Mutiny simmers under the blue helmet: Are blitzkrieg tactics in Somalia a mark of new UN resolve - or is it just the US calling the shots? Peter Pringle reports from New York

THE United Nations harbours a dark secret about its operations in Somalia. It concerns the day, 5 June, when two contingents of Pakistani troops wearing UN blue helmets were ambushed by gunmen in Mogadishu and 23 were killed. The Pakistanis called for help, and the UN force commander ordered a Saudi Arabian and a Kuwaiti contingent to go to the aid of their fellow Muslims. But they stayed put. Quite why is not yet clear.

UN officials have not mentioned the incident, and Pakistan has not complained. To have done so would only have added to the deep embarrassment the UN suffered last week because of another act of insubordination by a member of the multinational peace-keeping force in Somalia - this time, Italy. General Bruno Loi, commander of the Italian contingent, had so irked the UN by following his own agenda of trying to negotiate with the warlords that the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, sacked him - or, at least, he informed Rome that the general was no longer welcome in the force and should be sent home. If he did not go, Mr Boutros-Ghali implied, the rest of the Italian contingent of 2,400 men might also have to pack their kitbags.

Rome has yet to agree to General Loi's departure. And he clearly has room for manoeuvre because the UN is still not sure it has the right under its charter to fire him. The row emphasises the problems of the UN turning from peace-keeper, as of old, to peace- enforcer, as in Somalia.

The official objection of the Italians is that the UN effort in Somalia has changed from a humanitarian, peace-keeping operation to a peace-enforcement mission which, Rome feels, relies too heavily on the use of force instead of negotiation. On several occasions since the Pakistani ambush on 5 June, American helicopters of the US Quick Reaction Force have struck at buildings said to have housed arms, military documents or materiel belonging to the Somali warlord, General Mohamed Farah Aideed - the man the UN now holds responsible for killing the Pakistanis. The UN Security Council has put a price on Aideed's head: dollars 25,000.

Hundreds of Somalis have died and their property has been flattened in several raids by US helicopters. 'Success,' beamed President Bill Clinton after one of the raids. 'Complete success,' said Jonathan Howe, the retired American Navy admiral who is the UN special envoy to Somalia. But Aideed remains at large, a fugitive 'thug', as US officials say, chased by a posse made up essentially of Americans, using US helicopters, but sanctioned by the UN. Critics have predictably charged: 'US runs UN.' And, as Mr Clinton seemed to gain in the opinion polls from the action, they also charged: 'UN run by US domestic policy.' The desperately late but relatively successful Somalia operation to end starvation in the country suddenly seemed to have gone awry.

At UN headquarters in New York, the military staff examined the mess: 'The question we are all asking ourselves is whether we can run a peace-enforcement operation, as in Somalia, or whether the Secretary-General should confine himself to peace-keeping, as in the old days,' said one UN official directly concerned with military operations.

So what are the lessons of Somalia, the largest UN peace- keeping operation in UN history?

President George Bush set an artificial deadline of 20 January, Inauguration Day, when he announced last December that the US was sending 30,000 troops into Somalia to ensure distribution of food that the UN had failed to deliver. Expectations were high of a quick success.

But the US military misjudged the impact of a show of force on the local population. While the troops did feed the hungry and got the crops going again, they failed to disarm the warlords, particularly Aideed, who kept his arsenal out of sight. In addition, the Marines were not well briefed as an occupation force. For example, they went skinny-dipping in front of the Muslim locals, not understanding they would take offence. The initial welcome quickly wore off.

The UN mandate expanded in the spring, charging UN forces to create the conditions under which the population could be fed, political reconciliation could take place and civil society could be restored.

Inevitably, UN peace-keepers, who are often criticised for doing too little, as in Bosnia, were criticised for doing too much. But this is the new era of peace-keeping, when 'a blue helmet is not a sitting duck', as Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN, puts it. Another US official observed: 'The public has to get used to the idea that, when the UN uses force, it's not going to be all peaches and cream, and so we're getting to people with weak stomachs right at the beginning of a new era.'

But what of generals who don't obey orders? Could they cripple the new, more forceful doctrine? The problem with the Saudis and the Kuwaitis appeared to a large extent to be systemic, and therefore able to be fixed.

In normal peace-keeping operations, faced with orders to move from A to B, a contingent would be expected to consult with its capital first. In old-style peace- keeping operations, there is usually plenty of time for consultations. But in Somalia the Saudis and the Kuwaitis had to react speedily when the Pakistanis ran into the ambush.

Either they did not have time to consult, or they did not want to go. But the row with Italy is of a vastly different character, and goes to the heart of peace-enforcement. General Loi, and his Rome bosses, apparently fundamentally disagreed with the UN- US approach to hunting Aideed.

Favouring negotiation over aggression, they were redefining the strategy, and this is what the UN found unacceptable. 'You can have command and control problems, and slowness to follow orders, but you can't have someone operating differently,' one official said.

But who is in command in Somalia: the US or the UN? The latter's special representative, the direct link to Mr Boutros-Ghali, is Admiral Howe, a former deputy national security adviser in Mr Bush's administration.

The force commander, chosen by the UN Secretary-General and approved by the UN Security Council, is a Turkish general, Cevik Bir, but his deputy is another American, Major-General Thomas Montgomery.

Critics say General Bir is merely a cipher, and that the real commander is General Montgomery. If air strikes are considered necessary against Aideed, it is the Americans who call in the helicopters, and the Secretary-General who then supports the decision.

To some, last week's helicopter raid on Aideed's henchmen, which killed 54 people, was a lasting mistake. 'How can you shoot from the air at a villa where people are sitting and meeting, even if they were Aideed's people?' asked Mohammed Sahnoun, a former UN envoy to Somalia, who was dismissed by Mr Boutros-Ghali after criticising the UN for responding too slowly to the Somalia crisis.

'The attack was excessive and unjust,' he said. 'You can't explain it to the Somali people. Now they are very angry. There is a total divorce between the UN and the Somali people.'

To others, the raid was a necessary evil in the spirit of the new era of a forceful UN. 'If we let this one thug (Aideed) thwart the whole operation, UN peace-keeping is never going to fulfil the hopes and dreams of everyone in the world,' a US official said. 'It's painful, so the sooner we get the guy the better.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Data Scientist

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Full Stack Software Developer - Javascript

£18000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Strategic Partnerships Coordinator

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Their research appears at the f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen