Good intentions on the way to hell: Richard Dowden on the catalogue of errors made by the US forces in Somalia

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The Independent Online
AMID the clamour for intervention in Somalia this time last year, created by the television pictures of starving children, there was one voice that sounded almost eccentrically cynical. It was that of the tough-talking American ambassador to Kenya, Smith Hempstone. Don't do it, he said: 'If you liked Beirut, you'll love Mogadishu.'

At the time, no one listened. Despite the farce of the Marine landings at Mogadishu last December, most commentators chose to admire the noble idealism of the rescue mission rather than question the planning that had gone - or not gone - into it.

The catalogue of errors began with the decision to land. The Marines need not have gone near Mogadishu; the famine zone was 100 miles west, in the Juba valley. They could have invaded from Kenya, secured it, enabled people to be fed and to plant seeds. By coming ashore at Mogadishu they filled a power vacuum and thereby took responsibility for the country's future. Why? Did George Bush want to end his presidency with TV pictures of the Marines on a moral crusade? Was Mogadishu a better backdrop than the Kenya border?

The famine, in any case, had peaked in August 1992. By October, though the aid agencies were losing 10 to 20 per cent of food through theft and payoffs, enough was reaching the famine zone to reduce the death rate sharply. The American claim that intervention stopped the famine is a myth.

So is the suggestion that the Americans brought peace to Mogadishu. There had been a ceasefire in the city since March 1992. It was an armed ceasefire and the port was closed, blocking several thousand tons of grain in the warehouses. But feeding kitchens set up by the Red Cross had kept starvation at bay.

Then there were tactical errors. A delay in the Marines' arrival gave the faction leaders time to hide their heavy weapons. The Marines came ashore shooting as if Mogadishu was a heavily defended enemy position. They not only treated journalists and their Somali guards as prisoners but made the mistake of separating them: whites on this side, Somalis over there. Somalis are not slow to take offence.

The Marines were bad at communication with aid agencies working on the ground and there were no clear rules of engagement, no policy on disarmament and, worst of all, no proper advice on Somali culture and history. The man in charge was Robert Oakley, then the US special envoy. He had arrived in Mogadishu a few days before the Marines, courtesy of General Mohamed Farah Aideed. The General welcomed him with an embrace and put out propaganda leaflets that read: 'US friend - UN invader.'

The division between the US and the UN was over disarmament. The US mandate was to establish a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Rebuilding the country was a UN matter. But no rebuilding could take place until the factions were disarmed and had reached a political settlement. Both the US and the UN said it was the other's responsibility. Disarmament, Mr Oakley said, 'pushes you too deep into the fabric of their country - it makes you clearly imperialist'. General Aideed and his men watched and waited, their vast armoury hidden away.

In May, the US handed over nominal control to the UN, and by June the attempt to secure a political agreement was running into the sands. On 5 June, a Pakistani company in white UN trucks and Land Rovers approached General Aideed's radio station. Radio stations in Africa are worth an army. General Aideed (perhaps wrongly) thought the Pakistanis were trying to take over the station and his men ambushed them, killing 24. A few days later, retired Admiral Jonathan Howe, the UN special envoy, declared General Aideed a wanted man.

From then on political failure was compounded by military failure to capture or kill the General. US jets and gunships attacked what were said to be 'Aideed strongholds'. On 17 June, Bill Clinton said: 'The back, the military back, of Aideed is broken.' The air raids and sorties have been worse than failures. For every Somali the Americans kill, a family becomes their sworn enemy. In Somali culture, revenge is built into the social code. Even sworn enemies of General Aideed are angered by what they see as American massacres of women and children. There are striking parallels with British army attempts at the beginning of the century to capture the 'Mad Mullah' who had dared challenge the British Somaliland protectorate. In 20 years, the army never caught him or quelled his followers. He died in his bed of the flu in 1919.

Whatever President Clinton said about commitment to Somalia, America is cutting and running. And perhaps the situation is irredeemable. Any UN force left behind without American firepower and commitment will be driven into the sea. This is not just a defeat for the US and the UN, not just a tragedy for Somalia. Had the US been successful, it would have gone on to other humanitarian interventions, in Sudan, in Liberia, perhaps in Angola. America will not now intervene for humanitarian reasons in Africa again for a very long time.

(Photograph omitted)