By Clayton K. S. Chun
The battle of Mogadishu was a watershed event for Washington. Despite overwhelming odds, TFR survived a harrowing mission. The Americans’ spirited defense and actions resulted in a tactical victory, with a large number of Somali casualties and the successful capture of 24 SNA personnel. Aideed and the SNA suffered tremendous punishment, and some TFR and UN officers believed that the SNA would have crumbled if the Americans had struck again.
Yet the battle was a costly victory, with many Americans killed and wounded. Horrified by the carnage, the American public and Congress quickly turned against Clinton’s policy in Somalia. Amongst the most poignant scenes from Mogadishu was the mistreatment of American dead and of Durant at the hands of the SNA and Mogadishu residents. Many Americans expressed outrage, especially as US forces had been helping to avert Somali famine. Clinton quickly announced, on October 7, America’s withdrawal from Somalia by March 31, 1994. The President also ordered TFR to leave Somalia; it departed Mogadishu on October 25.
The US retreat handed Aideed what he most wanted, as after the Americans left the UN would soon follow. The SNA claimed a strategic victory. This situation appeared similar to that of the 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, in which the Viet Cong had suffered tremendous losses but Washington, stung by a strategic surprise, began plans to curtail its involvement in the war and turn to a negotiated settlement. The Mogadishu fight would not only have immediate effects in Somalia, but affect future US involvement in Africa. Some critics argue that Washington’s reluctance to get drawn into further African civil wars, like Rwanda, was due partly to Mogadishu.
Mogadishu offers several lessons in fighting a guerilla force in an urban environment. One of the major problems facing the Americans was trying to accomplish unclear political objectives using military means. The initial UN goal was to feed Somalis, but the objective then changed to securing and finally rebuilding Somalia. Once the UN announced a reward for Aideed’s capture, the chance for a political settlement was greatly diminished. Trying to weaken and isolate Aideed and his supporters only seemed to create more friction between Somalis and the UN and exacerbated the situation. If the UN captured Aideed, would not another clan or warlord take control over Somalia?
American forces had a technological advantage over the SNA. Still, technology alone could not trump a wily and dedicated foe. Helicopters provided speed and surprise at decisive points. Although they were an integral part of TFR, the helicopter also became an Achilles heel when their loss forced a change of mission from raid to rescue. Without a means to extract the downed crews, American and UN forces had to fight to save and recover TFR.
Surprise was a key element for success in the TFR raids. Unfortunately, the location of TFR, at the airport, allowed many Somali contractors and observers to witness activities that could tip off the SNA on pending operations. A potential lapse in operational security allowed SNA operatives to alert the militia throughout the city. Similarly, the repeated use of templates for planning allowed the Somalis to create countermeasures to the Americans, such as using RPGs as surface-to-air missiles against the helicopters. The reward on Aideed also telegraphed the UN’s intention to widen the conflict. TFR’s arrival confirmed this view to the Somalis, as it was the means to accomplish Aideed’s capture. TFR also used its ability to operate at night to accomplish most of its previous raids. Unfortunately, it had to respond to what the situation dictated, and the October 3 mission was launched in daylight, negating TFR’s ability to surprise the Black Sea residents and the advantages of night operations.
Much confusion surrounding the TFR operations involved issues of unity of command. The UNOSOM II forces had a chain of command to Bir; Garrison reported directly to CENTCOM and bypassed the UN. Garrison could act independently of the UN and was not obligated to follow their directives. He did inform both the UN and Montgomery of certain operations, but only with the minimum of information. Montgomery nominally worked for Bir, but he also had command of the US Forces Somalia. Montgomery, like Garrison, reported to CENTCOM under this command arrangement. Although Garrison and Montgomery worked under the same headquarters, long-range unified planning was limited. Many efforts within the organizations had duplicated missions. The lack of a timely response to rescue TFR may, in part, have been the result of a divided chain of command. Additionally, Howe and the TFR seemed to work independently. Coordinated efforts to solve the clan problems appeared limited.
