The Day of the Rangers: 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu

(Originally published 4 October, 2013)

The bloody events witnessed at Kenya’s Westgate Mall re-opened the debates of the well-known but emerging threat of Al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation and encapsulated up the problems left behind in Somalia twenty years ago by the United States and the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

Twenty two years of civil war and counting since the ousting of Siad Barre in 1991, descent into inter-clan, famine and political warfare that is at times incomprehensible to understand on the diplomatic table, Somalia is the standardized example of reference to a failed state. It was from this lawlessness that pervaded Somalia, that al-Shabaab emerged, and the chaos that was permitted to continue was allowed by none other than the Western powers in the 1990s who turned their back on Somalia, unable to confront their own incompetence in handling the humanitarian crisis all those years ago.

This can directed in particular at the United States and the Secretariat General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Secretary General of the United Nations) who failed to understand the civil war, Somalian culture and its history which, when allied with the inflexible bureaucratic nature within which the U.N operated at the time, would lead to unparalleled consequences for the continent of Africa.

On the evening of October 4th 1993, the sun set ending a two day battle of intense brutality, blood and death in the streets of Mogadishu. This was nothing new, for several years now Mogadishu had been a battleground fought over by warring gangs, illegitimate governments, militia and clans reducing one of the most beautiful cities in Africa to rubble. This time however the context and impact of the day reverberated across the world. Eighteen U.S soldiers were dead, eighty more were critically wounded or suffering and between 1,500 – 3000 Somalians littered the streets of the capital.

Operation Gothic Serpent though a tactical victory, was a Pyrrhic victory, the cost too high for the Clinton administration to tolerate and for the U.N’s strategic and humanitarian objectives. The result was the consequential failure of ‘Operation Restore Hope’ and UNOSOM all of which had been supported by the previous President Bush in December 1992 and the withdrawal of all peacekeeping forces. Following the battle, President Clinton ordered for a full withdrawal and that all military actions to be ceased on October 6th. Clinton called for a full withdrawal by 31st Match 1994. Conforming to this request, most troops were out of the country by March 1994. U.S actions promptly gutted UNOSOM resulting in the abandonment of the peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the U.N Charter.

It is undoubtedly clear the sheer magnitude of the task facing the U.N in addressing the humanitarian crisis and civil war in Somalia. Operations to force a political agreement between rivals warlords, gangs and clans was an impossible task, the result of the U.N’s bureaucratic peacekeeping structure which had been moulded by Cold War, rather than post-Cold War situations. The U.N was not simply ready to deal with this sort of a conflict. As Mary Harper contends ‘one of the most important is that the Somali clans…were fluid and ambiguous’ the clan serving as a formidable obstacle to the formation of a stable, modern nation-states.

‘Alliances between these almost infinitely divisible groups shift frequently, making it very difficult for outsiders to understand what is going on. A seemingly united clan can split into two or more sub-clans, which turn on each other’

Each country in Africa maintains different internal relationships and Somalia’s borders are simply a European carving, and although the emergence of al-Shabbab has somewhat diluted the concept of the clan theory, it remains an important consideration to how Somalia operates. Certainly in 1991-1993, many officials, namely Boutros Ghal,i clearly illustrated the lack of understanding of this system as did U.S policymakers. Mohamed Sahnoun dismissal as head of UNOSOM in October 1992 represented this, a month before the UN and Western powers, unnerved by the horrific stats (300,000 dead by famine, 3000 dying a day), the continued seizure of food aid, and the death of NGO and U.N officials enforced more aggressive policies towards aggressors and neutrals on the ground .

Sahnoun in difficult circumstances worked assiduously to gain the trust of different fiefdoms earning the respect of both Somalis and the international aid community. Martin Merdith quotes Somali Hussein Mursal who praised Mohamed Sahnoun; ‘He was the first who came and saw there were alternatives, he was the first to meet the elders of the Hawiye clans, the neutral clans, who are not involved in the fighting…He used to reason like Somalis.’

Yet despite the progress he made in securing the trust of the Somali factions, he was dismissed by Boutros Ghali for his complaints that the United Nations and the international community were failing to heed the very real humanitarian plight in Somalia. Pragmatism and important small details, the most important link to understanding the cobweb of Somali culture and society was replaced for an overbearing grandiose approach preferred by Boutros-Ghali, the latter of which lacked the personnel, resources and realism to be deployed successfully and withoutexcess casualties. This was reflected in forceful intervention, the deployment of over 28,000 troops in Somalia in response to plight of thousands of refugees seen starving on CNN.

