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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Black Hawk Down

Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head. — Euripides

On this day in 1992, 1,800 United States Marines arrive in Mogadishu, Somalia, to spearhead a multinational force aimed at restoring order in the conflict-ridden country. When the Marines arrived on the beach they were met with television news crews and we all watched as they arrived.

Following centuries of colonial rule by countries including Portugal, Britain and Italy, Mogadishu became the capital of an independent Somalia in 1960. Less than 10 years later, a military group led by Major General Muhammad Siad Barre seized power and declared Somalia a socialist state. A drought in the mid-1970s combined with an unsuccessful rebellion by ethnic Somalis in a neighboring province of Ethiopia to deprive many of food and shelter. By 1981, close to 2 million of the country's inhabitants were homeless. Though a peace accord was signed with Ethiopia in 1988, fighting increased between rival clans within Somalia, and in January 1991 Barre was forced to flee the capital. Over the next 23 months, Somalia's civil war killed some 50,000 people; another 300,000 died of starvation as United Nations peacekeeping forces struggled in vain to restore order and provide relief amid the chaos of war.

For weeks we had been watching reports of poor Somali’s starving with the traditional close up of the little black child with flies buzzing around his face — shots meant to tug on the heart strings of western nations. We were told the only problem was that the food was not getting to the people and the Somali warlords were hijacking the shipments and using food as a political instrument.  The UN and humanitarian organizations were pleading with us to step in a assist in the delivery of the food. As usual these organizations gave little or no thought as to how we could do this without using military force and sending in trained men with guns.

This is always the case with these “do good” groups. They cry help, help, please help us and when the men with guns arrive and he fighting begins they side with the people the men with the guns are trying to save them from.

In early December 1992, outgoing U.S. President George H.W. Bush sent the contingent of Marines to Mogadishu as part of a mission dubbed Operation Restore Hope. Backed by the U.S. troops, international aid workers were soon able to restore food distribution and other humanitarian aid operations. Sporadic violence continued, including the murder of 24 U.N. soldiers from Pakistan in 1993. As a result, the U.N. authorized the arrest of General Mohammed Farah Aidid, leader of one of the rebel clans. On October 3, 1993, during an unsuccessful attempt to make the arrest, rebels shot down two of the Marines' Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. soldiers.

As horrified TV viewers watched images of the bloodshed--including footage of Aidid's supporters dragging the body of one dead soldier through the streets of Mogadishu, cheering--President Bill Clinton immediately gave the order for all American soldiers to withdraw from Somalia by March 31, 1994. Other Western nations followed suit. When the last U.N. peacekeepers left in 1995, ending a mission that had cost more than $2 billion, Mogadishu still lacked a functioning government. A ceasefire accord signed in Kenya in 2002 failed to put a stop to the violence, and though a new parliament was convened in 2004, rival factions in various regions of Somalia continue to struggle for control of the troubled nation.

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, 1993, attack helicopters dropped about 120 elite American soldiers into a busy neighborhood in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to abduct several top lieutenants of Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and return to base. It was supposed to take about an hour.

The Somalian toll was far worse. Reliable witnesses in the U.S. military and in Mogadishu now place the count at nearly 500 dead - scores more than was estimated at the time - among more than a thousand casualties. Many were women and children. This was hardly what U.S. and United Nations officials envisioned when they intervened in Somalia in December 1992 to help avert widespread starvation.

In the years since that humanitarian mission dissolved into combat, Somalia had a profound cautionary influence on American foreign policy. When Washington policymakers consider sending soldiers into foreign crisis zones, there is invariably a caveat: Remember Somalia. America's refusal to intervene in Rwanda in 1995 and in the former Zaire in 1997; its long delay in acting to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia; its hesitation before sending troops into Haiti; and its reluctance to arrest indicted war criminals in Bosnia stem, in some measure, from the futile attempts to arrest Aidid.

From the end of the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq, with the exception of the Persian Gulf War, modern American warfare no longer pits great national armies in sweeping conflicts. Instead, it is marked by isolated, usually brief, encounters between specially trained U.S. forces and Third World irregulars as America seeks to alter the political equation in some tumultuous location - Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo are examples of using “surgical force.”

