Somalia and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention

Walter Clarke & Jeffrey Herbst. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 2. March/April 1996.

Learning the Right Lessons

The American-led operation in Somalia that began when U.S. Marines hit the Mogadishu beaches in December 1992 continues to profoundly affect the debate over humanitarian intervention. The Clinton administration’s refusal to respond to the genocide in Rwanda that began in April 1994 was due in part to its retreat from Somalia, announced after the deaths of 18 U.S. Army Rangers on October 3-4, 1993. In Bosnia, U.N. peacekeepers under fire from or taken prisoner by Serb forces over the last two years were expected to turn the other cheek for fear of “crossing the Mogadishu line.”

This expression, reportedly coined by Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia (UNPROFOR), describes the need to maintain neutrality in the face of all provocation for fear of becoming an unwilling participant in a civil war. In recent months, the design of the U.N. Implementation Force in Bosnia has been shaped by what was purportedly learned in Somalia.

The doctrines of both the United States and the United Nations were also clearly affected. President Clinton issued a policy directive in April 1994, shortly after U.S. forces left Somalia, that implied a sharp curtailment of American involvement in future armed humanitarian interventions and that marked a retreat from his administration’s earlier rhetoric of assertive multilateralism. Similarly, in the 1995 (second) edition of An Agenda for Peace, the fundamental policy document on U.N. peacekeeping, Secretary-General Boutros BoutrosGhali expressed less optimism about the possibilities for intervention than he did in the 1992 (first) edition, largely because of the United Nations’ searing experience in Somalia. Continuing efforts by congressmen to cut or restrict U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping are also a direct response to the perceived failures in Somalia.

While Somalia should be an important precedent for international intervention in the post-Cold War world, it is not clear the right lessons have been learned. Much of the received wisdom on the intervention is based on patent falsehoods hurriedly transmitted during the press of events. Moreover, some individuals and governments have reinterpreted the Somalia intervention to protect their reputations and interests.

The task now is to reevaluate the mission in the harsh light of the facts, separate and acknowledge the errors unique to the Somalia mission, and distill some guiding principles for other would-be intervenors. This much is manifest: no massive intervention in a failed state-even one for humanitarian purposes-can be assuredly short by plan, politically neutral in execution, or wisely parsimonious in providing “nation-building” development aid. Nations do not descend into anarchy overnight, so intervenors should expect neither the reconciliation of combatants nor the reconstruction of civil societies and national economies to be swift. There is an inescapable reciprocity between civil and military goals. Military commanders cannot expect a failed state to become inherently peaceful and stable and their efforts to be worthwhile in the long run without the work of developmental and civil affairs experts. Likewise, humanitarian workers must recognize that the relief goods they handle in failed states can become the currency of warlords.

The Nature of the Mission

The most common charge about the Somalia intervention is that the mission changed. The general argument is that the extremely limited U.S.-led intervention initiated by President Bush to feed Somalis in December 1992, the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), was a success, but the operation began to founder when the second U.N. Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II) took over in May 1993 and expanded the mission to include the rebuilding of basic state institutions-“nation-building.” Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, for example, argues that the Security Council adopted a “sweepingly ambitious new ‘nation-building’ resolution” in March 1993 that marked a major break between the U.S. and U.N. missions in Somalia. The New York Times echoed many editorial pages when it lamented that “the nature of the mission changed dramatically in June [1993], right after Washington turned control over to the U.N.” Many commentators now call for a strict division between humanitarian interventions and nation-building, largely because of this interpretation of the Somalia case and the belief that the United Nations tried to take on more than it could control. Richard Haass, a special assistant for national security affairs to President Bush, distinguishes between humanitarian interventions, which are intent on “providing protection and other basic needs,” and much more complex endeavors, such as nation-building, which envision “recasting the institutions of the society.” He suggests that the Somalia mission widened to include nationbuilding because “policymakers got ambitious.””

The reasons for the rhetorical emphasis on the supposed mission expansion are complex. Certainly the televised and published images of U.S. troops fighting hostile Somalis and pursuing General Mohamed Farah Aideed in August 1993 were jarring to Americans who a few months before had seen pictures of their soldiers providing food to grateful, emaciated people. The Rangers’ disastrous firefight in October prompted many both within the Clinton administration and those outside who had applauded Bush’s decision to intervene to distance themselves from the tragedy by blaming the United Nations.

