Bogging Down in Somalia

July 14, 1993

In its immediate goal of getting the food through, the United Nations military operation in Somalia is a success. People are eating, starvation is over, health is returning. Whether a sufficient next harvest will materialize is unclear. If anarchy is renewed or the troops leave, starvation could return.

But the operation is a failure in pursuit of its political goal of disarming the warlords and reinstituting national authority in Somalia. This was asking of the U.N. what it had never done and is not equipped to do. Whether it can regroup and become more effective is a critical question.

The U.S. gunship raid in Mogadishu that killed 54 and wounded 174, according to the International Red Cross, exemplified operational success and political failure. After warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid's thugs and snipers had killed 35 U.N. soldiers (including 24 unarmed Pakistanis in one attack) and wounded 137, the U.N. Security Council in New York ordered him captured and tried for crimes. The U.S. gunships hit one of his command posts with, as military briefers are wont to say, collateral damage.

After that raid, mob action by fellow clansmen of the warlord took the lives of four journalists, three of them from Kenya (one with American and British passports) plus a German, who gave their lives to bring the plight of Somalis to world attention. More journalists were attacked with clubs and knives. Somalia joins the former Yugoslavia as a danger spot where the world's observers become the targets.

General Aidid justifies his attacks by claiming the U.N. has favored his rivals. The Security Council mandate is to disarm them all. The U.S.-prodded effort of the U.N. to get General Aidid has signally failed to get him, elevating him symbolically to the ranks of Fidel Castro, Muammar Kadafi and Saddam Hussein, all sources of annoyance whom U.S. forces failed to "get."

The frustrations and dangers have brought dissension in U.N. ranks. Italy objects to U.S. domination of policy, where a Turkish general nominally commands with an American deputy. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in turn has indirectly criticized Italy for giving orders to its own troops outside the central chain of command. Some of the aid organizations, whom U.N. troops entered Somalia to protect, are threatening to leave because of the violence. The world organization has yet to learn how even the most humanitarian of operations can avoid turning into a quagmire.

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