On October 3-4, 1993, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) aimed to capture members of Muhammed Farah Aidid’s senior leadership in a mission codenamed Operation Gothic Serpent.
The mission, intended to take only a few hours, lasted some eighteen hours after two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were taken down by rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers during what would become known as the Battle of Mogadishu.
Eighteen U.S. soldiers died during the Battle of Mogadishu, with another operator being killed by a stray mortar round a few days. Multiple Pakistanis and Malaysian soldiers assigned to the United Nations (UN) died trying to rescue the besieged special operators while hundreds of soldiers suffered serious wounds.
This was the deadliest conflict for U.S. soldiers since the end of the Vietnam War, and not only was it deadly for U.S. foreign policy for a time, the effect upon U.S.-Somalia policy has been as long-lasting as the Vietnam War itself.
Operation Gothic Serpent
In the early 1990s, the world had just gone through an impressive defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, taking on what was then the fifth-largest military force in the world and resoundingly defeating the force through collective, international military action.
In an armed conflict that coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and resulted in very few deaths (in fact, most deaths on the Allied side of the conflict came from accidents or friendly fire incidents), this signaled a change in how wars and armed conflicts could be waged in a post-Cold War world.
Somalia had long been controlled by European powers, being conquered in 1875 by the United Kingdom, the French, and Italian powers. In 1960, after nearly a full century of colonial rule, the British and Italians relinquished their hold over the East African nation, becoming the Republic of Somalia.
In 1969, Mohammed Siad Barre, a general in the Somali Army, staged a coup against the current government and declared “Somalia a socialist state”, nationalizing the economy. For the next twenty-odd years, Barre and Somalia would drift back and forth between supporting and accepting aid from the United States and the Soviet Union, undergoing internal political trials and civil wars before Barre’s government collapsed totally in 1991, with various warlords vying to claim power.
Due to this internal strife, “a serious humanitarian crisis in Somalia,” with international observers estimating some “4.5 million Somalis were on the brink of starving to death”. With photos of children dying of famine and videos of warring factions capturing worldwide attention, many world governments desired a stronger, faster resolution to the crisis; with UN insistence, the warring factions “agreed to a cease-fire,” which enabled UN peacekeeping forces to enter the country and attempt to bring back order. In one of his last acts as President, George H.W. Bush sent nearly 30,000 U.S. Marines into the nation to assist in peacekeeping operations.
Following the change in leadership from Bush to Clinton with the 1992 U.S. Presidential election, combined with an equal desire to end the conflict quickly, the United States “decided they had to neutralize the warlord they identified as the worst offender, Muhammad Farah [Aidid]” following the massacring of UN Pakistani peacekeepers and nearly a dozen U.S. soldiers in Somalia being killed or wounded by Somali landmines. In response, the U.S. sent in a task force (dubbed Task Force Ranger) of special operators from the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Delta Force), the U.S. Navy SEALs, Air Force combat controllers and pararescuemen, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) intending to “[perform] raids to capture Aidid and his top commanders”.
On October 3rd, the Task Force received intelligence that a top meeting of Aidid’s secondary commanders was being held in the capital city of Mogadishu. In a convoy consisting of “19 aircraft, 12 vehicles and around 160 troops”, the operation went off smoothly at first. Yet, twenty minutes into the mission’s commencement, “one of the [UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters] … was shot down by an RPG-7”, and in the rescue operation for the initial Black Hawk, “a second Black Hawk helicopter … was shot down by an RPG-7 at around 4:40 pm”.
In the proceeding events of the day, the small force of operators, individually unprepared for a prolonged firefight and having poor communications systems, attempted to defend the crash sites, eventually being supported by a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of UN peacekeeping and 10th Mountain Division personnel.
The operation has since been memorialized in books and film, being a pivotal moment for American military might, U.S. foreign policy, and for the people of Somalia as well.
How the Battle of Mogadishu Affected Foreign Policy
The incident completely changed global and U.S. policy on Somalia for easily a decade. To this day, the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu remains within the minds of many in the public and elected office as a failed attempt at military intervention; while the mission’s stated goals were achieved (the capture of two high-ranking clan members of Aidid’s), the blowback from the operation (18 dead American soldiers, two multi-million dollar helicopters lost, and the capture of an American pilot) was so significant and strong that it resulted in the Clinton administration extricating itself and the United States military from Somalia.
From a military standpoint, Operation Gothic Serpent is an intelligence and policy failure for both high-level, strategic military commanders and policymakers at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). All too often, the battle is portrayed (and therefore remembered) as being a failure on the part of politicians and those in the United States. Still, there was a key component of this conflict that indicates a larger failure in military strategy.
According to Major Roger B. Sangvic, writing a monograph for the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies at the Command and General Staff College in 1998, the failure on the part of military officers was due to an “overconfidence in [Task Force Ranger’s, TFR] capabilities and underestimation of the enemy’s ability to find and attack TFR vulnerabilities were critical failures that led to a series of other failures” finding fault with them given they did not request appropriate aerial support, neglected to coordinate their operations with the local 10 Mountain and UN peacekeeping force they were relying upon as a QRF, and primarily “failed to utilize all their available resources and integrate these resources into a plan that could be flexible enough to handle the threat and all the friction in this risky operation”.