The American public is rarely exposed to the realities of warfare. With the exception of Operation Freedom the Pentagon does not allow reporters to accompany soldiers directly into battle, a journalistic tradition that ended after Vietnam. To this day there are very few journalists (print or video) accompanying our troops in Afghanistan. Journalist and TV crews are allowed to interview troops at the bases, but they there are very few exceptions when they are allowed into the combat zones. The only one that comes to mind is a 2009 National Geographic report shown on their TV channel.

What results is a sanitized picture of combat. The public knows only what the military chooses to portray, or what cameras are able to see from afar. Americans have little understanding of what awaits frightened young soldiers, or of their heroic and sometimes savage attempts to save themselves and their fellow soldiers.

Americans recoiled at the images of soldiers' corpses being dragged through the streets, but they had no inkling of the searing 15-hour battle that produced their deaths. There has never been a detailed public accounting. Most of the Pentagon records documenting the firefight remain classified, and most of the soldiers who fought are in Special Forces, generally off-limits to reporters.

The Battle of Mogadishu is known today in Somalia as Ma-alinti Rangers, or the Day of the Rangers. It pitted the world's most sophisticated military power against a mob of civilians and Somalian irregulars. Until Operation Iraqi Freedom it was the largest single firefight involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War.

The battle was photographed and videotaped by sophisticated cameras aboard satellites, a P-3 Orion spy plane, and UH-58 surveillance helicopters hovering directly over the action. Many of the soldiers were debriefed by U.S. Army historians in the days after the battle. Top commanders were later subjected to a Senate inquiry.

Most of those interviewed for Mark Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down had never before told the complete story of their experience, including pilot Durant, whose 11-day captivity was briefly at the center of world attention. Many soldiers are still unaware of certain battle episodes that did not involve them. Several are members of the Army's Delta Force, a unit so secret the Army does not officially acknowledge it exists.

Theirs is a story of well-laid plans gone awry, of tragic blunders, of skillful soldiering, heroism, and occasional cowardice. The portrait reveals a military force that underestimated its enemy. The assault was launched into the most dangerous part of Mogadishu in daylight, even though the Ranger and Delta forces were trained and equipped primarily to work in darkness — where their night-vision devices can afford a decisive advantage. Commanders who thought it unlikely that Somalis could shoot down helicopters saw five shot down (three limped back to base before crash-landing). Ground rescue convoys were blocked for hours by barricades and ambushes - leaving at least five U.S. soldiers to die awaiting rescue, including MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shughart two Delta sergeants who were posthumously awarded Medals of Honor. Their names are engraved on the Medal of Honor Wall at the Medal of Honor Cemetery in Riverside, California.

The American soldiers were so confident of a quick victory that they neglected to take night-vision devices and water, both sorely needed later. Carefully defined rules of engagement, calling for soldiers to fire only on Somalis who aimed weapons at them, were quickly discarded in the heat of the fight. Most soldiers interviewed said that through most of the fight they fired on crowds and eventually at anyone and anything they saw.

Because they thought this was merely a snatch mission many did not take their metal back plates or enough water. They did not have GPS units so most of the time they did not know exactly where they were and they depended on the “eyes in the sky” to direct them around the road blocks. Also, they were using Humvees with little armor protection rather than armored personnel carriers (APCs) for transport. These Humvees were not providing adequate protection from small arms fire and RPGs like an APC would. Secretary of Defense, Les Aspen, would not authorize the use of APCs and there was no coordination with the UN and Pakistani forces that could have made them available.

Animosity between the elite Delta units and the Ranger infantry forces effectively created two separate ground-force commanders, who for at least part of the battle were no longer speaking to each other. Delta commandos took accidental fire on several occasions from the younger Rangers. Poor coordination between commanders in the air and a ground convoy sent vehicles meandering through a maelstrom of fire, resulting in the deaths of five soldiers and one Somalian prisoner.

Official U.S. estimates of Somalian casualties at the time numbered 350 dead and 500 injured. Somalian clan leaders made claims of more than 1,000 deaths. The United Nations placed the number of dead at “between 300 to 500.'' Doctors and intellectuals in Mogadishu not aligned with the feuding clans say that 500 dead is probably accurate. The Task Force Ranger commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, testifying before the Senate, said that if his men had put any more ammunition into the city “we would have sunk it.''

America went to war in Mogadishu in an effort to remove warlord Aidid from the political equation. The United Nations was attempting to form a coalition government out of the nation's warring clans, but encountered stiff and bloody resistance from Aidid. Jonathan Howe, who managed the United Nations effort, sought and obtained the intervention of special U.S. forces for the purpose of arresting Aidid and other top leaders of his clan.

