The disaster in Somalia offered America a glimpse of the future of warfare. No one listened.
Twenty-five years ago this week, a Somali warlord named Mohammed Farah Aidid offered the American military a glimpse of its future. But neither policymakers back in Washington nor commanders in the field were attuned to what he had on offer.
A mission that had begun 10 months earlier to provide relief supplies to starving Somalis had evolved into a vastly more ambitious nation-building project. On the night of Oct. 3-4, 1993, an American military operation to capture Mr. Aidid ended in catastrophic failure, including 18 Americans dead. Soon afterward the entire mission collapsed, and the United States withdrew. Yet any lessons that might have been learned from this debacle stayed in Mogadishu, alongside the smoldering wreckage of the Black Hawk helicopter that Mr. Aidid’s fighters had shot down.
The United States did not go into Somalia expecting this kind of resistance. But Mr. Aidid took exception to the prospect of outsiders imposing a new political order on his country. From their sanctuaries in the crowded warrens of the Somali capital, his lightly armed but nimble militias ambushed and harassed American and coalition forces throughout the summer of 1993.
Casualties mounted. In response, President Bill Clinton ordered an elite commando task force to Mogadishu with the specific assignment of eliminating Mr. Aidid.
By most measures — training and discipline, firepower and mobility — Task Force Ranger had Mr. Aidid’s irregulars outclassed. His forces were technologically backward while the American troops had all the best gadgets that money could buy.
In the end, little of this mattered. Mr. Aidid himself proved both frustratingly elusive and far shrewder than the Americans expected. On six “snatch” attempts, the Rangers came up empty-handed. On the seventh, the enemy forces that the Americans disparaged as “skinnies” and “sammies” were waiting. In an instant, the hunters became the hunted.
In the ensuing firefight, subsequently enshrined in a best-selling bookand a hit Hollywood movie, American troops inflicted many more casualties than they sustained. Yet ultimately it was the Americans who withdrew from the battlefield while Mr. Aidid’s forces stayed put. As for Mr. Aidid himself, he not only remained at large but as a result of his bloody encounter with crack American warriors, he saw his own status enhanced.
In contrast, back in the United States, the losses suffered by American troops proved politically unacceptable. Mr. Clinton conceded defeat and pulled out the entire American operation. Somalia remained in chaos.
We can choose to remember this event, coming during the grander era of American ideological triumph over the recently collapsed Soviet Union, as a minor embarrassment of little real consequence. Yet seeing the outcome for what it was — a sign of things to come — offers several useful lessons.
First, the contemporary battlefield is more likely to be urban and congested, rather than wide open and sparsely populated. Rarely will adversaries cooperate in fulfilling the American preference for long-range tank battles fought in the desert under skies dominated by American fighter-bombers and attack helicopters. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was an exception; the urban battles of the occupation that followed were closer to the rule.
Second, and by extension, the Pentagon’s investment in conventional warfare will continue to have little relevance in the sort of conflicts confronting American forces. The primary challenge is less to defeat armies than to control populations. Pacification rather than sustained close combat absorbs soldiers’ energy and attention. The greater part of the warrior’s role involves not killing but muting the antagonism caused by the warrior’s own unwelcome presence.
Third, if American forces find it difficult to adjust to the peculiar demands of such wars, then those responsible for formulating basic national security policy should consider the possibility that the wars themselves just might be futile.
Since 1993, the United States has killed any number of “skinnies” and “sammies,” not to mention innocent bystanders, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and even back in Somalia, where drone strikes and Special Forces routinely target those who have succeeded Mr. Aidid in contesting the control of that country. Rarely does an American leader, political or military, explain what larger purpose these wars are serving. Never do they venture to speculate on when they might end.
Why was it necessary for the 18 Americans to die in a failed effort to dictate the future of Somalia? What purpose did their sacrifice serve? A quarter-century later, these questions have lost none of their pertinence. If anything, they have become more urgent.
In retrospect, the lessons to be taken from this small but immensely instructive episode appear obvious. In retrospect, lessons always do.
Yet with a bit more effort and perhaps a generous dose of humility, the United States might have discerned those lessons at the time. Applying them to subsequent military endeavors might have alleviated or even eliminated the failures and frustrations that have become the principal themes of recent American military history.
Instead, America’s leaders chose to ignore it — the sooner forgotten the better. This turned out to be a profound oversight, and the troops whom Americans profess to admire have since paid a high price for it.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of the forthcoming book “Twilight of the American Century.”
This briefing was originally written for the Intercept (www.nytimes.com)