All too often, the belief that the Battle of Mogadishu failed due to decisions made by the Secretary of Defense or the White House is a persistent and pervasive belief. Yet, it is far more likely, considering the research performed by those familiar with military affairs and with a more academic mind, that this was a failure at all levels, not just political.
From a political perspective, however, there certainly were failures. The most glaring issue was the desire of the White House to extricate themselves and the United States from Somalia. For many Americans, becoming involved in Somalia was seen as becoming entrenched in another Vietnam War and largely formulated the policy the United States took going forward. As such, foreign policy around the world was harmed.
The Clinton administration’s decision to no longer continue with the Mogadishu operation resulted in an apprehension to become involved in other regional conflicts, ethnic cleansings, and genocides like the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, but predominantly “made the US wary of intervening in African crises”.
How the Battle of Mogadishu Affected Somalia
The failure and pullout of American forces in Somalia affected the country greatly, sending it further into a downward spiral. Following the U.S. extrication, the UN reduced its military might to “units mainly from less-developed countries, and the clan-based tensions that had precipitated the civil war remained unresolved”, resulting in further fighting between various clans once the UN also removed their peacekeeping force in 1995.
Mark Bowden, who authored the 1999 seminal work on the incident of Black Hawk Down, wrote a reflection piece in 2019 for Smithsonian Magazine in which he describes the current day state of Somalia.
According to Bowden, in the immediate aftermath of the battle in 1997, “The city itself was in ruins. The few large buildings were battle-scarred and filled with squatters, whose fires glowed through windows empty of glass and stripped of aluminium frames. Gas generators banged away to provide power to those few places where people could afford it. Militias fought along the borders of city sectors, filling the hospitals with bloody fighters, most of them teenagers. The streets were mostly empty, except for caravans of gunmen. Without government, laws, schools, trash pickups or any feature of civil society, extended clans offered the only semblance of safety or order. Most were at war with each other for scarce resources”.
Effectively, any hope of a nation resembling a civilization or a nation-state with a functioning government was dashed once the international community decided to abandon the East African nation to its own devices.
Not only did the 1993 battle result in Somalia becoming a failed state, but it has allowed terrorism to flourish. Al-Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Al-Shabaab are some of the most powerful forces in global terrorism and are powerhouses of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
Benjamin Runkle, a lecturer of government at Johns Hopkins University and a former director at the National Security Council, stated that due to “The descent of Somalia into a cross between Hobbes’ state of nature and a Mad Max movie … allowed al-Shabaab to flourish”.
However, Somalia is seemingly not currently a failed state. Since 2000, real progress has been made. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, in 2006, the first transitionary parliament was held. In 2009, “A moderate Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was elected president”, implementing some serious reforms, yet facing challenges publicly in dealing with accusations of public corruption and nationwide elections.
First, in 2015 (and again in 2021), the United Nations openly declared Somalia as no longer being “a failed state but a recovering fragile country,” with the then-outgoing representative for the UN’s Secretary-General stating, “The country in the past two-three years has come together quite significantly. It is both politically stable and developed as well”.
Mark Bowden has also discussed this change in Somalia, writing, “There are tall new buildings, and most of the old shanties have been replaced by houses. There are police, sanitation crews and new construction everywhere. Peaceful streets and thriving markets have begun to restore the city to its former glory as a seaside resort and port. Somali expatriates have begun reinvesting, and some are returning. The airport is up and running, with regular Turkish Airlines flights,” discussing how individuals from the Departments of State and Defense (who served in the country during the 1990s) also had seen this change in the nation-state’s fortunes.
Somalia, in many respects, has made many strides in becoming its’ own governable nation, albeit with issues like terrorism, crime, and more poverty than the average nation, but has done so on its own, without immense assistance from the United States or the United Nations. Going forward, it is highly likely a re-entry into the international community will require coordination with both the United States and international organizations, but this should serve as a clear lesson to the international community and the U.S.
For the international community, leaving a nation-state to become a failed state or to become embroiled in chaos because of a failed mission sends a poor message to other nations in need of assistance or going through severe human rights abuses. It relays a message to the world that the UN is unable to incapable of properly protecting those in need even though their peacekeeping operations have often been quite successful. To change this mentality and perception, the UN should not be seen as fully or completely abandoning a nation-state to its own devices and doing all it can to build an effective government while also showcasing its progress and successes, however minor, to the global community.
For the United States, while many citizens are wary of being the “world’s policeman” or taking such a forward step in world affairs, the fact that the U.S. is a superpower has the strongest military force in the world and also is the epicentre for business, society, and practically every sign of a productive, well-functioning civilization necessitates that they become ready and willing to assist when necessary to prevent a failed state from taking shape.
Further Reading on African Affairs
- Lessons from the Somalia Affair: Why Accountability & Oversight Matter
- Black Diamond: Liberia’s Little-Known Female Warlord
- Egyptian AK 47: Meet The Iconic Maadi AKM!
In Somalia’s case, the failure of the 1993 battle directly assisted in the proliferation of terrorism in not only Somalia but all of East Africa. This is an unforeseen consequence of the conflict, one that most likely would not have been at the centre of policymakers’ minds when considering whether to stay or remove itself from Somalia. However, this shows how impactful the conflict has been on U.S.-African policy and U.S-Somalia policy.