There were many unknown mission variables. Some of these variables – like inconsistent intelligence, unknown levels of opposition, technical malfunctions, units getting lost, accidents, and other incidents – could lead to mission failure. Despite these factors, TFR used only two templates. Using the strongpoint or convoy templates simplified the mission planning, but also constrained options for the commander. In addition, mission contingencies were restricted to the CSAR helicopter for immediate response and an on-call capability from the QRF and UN. Although these forces were well equipped, they had to face hundreds of armed Aideed supporters. AH-1 and AH-6 attack helicopters did provide some fire-support flexibility, but they also had limited firepower and numbers. Aspin’s decision to withhold AC-130s, tanks, and APCs inhibited Garrison’s options. Somalis feared the AC-130s, with their long loiter times, night vision and massive firepower. M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradleys could have broken through to the crash sites faster and with fewer casualties than the HMMWVs and trucks. There has been much debate and controversy over the denial of requests for these weapons.
The Pentagon’s desire to keep the force in Somalia small, while conducting actual military operations, seemed contradictory. Under UNITAF, the United States contributed two divisions and many support forces to conduct peacekeeping operations. The only American combat forces available in October were TFR and the QRF to raid and strike against one of the most powerful clans in Somalia. Under UNITAF, the Army and Marine Corps units could intimidate the clans. The UNOSOM II forces did not have the same impact as the American UNITAF forces, which conducted continual sweeps and checkpoint security around the city. TFR and the QRF could not provide the same level of presence nor reaction to the SNA as UNITAF. Unless Washington provided overwhelming military force, TFR/QRF operations ran a greater risk of failure.
Overconfidence in TFR capabilities also played a part in the problems during the raid. Many Rangers believed that the raid would not last long and would encounter little opposition. They had conducted similar raids in the past and this particular mission seemed like a repeat of the previous efforts, except now the location was in the heart of Aideed-controlled territory and in daylight. Soldiers did not take water, they modified equipment loads, and left behind night-vision goggles. Pilots acknowledged the Black Hawk helicopter destruction a week earlier, but they largely ignored this key event until the downing of Super 61. Repeated American templates also demonstrated the lack of awareness of Somali abilities to adapt to those tactics. Aideed correctly positioned forces to force down a helicopter and he knew the Americans would attempt to rescue its endangered crew. From there, he could surround the crew and their rescue forces and destroy it while other SNA fighters blocked any reinforcements. Unfortunately, many Americans planners did not believe the Somalis could organize and execute such an operation.
Once Wolcott’s helicopter was down, the Somalis altered the mission’s nature. TFR plans and actions had focused on swift offensive actions. The Americans exercised their ability to select their targets and strike at areas of weakness against a superior force. Once they took a prisoner or raided a facility, they could quickly leave. On October 3, the Rangers and Delta members faced a different conflict; they were now on the defensive and did not hold the initiative against the Somalis. The fight became a slugging match in which the SNA supporters were willing to sacrifice many to kill Americans. This attritional battle was a consequence not envisaged in the TFR plans. Fortunately, Super 66’s resupply effort and the QRF and UN relief column averted a potential disaster for the Americans.
Although TFR and other Americans had conducted orientation trips to Somalia before deployment, and the soldiers did have introductory courses on the area, the US troops still had difficulty understanding the environment in which they operated. Inter-clan warfare, urban fighting, harsh African conditions, working with the UN and NGOs, and other environmental factors affected TFR. Understanding the people of Somalia and gaining their trust, especially when TFR relied on HUMINT, was critical to success. Perhaps using other clans against the Habr Gidr, improved intelligence, psychological operations, diplomacy, and more sophisticated military means could indeed have stifled Aideed. Trying to fight an enemy who did not wear a uniform or distinctive insignia, and who could blend into the local environment, was frustrating to the UN troops and the Americans, especially in a dense urban environment like Mogadishu. Although the Americans tried to avoid unnecessary fire, combat operations often resulted in civilian casualties. These casualties contributed to further hatred of TFR and added more fighters to Aideed’s side.
American casualties brought immediate, intense aversion from the American public. Somalia was not a vital national interest for Washington. The public had lost interest in the Somali mission and most US citizens were unaware of the change from humanitarian famine relief to nation building. In the course of a year, Americans had turned from transporting food to conducting military operations. Mission creep expanded America’s role, but Washington seemed unsure of a desired end state for Somalia. Given the ambiguous mission in Mogadishu and 18 deaths, the immediate demand for withdrawal seemed a logical conclusion.
