U.S. can't hide quest to catch warlord Aidid But Congress may question mission

September 01, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Pancho Villa taught the U.S. Army 77 years ago that snaring warlords can be tricky business, and when Congress gets back next week, the Clinton administration may find that the idea of arresting Mohamed Farah Aidid is viewed dubiously, as well.

It was with an anxious eye on Congress that the administration last month sent a task force of 400 Rangers to Somalia, ostensibly to augment a U.S.-commanded "quick reaction force" charged with providing security for United Nations operations.

Defense Department spokesmen took pains to underscore that catching Mr. Aidid was not the mission of the task force, but Monday's raid ended that illusion.

The task force, which, according to sources, included members of the Delta force, a hostage-rescue unit, were certainly not the troops military planners would choose to beef up the quick-reaction force.

"Delta doesn't do attacks; Delta doesn't do quick-reaction missions," said Keith Idema, a former Army special-operations expert. He and other specialists in that field stressed that Delta's real mission is the extraction of hostages safely, a procedure that could quickly be turned into the arrest of a warlord and his key aides.

They agreed with U.S. military briefers that Monday's mission, even if it snared no suspects, was a textbook example of their trade: vertical envelopment, with the Rangers dropping from helicopter lines; delicate-use explosives to gain entry; securing of suspects; and swift helicopter extraction. "Low or no casualties," Mr. Idema noted.

The administration has artfully tried to hide the intention to grab Mr. Aidid from the beginning.

When Defense Secretary Les Aspin sketched U.S. aims in an address Friday, he never specifically mentioned the arrest of Mr. Aidid, and a Defense Department spokeswoman has said they don't won't want to "personalize" the mission by naming Mr. Aidid as a target.

But the spokeswoman reminded reporters that Mr. Aidid is sought on an arrest warrant issued by the United Nations.

So the problem for President Clinton is that the mission has been personalized, and the history of such missions, not to mention the delicate task of working with the United Nations, suggests that this may not turn out to be a good idea.

For example, World War I Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing chased the bandit Villa all over northern Mexico to no avail; in the 1920s, the U.S. Marines in Nicaragua never caught revolunionary Cesar August Sandino, whose name was later used by the Sandinistas; President Bush's effort to grab Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega came only at extraordinary cost.

Mr. Bush personalized the search for Saddam Hussein and has the uncomfortable recognition that he's in retirement while the Iraqi strongman still rules.

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