Somalia: Anatomy of a Disaster

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"We had been engaged in combat for about 20 minutes when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter and literally took off its tail. The crash was extremely violent; I think I have compressed my spinal cord. After the crash, a crew member took me out of the helicopter . . . then ((the Somalis)) came in masses. They beat me violently with their fists and with sticks. They tore off all my clothes." Naked, blindfolded, his hands bound, Durant was carried triumphantly above the heads of raging crowds, and "I was still being hit but less brutally. I understood then that someone had decided that they wanted me alive." He came to doubt that a bit later when he was placed on the tiled floor of a house and "all of a sudden, through the door someone points a gun in my direction" and fires -- blindly; the bullet ricocheted off the floor and hit Durant in the left arm. But voices argued violently outside the door, and there was no more shooting. Then he was carried in a car through many checkpoints and finally taken by people close to Aidid. "Since then I've been treated well," he said. A doctor comes to change the dressings on his wounds daily. He also got a "history lesson" of which he remembers this much: "When you don't live here, you can't understand what's going on in this country. We Americans have tried to help. But at one point things turned bad."

If Aidid's purpose was to convince the American public of the same thing, he succeeded. Thousands of horrified citizens wrote and phoned the offices of congressional representatives, posing angry questions: What was the U.S. doing in Somalia? How did an intervention to feed the starving that began with handshakes for the first Marines to hit the beaches last December turn into a deadly battle against hate-filled Somalis? What interests did the U.S. have in Somalia that could conceivably justify the sufferings of men like Rodriguez and Durant? By midweek the questions coalesced into a roar: Get out. All the way. And never mind what kind of precedent a pullout set for future U.N. peacekeeping operations in the savage local conflicts that have succeeded the cold war.

On Saturday Aidid seemed to offer a way out, but on his own terms. Speaking on his personal radio station, he accepted what he called Clinton's offer of a cease-fire, as well as a suggestion he credited to the American President that the Somalis be allowed to settle their own political affairs. Later in the day Clinton denied he had made a cease-fire offer.

The tale of how a mission launched with the brightest of hopes and overwhelming support threatened to turn into a morass -- and may yet -- is a cautionary story with a number of obvious, but ever recurring, lessons: think through all the ramifications of what you are doing, set clear goals, make sure the forces assigned can attain those goals, and do not get distracted. By last week's disastrous battle, all these lessons had been taught the hard way.

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