Haiti Showdown: Memories of Somalia haunt the invaders: As US troops prepare to enter Port-au-Prince Richard Dowden, Africa Editor, recalls their disastrous intervention in Mogadishu

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The Independent Online
BEFORE the President and his generals give the green light to invade Haiti, they might benefit from a glance at the Somalia file that they closed last week. The timing was ironic. Less than 12 hours after the marines turned out the lights in the American embassy in Mogadishu last Thursday, President Bill Clinton committed the United States to invade Haiti.

Somalia was an avoidable defeat for America. Washington behaved like a passer-by who tried to intervene in a domestic quarrel without understanding it, and who then found himself under attack for trying to help. The US withdrew, confused and bitter. Some 44 soldiers lost their lives. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Somalis were killed. According to unofficial US estimates the enterprise cost about dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.2bn). Although the US is continuing a dollars 24m humanitarian aid programme, the message to Somalis is, 'You've had your chance'.

There are big differences between Somalia and Haiti. Somalia is a huge, empty country, where large numbers of men and weapons can be hidden. It was already at war. Haiti is an island with one army and one chain of command. The intervention in Somalia was intended to be a humanitarian operation, to open routes to feed people. In Haiti, Washington is trying to replace a military regime with a democratic government. Whatever the objective, intervention creates its own dynamic. A troubled country is a black hole which sucks others in.

In Somalia, the Americans discovered that to carry out an apparently limited mission, they needed to take over the country. Enforcing disarmament sucked the Marines into bloody street battles and complex clan politics. The mistakes were technical and military, but, in the end, also cultural and psychological. On the military side, the generals did not do their homework. The invasion began with a disaster on the beach, where US forces were welcomed by crowds of journalists.

The United Nations insisted that the Americans disarm the Somalis. Washington refused and said the UN could do it later. Orders to disarm everyone were issued but not carried out. An attempt to register guns was made. Finally, when the UN decided to try to close down General Mohamed Farah Aideed's radio station, there was a confrontation. American troops tried to disarm Gen Aideed's forces and arrest his subordinates. They failed and war followed between Gen Aideed and the Americans, a war the US could only lose. Their intelligence system left them looking foolish. Once they raided a house and arrested everyone, only to find it was a UN building. They lost the war on 3 October, when they tried to seize General Aideed. Hundreds of Somalis and 18 Americans died that night. It was a defeat for the US. Withdrawal was inevitable.

The Americans may find in Haiti that the military imperative to protect servicemens' lives takes priority over the operation's political aim. The goal of the operation can be sabotaged by military tactics. In Somalia, humanitarian needs became secondary to military demands. The aid pipeline, the raison d'etre for intervention, in fact stopped flowing while the Americans settled in.

The military insisted that all Somalis were potentially hostile. This meant separating Western aid workers and journalists from their Somali translators and guards. To the Somalis it was racist and insulting. However many starving babies the Americans saved in the famine zone, the US forces alienated urban, educated Somalis. The US did not understand Somali culture and manners.

In one interview, General Robert Johnson was asked what would happen if the Somalis turned against the Americans and started shooting at them. The puzzled general treated the question as hypothetical, but said the US had enough fire power to deal with it. That is the great danger; the assumption that all that needs to be done is to neutralise the 'bad guys' and the 'good guys' will thank you and take over. Somali society is not democratic and the warlords are products of that society.

It is questionable whether Haiti is a democratic society waiting to be liberated, or whether American intervention will spark off a movement which unites Haitians against the invader.