Somalia sets alarm bells ringing in Washington: Horn of Africa held up as example of what could happen if US intervened in Balkans

US OFFICIALS who warned the White House that armed intervention in Bosnia would be the first step into a quagmire are pointing to Somalia as an example of the dangers of intervening in somebody else's civil war.

This contrasts sharply with the attitude last month, when intervention in Somalia was portrayed as one of the few US foreign-policy successes of the past year.

The prolonged assault by US helicopter gunships on the property and arsenals of the warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed in Mogadishu has also underlined that US air- power is a very blunt instrument to use in a crowded city. This is important, because over the next few weeks President Bill Clinton must decide if he should use planes to punish President Saddam Hussein of Iraq for trying to assassinate the former president George Bush in Kuwait.

A few weeks ago the US was congratulating itself that intervention in Somalia had gone better than expected. In March, Robert Oakley, the special envoy who masterminded it, said the 'original limited mission for the US has been accomplished on schedule'. The goal should be to cut out the warlords and give power to women's groups, non-governmental organisations, clan elders, religious leaders and intellectuals.

This vision has now disappeared. Instead, Americans watched in confusion as the UN sought retribution for the killing of 24 Pakistani troops on 5 June. As the original humanitarian mission was blurred, the UN position in Somalia, backed by US air-power, looked increasingly like that of the US in Lebanon in 1983-84, which culminated in a suicide bomb attack that killed 241 US marines.

This is the bleak view of Frank Crigler, a former US ambassador to Somalia in the late 1980s. He said the effort to punish Gen Aideed squandered much of the political capital built up by the US in Somalia in the previous five months. It abandoned earlier limited and humanitarian aims of the first intervention by giving the UN sovereign powers.

Mr Crigler said punitive action was counter-productive, and it was useless to try to force the warlords to disarm: 'Their heavy weapons aren't the problem anyway; it's the thousands of small arms in the hands of young thugs and freebooters that cause most of the mayhem. Somalis will lay down their arms when it's safe to do so - that is, when they've reached a genuine political understanding about their country's future.'

Fortunately for President Clinton, Somalia differs from Lebanon in that the main US ground force has withdrawn and there are no US casualties. From the point of view of the White House, the decision to use US gunships against Gen Aideed had the advantage of showing that the new administration was no more reluctant to use armed force than Mr Bush.

UN officials in New York said the fact the UN troops killed in Mogadishu were Pakistanis and Moroccans has shielded the US from criticism it would otherwise have received for its role from Third World countries. There is also a hint of amusement in the response of other countries to the pursuit of Gen Aideed. The Russian ambassador, Yuli Vorontsov, suggested that the general be removed to St Helena and kept there in exile.

Mr Crigler said one reason the US was prepared to get involved in Somalia and not Bosnia was ignorance: governments knew more about the pitfalls of the Balkans than the dangers of the Horn of Africa. Possibly the UN will eliminate Gen Aideed as a political force and impose peace on the warlords. But so far the fighting in Mogadishu this month has reinforced the growing conviction in Washington that military intervention in Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq has few benefits and many dangers.

Opponents of involvement in the Balkans say that what is happening in the Horn of Africa shows how right they were to be cautious.