The humanitarian effort to provide food for starving Somalians turned into a military disaster for the US.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union waged a number of proxy conflicts around the world, in which both sides backed surrogate governments—usually unelected military dictators—who fought against each other or against irregular insurgents that were supported by each other. One of these conflicts was in the Horn of Africa, where US-backed Muhammed Siad Barre, who had seized power in Somalia in 1969, was supporting an insurrection in neighboring Soviet-backed Ethiopia. The US feared that potential Communist influence in the area could lead to a strategic Soviet position within reach of the Suez Canal.
When the Cold War ended in 1989, US interest in the area also ended, and all the economic and military aid stopped. But the fighting in the Horn of Africa continued, and in January 1991, various Somali tribal clans who had long been suppressed by the Barre dictatorship managed to overthrow him. None of these clans were strong enough to take power themselves, however, and they soon fell to fighting with each other. Somalia became a nonfunctional failed state, with each clan headed by a warlord who ruled his particular area. As the entire political and social structure of the country broke apart, famine set in, and hundreds of thousands of civilians starved.
International relief organizations attempted to send in food, but the bulk of this had to enter the country through the capitol of Mogadishu, which was under the control of local warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, who had been Army Chief of Staff under the Barre dictatorship and who had been trained in the US as part of its Cold War “security” programs. Barre’s forces began seizing food shipments as they arrived, taking a portion for themselves and distributing the rest to its allies and leaving its opponents to starve.
Shortly after losing the 1992 elections, the now lame-duck President George HW Bush decided that the United States had to intervene. “Operation Restore Hope” was intended to be a humanitarian action to take control of the airport at Mogadishu and protect the incoming food shipments so they could be distributed fairly wherever they were needed. Admiral Jonathan Howe landed in Mogadishu with 28,000 US troops, and the United Nations soon joined in and landed a peacekeeping force consisting mostly of Pakistani, Canadian, Belgian and French soldiers.
The US thought that its “assistance” would be welcomed, but the Somalis, for the most part, resented this intrusion of foreigners, and they responded with riots and demonstrations. Aidid quickly took advantage of the situation, and now painted himself as the hero who was resisting the American “occupation”. His Somali National Alliance (SNA) militia now began launching ambushes and hit-and-run raids on US and UN outposts, including convoys that were carrying food shipments out of the city. And when President Bill Clinton assumed office in January 1993, he inherited the problem.
Now, the mission of the US/UN forces began to expand. From merely “safeguarding the shipment of food”, it grew to “protecting a safe zone within which US/UN forces could operate” and finally ended up at “establishing a stable government in Somalia”. Aidid was declared a “war criminal”, and the US explicitly adopted the goal of arresting him and destroying his SNA militia. A $25,000 bounty was placed on Aidid. American and UN forces began firing on Somali demonstrators and launching raids against SNA targets, and when Radio Mogadishu, under Aidid’s control, began broadcasting anti-UN and anti-US propaganda, US forces shut it down. The United States began giving political support to one of Aidid’s rival warlords, Ali Mahdi Muhammed, which conversely had the effect of increasing popular support for Aidid and gained new recruits for the SNA. In effect, the Americans had chosen sides in Somalia’s internal strife, without really understanding any of it. They had assumed that their overwhelming military and technological superiority would allow them to quickly subdue a ragtag barefoot militia force that was equipped with only small arms. It would be a disaster.
In October 1993, US commanders received intelligence which pinpointed the location of two top Aidid aides inside the Olympic Hotel building in Mogadishu, and planned a mission to capture them. US Special Forces operatives from the US Army Rangers and the Delta Force would rappel from hovering Black Hawk helicopters and quickly seize the building and everyone in it. Then a column of armed Humvees and trucks would arrive to carry the raiders and their prisoners back to Mogadishu Airport. The entire operation was expected to last only 30 minutes.
Things went wrong right from the beginning. The US had already done dozens of similar “extraction” missions to seize suspected SNA members, and they had a ready template for them which they always followed. This was a mistake—it allowed Aidid to anticipate what the Americans would do, and now he was ready to put his own attack plan into action. Aidid’s intelligence network was better than that of the US, and when the strike force’s helicopters left the airport, he was instantly informed. He placed a number of his SNA militiamen around the target building with the aim of shooting down the American helicopters. This was something the US had not expected, since the crudely-armed militia had no anti-aircraft weapons. But Aidid’s men had rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which, although intended for use against armored vehicles, could also be used effectively against low-flying helicopters.
So, as the Black Hawks hovered in place and captured the building, the Somalis launched a fusillade of RPGs. Several choppers were hit, and two of them went down. Then, more SNA militiamen joined the fight and opened fire on the now-stranded Special Forces. The Americans frantically radioed for help from the approaching vehicle column, but they had already been ambushed by Somali “improvised fighting vehicles”—pickup trucks that were fitted with machine guns.
With two groups of Americans now pinned down, Aidid’s fighters streamed in, and a wild firefight broke out that lasted fifteen hours. Both the US and UN sent relief forces to rescue the trapped raiders, and many of those became surrounded too. The US sent Apache helicopter gunships, but a request for tanks and armored personnel carriers was refused.
By the time relief forces broke through and rescued the American survivors, heavy gunfire had killed at least several hundred Somalis, both SNA fighters and civilians. The US had lost 19 killed and over 70 wounded, and the UN troops lost one Pakistani and one Malaysian killed along with several wounded. The SNA fighters mutilated the American bodies that had been left behind in the helicopter crashes, hacked them with machetes, and triumphantly dragged them through the streets of Mogadishu. One survivor was captured alive and later released.
Within hours, President Clinton announced that it had been a mistake to attempt “nation-building” in Somalia in the first place and announced that US troops would be withdrawn from the country within six months. The UN followed suit shortly later, and all the foreign forces in the country were gone by 1995. Aidid grandly declared himself “President of Somalia”, but his power did not reach beyond his area of control in Mogadishu, and the warlords in the countryside continued their fighting. Somalia is still a failed state.
Through negotiations, the bodies of all the American dead were returned. The wreckage of the two Black Hawk helicopters became a war trophy for Aidid, who proudly exhibited them. In August 2013, US officials were able to obtain the return of some of the wreckage, mostly from the Black Hawk with callsign “Super 61”, including the engine, rotor blades, and part of the nose. Today that wreckage is exhibited at the US Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum, on the grounds of Fort Bragg near Fayetteville NC.