When U.S. troops rolled ashore in Mogadishu last Dec. 9, they were met by thousands of smiling Somalis, men and boys mainly, who had come to see the military extravaganza that raised the curtain on Operation Restore Hope.
Somalia was to be rescued from the famine that had consumed over 300,000 of its sons and daughters. A nation broken into pieces by civil war was to be put together again.
On that hot African day, and amid that festive welcome, not too many people could have foreseen what was to come. Who in the world could have envisaged those same faces grinning, this time with devilish joy, less than a year later as they dragged the body of a U.S. soldier through the dirt streets of their wrecked capital?
"Ninety percent of Somalis want this to happen," said Abdullah Ahmad Ali that day the Americans arrived. He was right then. He might still be right.
It was the actions of the other 10 percent that have horrified Americans. How could a mission of rescue turn so quickly into a mission of war?
Though some had warned of unhappy outcomes in Somalia, only a few were almost certain of it. One such was Rakiya Omar, the Somalian head of African Rights, a London-based human rights organization. She said so from the beginning. She was so outspoken about it she lost her job as the head of another human rights organization, Africa Watch.
"I think I have been proven right," she said yesterday. "The intensity of the current conflict, the ugliness of it, come from policies formulated at the outset of Operation Restore Hope."
The principal flaws in that strategy she saw as the decision not to disarm the Somali militias at the outset, and the way Operation Restore Hope was sold in the United States as an enterprise of short duration.
During its first days in Somalia, the U.S. intervention force kept to a dual strategy: first, move food into the interior of the country fast and in great quantity; second, mollify the militias, encourage them to stop fighting, but don't try to disarm them.
Everybody agreed with the first part. The second part did not sit well, not only with Ms. Omar, but with a lot of other people in Somalia. It particularly puzzled many of those working for the private charities -- the Red Cross, the Children's Fund, Catholic Relief -- operating in Somalia. Except for the Somalis themselves, they were the people most frequently exposed to the death and violence so endemic in that country where everybody goes armed.
They wanted the Marines to take the guns away. They could hardly understand the American unwillingness to do that. The U.S. commanders said that was not their mission. The people in the charities also didn't understand why anyone would want to legitimize the likes of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, or Mohamed )) Ali Mahdi, the other dominant warlord in Mogadishu.
"One of the first things [U.N. Representative] Robert B. Oakley did was to publicly embrace Aidid and Ali Mahdi," Ms. Omar recalled.
These men, after all, exploited the famine, stealing food relief, using that food to pay their own militias. They let the people die like flies caught in a cold snap.
The policy of declining to move against the militias might have seemed naive, even foolish at the time. But there was some sense to it, for it was during this period, this interregnum, that the food flowed into the remote regions where it was most needed and broke the famine.
Today, much of the Somali countryside is recovered. People have returned from the larger towns to their villages. The first crop in nearly two years is gathered. New crops are planted. A semblance of political organization is developing in such places as Baidoa -- which a year ago had become infamous as a city of the dead and dying -- and far off Bardera.
The cockpit of conflict remains Mogadishu. It gets bloodier by the day.
Here at home people are nervous, confused, which goes to Ms. Omar's second point, about the failure of the architects of Operation Restore Hope to forewarn the American people of what might flow from it. Or worse, the failure to understand it themselves.
"I understand there is deep anguish and anger in the United States. Bewilderment and questions. How did we get into this? Congress did not scrutinize this operation closely. People were not told how difficult it would be," said Ms. Omar.
"They should have been told it would take a long time. They should have been told it would require a commitment of years, not months."
She continued: "But having warned about it at the outset, I think it would be a disaster for the U.S. to leave. Much is at stake. American pride now. Also, General Aidid knows that the United States is the muscle behind the U.N., and if he can force the withdrawal of the U.N. -- which he hates -- it would leave him in an untouchable position."
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