Aideed was very adept at using his limited resources to combat the Americans and the UN. He aimed at the one center of gravity that would alter the conflict – the American public. Raising the level of violence, demonstrating a willingness and ability to fight a prolonged war, and the skillful manipulation of the media allowed Aideed to turn the tables on Washington. He made rebuilding Somalia too costly for the Americans. Any peace efforts would have to come through him. American technology and superior firepower did not automatically translate into victory. Like all conflicts, the results came down to which side implemented the best strategy.
If there was a bright spot for the Americans, it was the TFR and QFR adaptability to adjust to a fluid situation and avert a major catastrophe. Small-unit leadership and tactics worked relatively well in the defensive positions throughout the night of the battle. American actions proved Somali clan assumptions wrong when they questioned the Americans’ determination to fight while taking casualties. TFR and QRF forces continued to mount relief columns into the most deadly parts of Mogadishu to relieve their surrounded comrades. The Little Bird crews flew into the heart of Somali opposition to prevent it from overwhelming the forces at Super 61, despite anti-helicopter RPG fire.
The battle of Mogadishu provides a good case study of future crises in failed states. Despite using specially trained SOF, the Americans faced many problems trying to find and capture Aideed, problems that they would repeat a decade later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Irregular warfare, an anonymous foe, ambiguous strategy, operating in a complex tribal state, and conflicting political objectives have become common factors in today’s conflicts much like Somalia in 1993.
By 1992, Washington had come to Somalia to solve famine and civil unrest in a demonstration of US post-Cold War confidence. Yet operating in a failed state proved a tougher challenge than envisaged. The mission expanded into an unending fight between UN personnel and Somali clans, both vying for control over a war-torn region. After the Mogadishu raid, America withdrew largely from Africa and became more skeptical of direct involvement in unstable nations. The fight for Mogadishu literally changed American foreign policy, especially in Africa, for years.
Despite TFR’s eventual tactical victory, the raid on October 3, 1993, was a strategic failure. Once the SNA adapted to the American tactics, the Somalis almost destroyed the Super 61 rescue force. Technologically advanced weapons could not overcome some of the serious issues from which TFR suffered. The loss of surprise, security problems, and other issues, coupled with the Somalis’ waging of an asymmetric campaign, overcame the American ability to respond quickly and strike with impunity. Aideed’s change in strategy caught TFR’s SOF in a desperate situation. Fortunately, the leadership and training of US forces proved their worth and saved them from an overwhelming defeat.
The battle of Mogadishu was an example of future problems that Washington would face fighting clans or irregular forces in cities. The American military did not want to become involved in nation-building efforts that they were not trained, organized, or equipped to accomplish. Washington had to recognize its limit of power, especially after losing its political will to continue operating in Somalia. Vague political objectives and flawed decisions created the conditions that ultimately defeated America’s mission in Somalia. The loss of resolve to remain in Mogadishu forced the UN to negotiate with Aideed after America’s announced withdrawal from the region. Aideed declared himself president, but this claim did not unify Somalia. Others vied for control. Aideed stayed in power until he died of a gunshot wound in 1996. Curiously, the SNA named his son as the president. His son had emigrated to the United States and had become an American citizen. He even served as a US Marine in UNITAF. He later resigned as president in an attempt to create a new government for Somalia, but the move failed.
Somalia continued as a failed state for years. Although the people of Somalia elected a coalition government, it could not stop the country becoming a hotbed for training and raising Islamic terrorists, and Islamic leaders took control of southern Somalia. Fighting between clans continues today and economic failure still sweeps the land. Somalia’s main economic activities are criminal ones, including piracy. Crime and terrorism threaten the stability of the neighboring nations. The problems that the US forces attempted to solve back in 1993 have, sadly, continued to this day, with little sign of abating.
Excerpted from Gothic Serpent: Black Hawk Down, Mogadishu 1993 by Clayton K.S. Chun.
Copyright 2012 Osprey Publishing.
Reprinted with permission from Osprey Publishing.
CLAYTON K. S. CHUN, Ph.D., is on the U.S. Army War College faculty at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania where he teaches courses on national security, strategy, and economics. He completed a military career in the U.S. Air Force and has published work in the fields of national security, military history, and economics, including the book Gothic Serpent: Black Hawk Down, Mogadishu 1993.