President Clinton, when meeting with families of the dead Rangers, said, somewhat implausibly, that he was surprised the United Nations was still pursuing General Aideed.2 Those willing to recognize that the intervention saved thousands of lives have generally focused on the alleged mission change as a way to salvage some good from a seemingly devastating foray into a foreign morass. Bureaucratic turf battles have also come to the fore. The U.S. Marines are associated with the apparently clean UNITAF intervention, the U.S. Army with the murky and ill-fated UNOSOM II operation, in which it was the leading military unit. Those contrasting images of efficacy and defeat have affected the debate on roles and missions sparked by the current defense cutbacks.

The truth about the mission and how much it changed is much more complicated. It is not true, as some have charged and the president has implied, that U.S. troops, including the Quick Reaction Force and the Rangers involved in the fatal firefight, were under U.N. command. Those soldiers were outside the formal U.N. command structure. The Rangers were commanded by Major General William Garrison, a U.S. Special Forces officer who reported directly to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. The searches for Aideed, including the one that led to the Ranger casualties, were all approved by senior American authorities in Washington.

When U.S. officials in Somalia gave formal control to the United Nations on May 4, 1993, they had already determined the nature of the follow-on operation. Admiral Jonathan Howe, who had been the deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, was named the secretary-general’s special representative to Somalia and took charge of the operation. The allegation that the United Nations greatly broadened the mission the United States had outlined is simply not true. In fact, all the major Security Council resolutions on Somalia, including the “nation-building” resolution, were written by U.S. officials, mainly in the Pentagon, and handed to the United Nations as faits accomplis. Only after the October 1993 firefight did the United States try to wash its hands of an operation that it had started and almost entirely directed. As one international civil servant said, the United Nations was “seduced and then abandoned” by the United States.

The distinction between humanitarian intervention and nationbuilding that is central to so many critiques of the Somalia operation and intervention is problematic. The implication of those who support only humanitarian intervention is that Somalis were starving because of an act of nature. But the famine that gripped Somalia in 1992 resulted from the degeneration of the country’s political system and economy. Andrew Natsios, who was the assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Somalia relief operations, has noted that food imported for the relief effort became a prized plunder of merchants, unemployed workers, and gangs of young men. Militia leaders used stolen food aid to amass wealth for purchasing weapons and keeping followers loyal. “Merchants would actually request the local militia or bands of thieves to steal more food as their stocks diminished each day,” according to Natsios. The country’s entire political and economic systems essentially revolved around plundered food.

When U.S. troops intervened in December 1992 to stop the theft of food, they disrupted the political economy and stepped deep into the muck of Somali politics. By reestablishing some order, the U.S. operation inevitably affected the direction of Somali politics and became nation-building because the most basic component of nation-building is an end to anarchy. The current conventional wisdom that draws distinctions between different types of intervention and stresses the desire to avoid nation-building may be analytically attractive, but it is not particularly helpful. How could anyone believe that landing 30,000 troops in a country was anything but a gross interference in its politics? The Mogadishu line was crossed as soon as troops were sent in.

Ambivalence Kills

Much of what went wrong in the Somalia operations can be traced to the schizophrenia of the Bush and Clinton administrations when confronted with the fact that any intervention would deeply involve the United States in Somali politics. Bush at times recognized that reality. Those who claim that the United Nations changed the Somalia mission should remember his December 1992 announcement: Our mission is humanitarian, but we will not tolerate armed gangs ripping off their own people, condemning them to death by starvation.

General [William] Hoar and his troops have the authority to take whatever military action is necessary to safeguard the lives of our troops and the lives of Somalia’s people … the outlaw elements in Somalia must understand this is serious business.”

His administration, however, disregarded the implications of its intervention. Bush wanted to get the troops out quickly, perhaps by Clintori s inauguration the next month. Also, General Colin Powell and his doctrine advocating overwhelming force and limited objectives so dominated both administrations that no other vision of the Somali operation could be enunciated.