The mission that resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu came less than three months after a surprise missile attack by U.S. helicopters (acting on behalf of the U. N.) on a meeting of Aidid clansmen. Prompted by a Somalian ambush on June 5 that killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers, the missile attack killed 50 to 70 clan elders and intellectuals, many of them moderates seeking to reach a peaceful settlement with the United Nations. Interviewed for this story, Howe said he believes the number of Somalis killed in the surprise attack was closer to 20, and included only Aidid's military leadership.

After that July 12 helicopter attacks, Aidid's clan was officially at war with America — a fact many Americans never realized. By Oct. 3, images of dead soldiers being dragged through the streets shocked the American public, most of whom believed their soldiers were in Somalia to help feed the starving. How could a charitable mission provoke such savagery? But Task Force Ranger was not in Mogadishu to feed the hungry. Over six weeks, from late August to Oct. 3, it conducted six missions, raiding locations where either Aidid or his lieutenants were believed to be meeting.

On its first mission, the force inadvertently arrested nine Somalian United Nations employees. A later mission arrested a friendly Somalian general who was being groomed by the United Nations to take over a Mogadishu police force. But by late September, the task force had begun to hit its stride with the capture of Osman Atto, Aidid's banker. The deadly Oct. 3 raid was the sixth and last.

Most of the Rangers who fought were only a few years out of high school. These young men were shocked to find themselves bleeding on the dirt streets of an obscure African capital for a cause so unessential that President Clinton called off their mission the day after the fight.

In strictly military terms, Mogadishu was a success. The targets of that day's raid — two obscure clan leaders named Omar Salad and Mohamed Hassan Awale — were apprehended. But the awful price of those arrests came as a shock to a young president, who felt as misled as John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs. It led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Les Aspin (who died of a heart attack a few months later) and destroyed the career of Gen. Garrison, who in a handwritten letter to Clinton accepted full responsibility. It aborted a hopeful and unprecedented United Nations effort to salvage an impoverished and hungry nation lost in anarchy and civil war.

Every battle is a drama played out apart from broader political issues. Soldiers cannot concern themselves with the decisions that bring them to a fight. They trust their leaders not to risk their lives for too little. Once the battle is joined, they fight to survive, to kill before they are killed. The story of a battle is timeless. It is about the same things whether in Troy or Gettysburg, Normandy or the Fallujah. It is about soldiers, most of them young, trapped in a fight to the death. The extreme and terrible nature of war touches something essential about being human, and soldiers do not always like what they learn.

For those who survive, the battle lives on in their memories and nightmares and in the dull ache of old wounds long after the reasons for it have been forgotten. Yet what happened to these men in Mogadishu comes alive every time the United States considers sending young soldiers to serve American policy in remote and dangerous corners of the world.

In 2001 Bowden’s book was used for the fact based drama. The film, Black Hawk Down, was co-produced and directed by Ridley Scott. As Bowden was involved in writing he screen plan the film accurately portrays the events of the battle, but does not delve into the politics surrounding the events. There have also been several documentaries shown on the History Channel that feature Bowden and interviews with several of the U.S. Rangers who were involved and Somalis. These interviews, combined with actual video coverage of the battle, present a balanced account of what went down on October 3, 1993. If you watch both videos you will see that film was true to Bowden’s account.

There have been allegations that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda movement was involved in training and funding of Aidid's men. In his 2001 book, Holy War, Inc., CNN reporter Peter Bergen interviewed bin Laden who affirmed these allegations. According to Bergen, bin Laden asserted that fighters affiliated with his group were involved in killing American troops in Somalia in 1993, a claim he had earlier made to the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. The Al-Qaeda fighters in Somalia are rumored to have included the organization's military chief, Mohammed Atef, later killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Later interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed these allegations. Four and a half years after the Battle of Mogadishu, in an interview in May 1998, bin Laden disparaged the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia.

The Battle of Mogadishu was a mere tactical exercise for Al-Qaeda. Our intelligence services could never connect the dots and it took 9/11 to final wake us up to what this really was — part of the Islamic jihad against the United States. Somalia was prelude.

You can read Bowden’s book, chapter by chapter, by clicking here.

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