Leaving Somalia: What Was Learned?

March 27, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

America's grand gesture toward Somalia has officially ended.

Except for 50 Marine U.S. Embassy guards and a few stragglers, the last of the U.S. troops dispatched 16 months ago with such flourish to implement Operation Restore Hope marched off the hot beaches of Mogadishu Friday.

For months now, these troops have languished in their compound at the capital airport and in various sites around the country. They ventured out only in helicopters, or in force, with weapons bristling behind steel plate.

Today Mogadishu is a lawless city full of gunmen and bandits. It's much the same as it was when these troops arrived in December, 1992, full of expectations that they might help put it right. Many of them expressed that hope right on the beach, still wet from the surf. But, at the end, they were forced to hunker down behind razor wire strung out to shield them from the animosity that grew on every side.

As they leave, it is doubtful many of those young men will glance back with warmth toward that ruined paradise where all their good intentions turned sour, their predisposition to assist the Somalis was transformed into plain disillusion. Even now, at certain times of day, when the sky is the right lemon color, Mogadishu can recall those days when it was a more or less well-ordered Italian colonial outpost, a pleasant enough place where flowering bougainvillea enveloped and decorated tiled verandas, all despoiled now.

Is their disappointment justified? Not entirely. The GIs were told they were sent to help feed a starving people. They were. They did. It is the main point of the story of the Somalia intervention -- and it is a success story, if not entirely so.

One might say the mission was a success and a failure in equal parts, but the success of it is almost always overlooked.

The success of the U.S. mission in Somalia is evident over at the Fayette Street headquarters of the Catholic Relief Agency, where plans are being drawn for the agency's own withdrawal from Somalia. They have worked themselves out of a job. They are turning their attention to other, incipient catastrophes elsewhere in the Horn of Africa.

Said Ken Hackett, head of Catholic Relief: "We went in on the relief phase, stayed for the rehabilitation stage. We went through three cycles of planting. The local systems are almost back up to where they were prior to the bad times of late '91 through '92.

"There is more trade, and commerce has picked up. We don't see our relief role there much longer."

Most of the other agencies that went in several years ago to confront the famine have withdrawn, some but not all, like Catholic Relief, because their missions are complete.

Mr. Hackett is not suggesting all is right in Somalia. Banditry has increased. Here and there, clan tensions are heating up. Three weeks ago, the agency had to implement a brief emergency food distribution in a few isolated places where crops failed.

And there are reports of a cholera outbreak near Mogadishu and Kismayo. If this worsens there could be a lot of death. If the clan rivalry is not soothed, all-out warfare might flare again. Somalia could slip back into famine.

But there is no certainty it will, and in the absence of the inevitability of catastrophe one can be forgiven for presuming a more benign outcome. As hopes go, it is not an extravagant one.

Much good work was done by agencies such as Catholic Relief, the Red Cross, even the United Nations. Children were rescued, people returned to their home territories, seed was planted as the donated food was distributed. Finally, crops were harvested and Somalia began to mend as its people ate the produce of its own soil -- sorghum, for the most part.

The doing of all this was facilitated by the presence of the GIs and other U.N. troops. This week the protective mission will be turned over to large contingents of Pakistani and Indian troops.

*

When and how things went wrong with the U.S. mission in Somalia is no secret. The turn for the worse came about six months after the arrival of the GIs, when the mission was enlarged from guarding food convoys to a direct military engagement with the militia of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, the country's pre-eminent warlord. What had been a humanitarian mission at that point became a military operation.

The shift occurred after the ambush and killing of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers last June 5 by forces thought under General Aidid's control. The commander of U.S. forces in Somalia, Adm. Jonathan Howe, decided that this could not go unpunished if the United Nations were to retain credibility. And so, General Aidid was ordered arrested. He was pursued, a price of $25,000 put on his head. The aim was to snatch him, spirit him out of the country and try him for the killing of the Pakistanis. He was to be removed as a factor in Somalia.

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