miscalculations such as the Aideed manhunt which ended in the downed Black Hawks.

Somalia was a lesson in the danger of ignoring failed states, and the longer-term political and monetary policies that contribute to their demise. Leaving societies stateless, so as to avoid the responsibility of nation building, is shortsighted foreign policy. The United States must bear this in mind as it withdraws from Afghanistan only to consider re-entering Somalia.


Ian Urbina is a guest columnist. Send comments to [email protected]