It is not the case that the United States intervened adroitly in a limited humanitarian mission only to have the United Nations bungle because it chose to do nation-building. Rather, the two missions differed fundamentally. American leaders, in trying to get in and out of Somalia as quickly as possible, simply postponed the problems that logically followed from the intervention. The United Nations was left to confront those ramifications and inevitably found the going rough. It had to address the reordering of Somali society because no one, especially the United States, would have been happy if Somalia’s strifetorn status quo quickly reappeared.

The American refusal to face up to the consequences of its intervention was especially damaging to the critical issue of disarmament. Roughly 30,000 in number when they arrived, U.S. troops had more power than anyone and therefore the greatest capability to disarm the belligerent forces. However, U.S. officials told the Somali warlords that they could keep their weapons if they moved the arms out of Mogadishu or into their respective cantonments. The failure to disarm the warlords was a tragic mistake because a concentrated effort to remove and destroy the Somalis’ heavy arms was possible and would have sent an early and strong message that the United States and United Nations were serious about restoring order. Many Somalis fully expected to be disarmed and were surprised at the inaction of the U.S.-led intervention force. Ironically, all the Somali factions subsequently agreed to disarm themselves in the Addis Ababa accords of March 1993. The United States could have argued that, as an impartial force, it was helping to enforce an accord among Somalis themselves.

The warlords, always acutely sensitive to the correlation of forces, quickly realized that their power would not be challenged. They could wait until the United States and its allies left and then challenge the U.N. force, which would have fewer arms and a more delicate command and control structure. Thus it is a mistake to say the United States succeeded with UNITAF; to the contrary, U.S. forces made it clear that they would not challenge the warlords and would stay so briefly that the Somalis had no interest in hindering their departure.

As the United States drew down its forces, Washington began to appreciate the need for disarmament. In a speech on August 27, 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin acknowledged that disarmament of the clans was necessary.4 By then, UNITAF was long gone, and the 20,000 personnel comprising UNOSOM II had been either shattered by Aideed’s attacks or sidelined for political reasons. The only serious war-fighting forces in Somalia were the 1,200-member Quick Response Force, composed of elite soldiers from the U.S. Army’s loth Mountain Division and several hundred Rangers, who began to arrive on the day of Aspin’s speech. These lightly armed and highly specialized units were inappropriate for disarmament. However, continuing the American inability to match means with ends, Aspin denied U.S. force commander Major General Thomas Montgomery’s request for tanks in case the Rangers got bogged down in their search for Aideed. The administration feared congressional opposition to the request for increased U.S. firepower.

The asymmetry between U.S. forces and the operation’s goals reached its height after the fatal Ranger clash, when President Clinton finally sent the military equipment, notably gunships and tanks, that U.S. commanders had been denied. Under heavy congressional pressure, however, the administration instructed U.S. forces to adopt a purely defensive posture, end the hunt for Aideed, and hunker down until the March 31,1994, deadline that President Clinton had set for American withdrawal. The United Nations was left high and dry to pursue sharply limited aspects of the nation-building program designed by the U.S. government 15 months earlier.

American ambivalence toward the intervention manifested itself in other ways too. The initial plans for Operation Restore Hope—the name Bush administration officials gave to UNITA—included the activation of eight to ten reserve military civil-affairs units (about 250-300 personnel) to work with local governments in Somalia, particularly on rebuilding the police and judiciary. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the idea because the operation was supposed to last only six weeks. In the end, only three dozen civil-affairs specialists were sent to Somalia during the UNITAF operation. By contrast, 1,000 civil-affairs specialists were committed to Kuwait City in i after the Iraqis had been expelled. The United States devoted money and attention to rebuilding the Somali police force only after the Rangers’ battle, but by then it was too late.

Similarly, there was essentially no development aid or expertise available during the Somalia operations beyond that for hunger relief.

One senior disaster relief specialist concluded that in Somalia there was no connection between relief and development.5 Disaster relief specialists wrote an economic recovery program for Somalia—a task well outside their expertise because no one else was available. Given that so much of the economy revolved around the plunder of food aid, the failure to develop a plan to restore the economy to normal was a grievous error and emblematic of the mission’s failure to address anything beyond exigencies.

