Somalia: Anatomy of a Disaster

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For a while, though, things went well. The U.S. and other multinational troops opened roads, got the food moving again, even carried out some (though not enough) disarmament. Clinton, who had not been informed of the mission in advance but gave his blessing, knew about Christopher's negotiations with Boutros-Ghali to draft a plan for replacing American soldiers with a U.N. multinational force, but since American troops were coming out rather than going in, he left the detailed work to subordinates. By March, in a hurry to withdraw most of its troops, the U.S. agreed to a Security Council resolution specifying what the U.N. would do to rebuild Somalia while the blue helmets kept security throughout the country. The resolution assigned them some so- called nation-building tasks -- setting up regional councils, for example, looking to eventual nationwide elections. That complex and time-consuming mandate might have set off alarm bells in Washington. But since U.S. forces were being cut from 28,000 to 4,500, and because things were going so well in Somalia, none were sounded. In fact, the House of Representatives in May decisively passed a resolution endorsing the nation-building mission and favoring the use of American troops to support it, for several years if necessary.

Events continued to go well -- too well for Aidid's taste. His supporters had greeted with handshakes the first U.S. Marines to hit the Mogadishu beaches Dec. 9, and the warlord himself had attended two peace conferences arranged by retired Ambassador Robert Oakley. But he evidently concluded that the U.S. and the U.N. were making so much progress putting together the beginnings of a peaceful regime that his chance of eventually taking over the whole country was slipping away; he could retrieve it only by causing enough trouble to disrupt the mission. In early June his forces ambushed Pakistani troops inspecting unguarded weapons depots, killing 24. An outraged Security Council responded with a resolution authorizing "arrest and detention for prosecution, trial and punishment" of those responsible. Eleven days later, retired U.S. Admiral Jonathan Howe, Boutros-Ghali's chief deputy in Somalia, plastered the bombed-out buildings of Mogadishu with posters offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to Aidid's capture.

American officials now point to this resolution as the moment when the humanitarian mission began to turn into a mini-war against Aidid. But at the time, they thought he posed a serious threat and could be contained most efficiently by military means. As late as Aug. 10, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., wrote that "failure to take action ((against Aidid)) would have signaled to other clan leaders that the U.N. is not serious" and called those who took a contrary view "advocates of appeasement." This view changed in part because Aidid proved much harder to run down than the U.S. and U.N. ever bargained for. Howe took to using an American Quick Reaction Force for what amounted to search-and-destroy missions, but Aidid again and again slipped away. One reason: America's spy satellites are no help finding out where in Mogadishu Aidid is holed up.

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