What Black Hawk Down leaves out

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Jan. 21 2002 6:21 AM

What Black Hawk Down Leaves Out

That Somalia raid really was more a debacle than a victory.

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"Nation-building" required working out a peace between the various clans, which clearly required some intimidation of Aideed's organization, the SNA, since Aideed and the Habr Gidr believed they'd earned the right to rule. When Aideed and the U.N. staged dueling peace conferences, and Aideed's militia detained some rivals at one of them, the U.N. "concluded he should be politically marginalized," in the words of Robert Oakley, who had successfully led the U.N.'s Phase I before returning home.

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Was that a smart move? How do you "marginalize" the leadership of an entire clan? Oakley is diplomatic in his book, but he clearly thinks it was idiotic. If you're trying to bring peace to a country, you have to deal with the existing social structures and military powers. Realism please! In Afghanistan, where the U.S. has many times the intimidating military force it had in Somalia, there are plenty of vicious warlords and tribal leaders we've worked with rather than trying to "marginalize." Keep in mind that the decision to "marginalize" Aideed happened well before those Pakistani peacekeepers were killed.

2. What about retaliating for the attack on Pakistani peacekeepers?

"One of the Habr Gidr clan's response to the U.N. efforts was to ambush 24 Pakstani soldiers under the world body's flag and literally to eviscerate them."— Press packet for Black Hawk Down

Again this is true, as far as it goes, and it's impossible to justify the brutal attack on the Pakistanis. Still, there are complications:

  • The U.N. had decided to shut down Aideed's radio station, which broadcast anti-UN propaganda. Yet it was allowing the station of Aideed's main rival, Ali Mahdi, to remain open, allegedly on the theory that Ali Mahdi's station was unofficial. Aideed's faction saw this as biased—part of the ongoing U.N. tilt against it—and "had worked itself into seeing any interference with the radio station as a casus belli." (Oakley)
  • The Pakistanis had in fact entered the radio station, looking for weapons. They were leaving, but crowds gathered thinking the station was under attack.
  • A later independent investigative commission called the Pakistani inspection "highly provocative and unwise," according to Oakley's book.

The U.N. and its new top official, Adm. Jonathan Howe, immediately launched the now-famous manhunt for Aideed, which was also a campaign against Aideed's SNA faction. Howe's position had a clear logic to it—the principle of "Don't Disembowel U.N. Peacekeepers" being a fairly important one to establish for future missions. But the U.N. lacked the means to carry out its pronouncements. 

Worse, there was the well-documented tendency of such vengeance missions to get out of control—one reason the Aideed manhunt was opposed by many in the Pentagon, including Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, the commander responsible for Somalia. Hoar concluded there was only a one-in-four chance of catching Aideed—which the U.N., in fact, never did. (The Rangers formal mission, in the Oct. 3 raid shown in the movie, may have been simply to capture two of Aideed's aides. But they were clearly hoping to snare the man himself.)

What the U.N. could do is kill a lot of Habr Gidr clansman.  On July 12, months before the Ranger raid, in an incident unremarked in all the Black Hawk Down hype, U.S. and U.N. forces attacked a Habr Gidr clan meeting. The meeting included clan elders, intellectuals, poets. It was held at the house of Aideed's self-styled "defense" minister, but included Habr Gidr members who planned to argue against Aideed's anti-U.N. stance. Indeed, the meeting had been called to consider a Howe "peace initiative," according to Bowden. Instead, as reported by the Washington Post's Keith Richburg:

[I]t was a slaughter. A half-dozen Cobras pumped sixteen TOW missiles and two thousand rounds of cannon fire into the house with deadly accuracy. First they blew away the stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping. … A video taken just after the attack showed the mangled bodies literally blown apart in the attack—the religious leaders, the elders, even the women in their colorful wrap dresses who were always on hand to serve the tea.

Somali crowds, enraged by the attack, immediately turned on four Western journalists who had gone to cover it, killing them.

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