The international community should discard the illusion that one can intervene in a country beset by widespread civil violence without affecting domestic politics and without including a nation-building component. Attention must be devoted to rebuilding the institutions whose collapse helped bring on disaster. Stopping a man-made famine means rebuilding political institutions to create order. No intervention in a troubled state such as Somalia can succeed in a few weeks. Unless development aid and external assistance address the long-term political and economic implications of an intervention, it is doomed.

These conclusions have implications for force structure. In the U.S. military, only three percent of civil-affairs officers are on active duty; the remainder are in the reserves. Military authorities have difficulty calling up these units because they tend to be comprised of lawyers, small-town mayors, police officers, and others who cannot be repeatedly activated without disruption. A larger active-duty civilaffairs contingent would help a military force engaged in a humanitarian intervention.

Working with the Warlords

A critical issue in any intervention is how to promote reconciliation and negotiate with the armed principals. The challenge is particularly difficult because promoting long-term reconciliation may mean empowering the unarmed, while short-term exigencies will require reaching a modus operandi with the warring factions. This problem has been expressed, somewhat simplistically, as facilitating reconciliation from either the bottom up or the top down. Actual reconciliation is always more complex, involving settling of local disputes that can boil up to the national level and brokering agreements between major combatants to stop fomenting civil unrest.

In Somalia there was no clear vision of how reconciliation should proceed. The United States initially saw its mission as short and limited to opening supply lines so that it would not have to become involved in Somali politics. Nor did the United Nations have a clear road map for reconciliation. The short-range objectives of the U.S. involvement meant that it was very difficult to take many credible steps to promote reconciliation. The expectation was that the combatants, after years of fighting a civil war, could somehow resolve their differences in a few months. Given such circumstances, it was inevitable that groups without large stocks of weaponry would be leery of collaborating openly and quickly with the United Nations to rebuild local government institutions.

Both the United States and the United Nations sought to stay neutral. For the United States, Lebanon—where its role quicklyevolved from mediator to fighter, ultimately with dire results-obviously was an important influence. For the United Nations, the precept of neutrality had been a hallmark of its peacekeeping activities for decades. Instead of remaining neutral, however, the United States and United Nations ended up enhancing the roles and status of the warlords. U.S. rules of engagement in Somalia forbade any interference in Somali-on-Somali violence, despite President Bush’s rhetoric in defining the mission. Most important, the failure to disarm the major combatants meant that the United Nations in effect sided with those who had the most weapons, leaving the weak and defenseless to abandon hope.

The intervening forces failed to recognize which Somalis had been victims. Collapsed states like Somalia are often pictured as reverting to a Hobbesian state of nature, a battle of all versus all. Much of what appears to be incomprehensible warfare in Somalia is a struggle for land between the African farmers in the south and the northern, clan-based nomadic groups, which are better armed. Most of the victims in Somalia were members of the Bantu and Benadir clans, sedentary coastal groups who traditionally live in uneasy coexistence with neighboring ethnic Somali groups, and the Rahanweyn clan, who work the rich agricultural land in the Jubba and Shabeelle river valleys in the south and which is the weakest militarily.

The illusion that traditional peacekeeping methods emphasizing neutrality and impartiality were adequate to handle state failure in Somalia was finally swept aside when Aideed’s forces ambushed a group of Pakistani soldiers on June 5, ing 24. A bounty was soon put on Aideed’s head by Admiral Howe, and U.S. soldiers, who were meant only to be a backup in the event U.N. forces ran afoul of the warlord’s militias, undertook the increasingly violent operations to catch him, resulting in the October 3-4 firefight. In retrospect, it is easy to claim that the hunt for Aideed was a mistake. But the question was thorny: how should a duly mandated international force respond to an attack? The precepts of neutrality and noninterference in internal affairs-usually employed in peacekeeping operations in which the United Nations arrived after the fighting is over and no one has an incentive to target the U.N. blue helmets-were of little use. Furthermore, U.S. and U.N. officials faced the practical consideration that, around the world, thousands of peacekeepers were in vulnerable situations.

Failure to act against a direct attack in Somalia, the Clinton administration felt, would put these forces in jeopardy. Finally, U.S. and U.N. decision-makers recognized that, given Somali culture, a forceful response was needed to stave off additional attacks.

