Black Hawk Down: America's history in reviving wars in Somalia
A Responsible Statecraft report says that Somalia is still suffering the ramifications of the United States' military attack on the country 30 years later.
The “Black Hawk Down” battle, which took place 30 years ago today after the American military launched a military attack on Somalia, is often seen as a pivotal point in history that gave birth to a new "world order" led by the United States following the Cold War.
Earning its title due to the downing of multiple UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, the attack resulted in the death of 18 US soldiers and around 300 Somali casualties of both civilians and armed personnel.
Probably one of the most severe impacts of the US' actions in the African country has been the obstruction of the potential rise of locally-derived solutions, which over time, might have led to an end to ongoing conflict in the country.
The US interventions have perpetuated strife and stunted historical progress in the region, a report published by the Responsible Statecraft said.
The Battle of Mogadishu was the peak of a series of increasingly militarized US-led UN interventions in Somalia. Initiated in April 1992, the United Nations Operations in Somalia I (UNOSOM I) aimed to oversee a truce in Mogadishu after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. However, ongoing conflict severely hindered aid distribution during a severe famine.
A US proposal to spearhead a multinational force, known as the United Task Force (UNITAF) was approved by the UN, leading to UNITAF's deployment in Somalia in December 1992. Their mission was to ensure safety and support humanitarian efforts. By March 1995, UNITAF transitioned to UNOSOM II, comprising around 30,000 personnel from 27 nations. While the United States contributed just over 1,000 members, they held considerable control over the mission's actions.
US leads international war group in Somalia
UNOSOM II inherited the responsibilities of UNITAF to ensure the delivery of aid but was additionally charged with nation-building tasks, which included compulsory disarmament.
This expanded mandate resulted in confrontations with the Somali National Alliance (SNA) militia, under the leadership of General Mohamed Farah Aidid, with US forces leading the confrontation and conducting military actions against the armed group and its leader.
In the wake of escalating retaliatory assaults, US troops undertook a mission on October 3, 1993, targeting a Mogadishu hotel to apprehend senior SNA officials. The adverse outcomes of this operation prompted the Clinton administration to alter its approach, pulling American forces out of Somalia by the Spring of 1994. By early 1995, the UN had also withdrawn from the region.
The US-UN intervention in Somalia faced a barrage of criticisms. Many disapproved of its highly militarized approach, which inevitably led to significant civilian casualties. Accusations of racial violence against Somali locals, oversimplified portrayals of the crisis through images of malnourished children and unhinged militias, and the UN's attribution of its delayed response to the famine solely to security issues instead of administrative delays were also common critiques. Furthermore, it was claimed that a massive 80 percent of food designated for the famine-affected was being plundered.
Relative peace established after US exit
Yet, while the intervention faced backlash, many believed that pulling out US forces and ending UNOSOM II would intensify violence and heighten civilian distress. However, the fact that this was not the case is a testament to the dynamics of the conflict and the social processes that worked to overcome the conflict.
Following the US and UN exit in early 1995, Somalia avoided plunging back into chaos and saw a phase of relative calmness, aptly described by an observer as "governance without government." During this decade, from 1995 to around 2004-05, Somalia witnessed the rise of self-governance models rooted in local and familial ties. Additionally, centers for conflict resolution sprang up in urban areas, including Mogadishu.
Notable examples of autonomous and semi-autonomous regional administrations that arose during this period include Somaliland and Puntland in the northern and northeastern parts of the country. While central and southern regions didn't develop similarly strong administrations, widespread conflicts became more localized there. This shift allowed communities to develop solutions rooted in local understanding, guided by a combination of traditional elders, business people, and civic entities. In certain cities, centers were formed that combined elements of Sharia law and Somali traditions to address disputes.
The sharia courts in Mogadishu stand out as a prominent and effective example. They sprang up shortly after the central government collapsed in 1991, reflecting the community's need for stability amid chaos. Due to the integral role of Sharia in Somali perceptions of justice, these centers soon adopted the name "Sharia Courts."
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Mogadishu sharia courts provided a degree of safety in various parts of the city, even in the face of warlord and militia resistance.
Violence back with the Americans
The resurgence of widespread violence in Somalia occurred alongside another American intervention. From the early 2000s, US officials based in Nairobi began closely monitoring the Sharia courts in Mogadishu. Their interest stemmed from suspicions that some individuals linked to these courts might be sheltering those responsible for the 1998 US East African embassy attacks. In a bid to locate and apprehend these suspects, the CIA began funding local warlords in Mogadishu. This approach proved counterproductive, as the sharia courts, bolstered by significant local support, overpowered these warlords.
Regardless of whether those responsible for the bombings were actually in Mogadishu, Washington's decision to ally with the warlords and target the Sharia courts lacked foresight. As highlighted by the State Department’s officer for Somalia, these courts weren't a singular entity. They represented a diverse range of Islamist views in Somalia, comprising various independent dispute resolution centers. Furthermore, the warlords were notorious and generally unpopular among the populace.
Organic socio-political processes
After the failure of the warlords, the United States backed an Ethiopian military incursion into Mogadishu in 2006, leading to the dissolution of the Sharia courts. This attack backfired as it inadvertently empowered the most extreme factions within the Sharia courts, paving the way for the emergence of Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab terrorist group, and transforming Somalia into a key battleground in the global "war against terror."
While there are numerous perspectives from which to critique US actions in Somalia, a frequently understated, yet lasting harm, is their disruption of potential indigenous resolutions. Every time the Americans intervene directly or indirectly, whether via local or regional allies and proxies, it "puts an end to organic political and social processes," therefore perpetuating a conflict in Somalia that has spanned more than thirty years now.
This doesn't imply that local adaptation and governance efforts would inevitably result in a centralized government. However, assuming this is the sole path for Somalia to find peace is part of the issue.