Lessons from the streets of Mogadishu




By Mark Huband in London

Financial Times, 3 April 2003

As US troops prepare for the battle of Baghdad, memories of their debacle a decade ago among the maze-like streets of Mogadishu will be fresh.

Emerging from victory in the cold war and Gulf war, President George Bush the elder despatched a mission to the Somali capital in December 1992. The aim was to end a famine and consolidate the New World Order. Instead, it crossed the “line” into urban warfare and thrust US forces into a traumatic retreat.

Navy “Seals” followed by 19,000 marines in Abrams tanks spearheaded the well-meant attempt at humanitarian intervention. But the Somali reaction was one of deep ambiguity about the foreign presence – a reaction echoed by the people of Iraq.

It was this ambiguity – among the very people the invading forces said they were there to help – that turned scepticism into hostility. And it was among the streets of Mogadishu that militias opposed to the “gul” – the foreigners – exploited popular uncertainty about the occupation, used “civilians” as human shields, gunned down US marine patrols, ambushed Pakistani UN forces and brought down US military helicopters.

The US and other troops responded with heavy gunfire from inside their armoured vehicles and barricaded strongpoints: a hidden and frightened army of occupation, which failed to capture either streets or hearts and minds.

Fierce pride fuelled antagonism towards the foreign troops. Militia strongholds became no-go areas, homes became castles, streets became territory to be defended with ferocity and a readiness to die with pride.

The thirst for revenge of Somali deaths at the hands of the “gul” rose, and people waited for it to be satisfied.

On October 3 1993, swarms of Black Hawk helicopters carrying troops hunted for the warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed – the man whose violence thwarted efforts to end the hunger.

The US ranger units were acting on a tip-off. The troops leapt into the fray and were overwhelmed. Two Black Hawks were downed with fire from rocket- propelled grenades, their crews killed or captured.

Nineteen US troops and up to 300 Somalis were killed that night. People yelled “Americano, Americano” as they dragged dead US soldiers through the city streets.

Their bloody defeat has engendered the US fear of urban warfare ever since. As US forces close in on Baghdad, the Iraqi regime is looking for a repeat. But in the Iraqi capital the result could be far worse. Mark Huband reported from the country on the Somali famine and US intervention of 1992-95


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.