Given the self imposed limits of the operation, the hunt for Aideed certainly contradicted U.S. and U.N. policy: why pursue Aideed if the international force was unwilling to dilute the power of the warlords over the long run? Even with the threat Aideed posed, would his capture cause Somali society to instantly reconstruct itself? U.S. and U.N. officials in Mogadishu were not guilty of expanding the initial mission. They were guilty of not persuading their leaders that the mission had been so sharply curtailed at the outset that any later action to alter the balance of power in Somalia would meet violent resistance. A policy that allowed unarmed Somalis to emerge as political players and changed the Somali power balance should have been in effect from the start.

Somalia took years to reach its nadir; it is reasonable to suggest that it might take years for a fundamental reconstruction. Unfortunately, the international community lacks the tools to address the long-term political reconstruction of a country that has no government. The United Nations since 1945 has basically been a decolonization machine: its primary purpose has been to proclaim as quickly as possible that every newly independent country is able to govern itself. The idea that Somalia was not able to rule itself now or for a long time—went so deeply against the organizational grain of the United Nations that an approach incorporating long-term reconstruction was never considered.

For instance, although it was obvious when American troops hit the Somali beaches that the country was essentially being taken over, no one seriously considered trusteeship or any similar legal approach; the fiction that Somalia was still a sovereign state was perpetuated. The United States and the United Nations had to pretend that Somalia could resume self government quickly and that pretense almost automatically led them to cooperate explicitly and implicitly with the warlords.

United Nations-Building

The United Nations, in taking over the Somalia operation in 1993, clearly did not have the resources or the ability to do the job the United States drew up. The errors that compounded the problem have been chronicled: the United Nations was slow in making appointments, it did not appoint very qualified people, its decision-making process was often cumbersome (especially compared with the U.S. Marines), and it made some extremely poor decisions, as when it delayed helping recreate the Somali police force because it preferred to have a government in place first.

While some errors like these can and should be quickly fixed within current U.N. structures; others cannot. There was a widespread expectation that the end of the Cold War would finally enable the United Nations, after decades of gridlock induced by superpower vetoes, to assume the full mantle of peace activities envisaged by its founders. Somalia is the most obvious case to date of the world organization taking on new duties to build the new world order. However, the United Nations’ capabilities have changed little in response to these new challenges. Much of the blame can be lodged with the U.N. bureaucracy, which must be reformed. However, the United Nations’ major donors must also take responsibility for failing to provide the financial and intellectual leadership needed to accomplish these new tasks.

Given the current attitude in Congress toward the United Nations, the world’s powers may not be willing to revitalize the organization to usher in the new world order that President Bush articulated a few years ago. But the implications of such a course must be made clear.

As the idea that all the new postcolonial countries can sustain durable state institutions is exposed as a myth, there will be more Somalias. By not strengthening the United Nations, the world the United States in particularis explicitly deciding to tolerate more of the suffering and starvation that moved President Bush and other Americans to act in 1992. Not to admit that the alternative to stronger and better-suited international institutions is the starvation and suffering of millions of people is dishonest. Such future tolerance of disorder was previewed in Rwanda in April 1994, when the world, paralyzed by the Somalia debacle, did nothing as the Hutu government slaughtered upward of half a million Tutsis.

The Future of Intervention

Given the isolationist currents in Congress, it may seem a strange time to speculate about the future of intervention. However, the pendulum is bound to swing back as the American public and its leaders show little appetite for the kind of future described above. Opinion polls consistently suggest that peacekeeping operations have more support than is commonly acknowledged in Congress. Also, other countries may intervene (as France did in Rwanda) from time to time to promote humanitarian objectives.

Three lessons can be drawn from the Somalia experience. First, future intervenors must understand that there is no such thing as a humanitarian surgical strike. Although the United States knew that Somali warlords were diverting massive amounts of food, it did not acknowledge that its intervention would thrust it deep into Somali politics. To be successful, the United States will have to discard the fiction that a large military force can or should be apolitical when it is supporting internationally agreed-upon political goals. The American idea that Somalia’s problems would be fixed in a few weeks was so at odds even with President Bush’s description of the problem that it was obvious from the beginning that there was no will to see a solution through. Time estimates for interventions must be adjusted.

