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Black Hawk Up:

The US Campaign In Somalia, 1993-1997


By Chris Oakley

Part 1




When Bill Clinton first took office as President of the United States in January of 1993, many thought it would herald the beginning of a new era in which the values of the 1960s counterculture to which Clinton had once belonged would shape US defense policy at the start of the post-Cold War age. And for the first 60 days of his term, there were few if any signs that anything was going to happen to contradict this assessment. But on the 61st day, fate threw the White House-- and the nation -- a shocking curve ball in the form of a previously undetected aneurysm that burst inside the new commander-in-chief’s head and left him confined to Bethesda Naval Hospital for almost a year afterwards.

In Clinton’s absence, Vice-President Al Gore took over the Oval Office under the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution; as a result, Gore would soon find himself confronted with one of the most critical national security decisions that a Democratic chief executive had had to make since the Cuban Missile Crisis....


When the Clinton-Gore administration was first elected to office in November of 1992, Somalia wasn’t yet the critical US foreign policy priority it would later become. But it was still a major topic of discussion within the ranks of the White House foreign policy team; for months, news had been trickling from that country to the outside world that a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions was brewing.

The Horn of Africa has long been one of the most inhospitable areas on Earth, both geographically and in terms of climate. Agriculture in that part of the world is, at best, a chancy proposition; countries in the Horn of Africa region must import most of their food from foreign sources. The civil turmoil which frequently plagues the region only serves to aggravate the problem. Somalia had all these difficulties to contend with, plus the added hazard of a rapidly crumbling political structure that led many political analysts in the West, especially the United States, to label Somalia a "failed state".

Put together, these factors resulted in massive disruption of food distribution networks in Somalia. President Clinton knew that if this gruesome state of affairs went on too much longer, it would pose even greater problems for the United States’ long-term interests in Africa; he also understood that a breakdown in law and order in Somalia could trigger outbreaks or escalations of civil unrest elsewhere in Africa. However, his aneurysm would incapacitate him at exactly the moment he needed to take action to alleviate the Somalis’ plight and it would be left to Gore to pick up where Clinton had left off.


In April of 1993 President Gore dispatched US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright to Nairobi to attend a summit of African leaders on the issue of the famine troubles in Somalia. Back in Washington, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher began a series of conferences with ambassadors from America’s NATO allies as part of a larger effort by the White House to lineup international backing for famine relief efforts the Gore Administration was intending to mount at the earliest possible moment. The Organization of African Unity, a regional bloc of the major powers in southern Africa, had told the White House American intervention was crucial if Somalia were to have even the vaguest hope of surviving as a nation.

By the time Albright returned from Kenya the Democrat-dominated US Senate had approved a substantial emergency aid package and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were drawing up plans to dispatch troops to Somalia to protect food relief convoys in that country and crush the warlords who threatened the Mogadishu government. British prime minister John Major flew to Washington two weeks after Albright’s Nairobi visit and gave President Gore his personal guarantee of Great Britain’s support for the upcoming American food relief mission to Somalia, rather fittingly code-named Operation Hope.

Many of the US troops who would be deployed to Somalia as part of Operation Hope had previously seen action in Desert Storm; a few had even been part of Operation Just Cause, the Bush Administration’s 1989 offensive to unseat Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. All of their combat experience would be greatly needed before the UN relief mission in Somalia was over...


....because the Somali warlords were not about to go down without a fight. Some were just in it for the money, some were trying to bring Somalia under fundamentalist Islamic rule, but all were determined to stop the UN’s famine relief efforts. The last thing that the warlords needed or wanted was for foreign agencies to abolish the chaotic state of affairs under which their law-of-the-jungle brand of rule thrived. Case in point: one Mohammed Aidid, perhaps the strongest and certainly the most active of the warlords. Aidid resented the UN presence in his country and wanted to get rid of it by any means open to him.

The US decision to intervene directly in the Somali crisis made Aidid’s job that much harder. While Aidid had considerable contempt for American culture, he had to concede that American military power constituted-- if properly used --a serious threat to his plans for Somalia. Something, he felt, would have to be done quickly in order to neutralize the American presence. But though his militia might have had the numerical advantage, the US forces had the technical one-- and they wouldn’t hesitate to exploit it. And the US Army was only one of the agencies that wanted to take Aidid down; the Justice Department deemed him a terrorist, a potential threat to American security not just in East Africa but also at home. There was no shortage of federal agents eager to put the Somali warlord behind bars.

Also lurking in the background was a Saudi Arabian national with a seething resentment toward the West, Osama bin Laden. At the time the Gore Administration first intervened in Somalia, bin Laden was living in Sudan and seeking to topple the pro-Western Mubarak government over in Egypt; from his perspective, the US presence in Somalia was simply another front in his fledgling militant group al-Qaeda’s war against the "godless" Western nations, America in particular. In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that bin Laden would band together with Aidid to oppose the U.S. presence in the Horn of Africa region...


To Be Continued


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