All in all only 10,000 lives were saved by the US forces, and their response to the murder of twenty-six Pakistani U.N soldiers significantly escalated their direct involvement in the conflict which they did not understand. Their blame for the massacre fell on Aideed and the hunt culminated in the events at Mogadishu in October, the U.N and Western powers now regarded by neutral Somalis as an enemy rather than an ally, particularly after indiscriminate bombing and attacks on towns by U.S Cobras.


After the battle of Mogadishu, an daylight raid which had culminated in the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, the deaths of eighteen and the wounding of seventy three U.S soldiers. The Clinton administration decided that enough was enough, that another Vietnam and the gruesome parading of dead U.S soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu was a step too far in humanitarian intervention. Vietnam for starters concerned solely American interests in containing ‘communist expansion’ and secondly what kind of humanitarian intervention isn’t expected to make sacrifice for a greater cause.

Finally, the parading of dead American soldiers on CNN for the whole world to see, a brutal act carried out by angry mobs, the hatred shown towards the Pakistani soldiers who were mutilated and butchered, the hostility towards the U.N and American soldiers was a direct result of their inability to conduct operations in a humanitarian and pragmatic way.

‘The Day of the Rangers’ was celebrated by Somalis as the day rag-tag militias won the battle against the world’s most powerful army leaving them and their peacekeeping forces fleeing in humiliation. Boutros-Ghali brushed over tiny details replacing them with grand ideas that simply could not work in civil war, which to be fair was a product of the lack of understanding of the new post-Cold War period.

UNOSOM II and UNITAF are lessons that can be learned by states, global organisations and the United Nations in how not to conduct/enforce a peacekeeping population in a country ripped apart by civil strife. This is not simply eluding to the logistical difficulties facing the peacekeeping forces, nor the failure of the U.N to operate as a coercive unit (allowing the U.S to operate almost unilaterally in the stages before Operation Gothic Serpent), but also to the moral and humanitarian failure to the Somali people.

I say moral failures under the illusion that the nation states and politicians contributing to the peacekeeping forces entered Somalia considering the lives of their soldiers more valuable than the lives of the Somali people, an inexcusable idea to carry into a humanitarian operation. This attitude pervaded operations in Bosnia and escalated in Rwanda where Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda), was told by a U.S official at the White House at the end of the Rwandan genocide that it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify the risking of the life of one American soldier and to have intervened in the butchery of eight-hundred thousand to a million Tutsi and Hutu moderates.

That is roughly ten soldiers, whilst the Belgians insisted that, after losing ten soldiers in the early stages of the genocide conducted by Hutu Power, MRND and the Interahamwe that the lives of Rwandans were not worth risking one more Belgian soldier. France’s role in the Rwandan genocide was not even bystander, they were strongly aligned with (and still refuse to admit) the Hutu-led government of Juvenal Habyarimana arming and training the Presidential guard and supplying the militia with the means to exterminate the Tutsi’s and Hutu moderates.

A startling change in attitudes and an eye-opening day once again into how the U.S.A conducts it foreign policy repeatedly emphasising a need to adhere to ‘national/self-interest’, with a narrow minded attitude of how to solve a civil conflict and divided societies whether it be Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda (the latter of which the U.S was non-existent) and even as far back as it attitude to the Turkish committing atrocities against the Armenians in World War 1. Hutu Power in Rwanda before the genocide calculated that the Western powers would not act and would withdraw under the illusion that their soldiers’ lives were too valuable to sacrifice in the name of protecting civilians and humanitarian causes. These subtle calculations were all done under the events of Mogadishu, the previous failures in Somalia by the U.N and Western powers and the reaction of the U.S.A to the loss of their men, which who I like to add were lost under tough conditions doing their duty.

Forty-four plus dead in the UNISOM and as Kofi Annan (former Secretary General of the U.N) branded the ‘Shadow of Somalia’ had shaped this new attitude, the idea that many in the developed world act in a way that indicates that our lives are worth more than the lives of other citizens and people on the planet. This putrid notion unconsciously pervaded the international community by enlarge and has hampered many of the U.N’s operations since.

The warlord era in Somalia was replaced by the emergence of  terrorist cells such as Al-Shabaab, which after the 2006 U.S sponsored Ethiopian invasion declared its presence at an international threat after killing seventy in an attack in Uganda (2010) and an almost equal amount mere weeks ago. The emergence of Al-Shabaab and the continuance of twenty three years of civil war, now affecting the entire region is once again another dark legacy left by western politicians in Africa in the 1990s.

This has left them with their hands tied when it comes to negotiating settlements in former regions and influencing African politics who they first exploited as overlords and then abandoned as humanitarian operators in their hour of need. Somalia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo joined the other countries in Africa that continued to be ignored by the world powers in the 1990s. Though they did not take part or bear a large part of the responsibility for the deaths of millions of Somalis, Rwandans and Congolese civilians.

Matthew Williams