This lesson, unfortunately, was not absorbed during the planning for the operations in Bosnia. Secretary of Defense William Perry recently proposed a firm deadline of one year for the duration of the mission, presumably to assuage concerns about getting American troops into a deadly quagmire. Such a deadline is counterproductive because there is no guarantee that the political and humanitarian goals can be achieved in a year. Deadlines only let warlords know how much time they have to prepare for the next round of ethnic cleansing and related atrocities.

The Somalia experience suggests that Secretary Perry’s stated strategy of sending in a large force that would be drawn down quickly is a mistake, even though such a strategy might buy some short-term domestic political support his schedule does not address the humanitarian needs on the ground, whose pace of resolution cannot be controlled by Washington, New York, or Brussels. Force deployment schedules should be flexible and realistically applied to the operation’s political goals. Reconciliation in the Balkans will take more than a year. The size and nature of the force should reflect the stages of the peace process and the level of threat on the ground.

The current description of mission goals in Bosnia by administration leaders would seemingly prevent humanitarian relief or resettlement of refugees by the multinational force because these tasks are deemed nation-building. Yet those activities, which will be handled by international agencies and private voluntary organizations, must be protected by force. The experiences of Somalia and the three other major U.S. post-Gulf War interventions (northern Iraq, Rwanda, and Haiti) demonstrate that at the outset of military operations humanitarian agencies are exposed to security risks. Responses to urgent requests by relief agencies for logistical support cannot be cited as evidence of “mission creep,” as was sometimes charged in Somalia, especially when such requests are predictable and probably intrinsic to mission success. Other political activities (e.g., assisting in the resettlement of refugees, protecting emergency food distribution, and securing medical treatment points) that the U.N. Implementation Force will undoubtedly have to undertake to meet the humanitarian goals of the mission should not be criticized as nation-building but supported as precisely those tasks that required and justified a heavily armed force to be sent in the first place.

Defining a failed state is a second area that needs work. There is understandable reluctance to proclaim trusteeships, given the term’s association with colonialism. A new term is needed to express the idea that a state’s fundamental institutions have so deteriorated that it needs long-term external help, not to institutionalize foreign control but to create stronger domestic institutions capable of self government. The development of an international political equivalent to American bankruptcy law is not merely an arcane task for international lawyers. A clear procedure for handling a failed state and determining that state’s relationship to the international community is essential if the mistakes of the Somalia intervention are not to be repeated.

Third, the proper intervention forces must be developed. There has been much talk about the formation of a U.N. army that could intervene in troubled areas, but little action. The long-term prospects for such a force remain unclear. Peacemaking operations call for commanders with skills in politics, war-fighting, and the complex interaction between the two. The Somalia experience suggests that any force from one country or a group of countries-must have units trained in executing complex political-military operations. Civil affairs officers did important work in Kuwait City and Port-au-Prince, and they could have done so in Mogadishu, as Australian units did in parts of western Somalia. Such a force would have to include units devoted to psychological operations and intelligence. Few militaries other than America’s have such units, which are necessary to interact with the local population and promote reconciliation.


Somalia, as more and more are now recognizing, was not an abject failure. The United States initiated an operation that helped save an estimated l00,000 or more lives. That accomplishment stands out starkly amid the general apathy with which the world has greeted the major humanitarian crises of the 1990s. However, the operation’s end did not come close to being desirable. Tragically, troops of the United States and other countries, who had gone to Somalia with the best of intentions to help save fellow human beings, lost their lives. Achieving positive results in Somalia would have been exceptionally difficult under the best of circumstances. However, the UNOSOM II mission was doomed from the outset because the United States set the United Nations up for failure by refusing to confront the important tasks that could have been accomplished only by a highly trained force at the beginning of the operation. This arduous mission brought many critical U.N. administrative weaknesses to the surface, and the U.N. forces were unable to recover from the precipitous American withdrawal. To do better, Americans and others need a much clearer idea of what humanitarian intervention entails and how they are realistically going to achieve their goals. Achieving international agreement on the appropriate methods and force structures to accomplish meaningful humanitarian intervention will be difficult, but the payoff could save countless lives.