In the early 1990s, Somalia was a test-bed for 'humanitarian intervention'. This intervention did not involve overthrowing a dictatorship or stopping a genocide in motion. The early remit of Operation Restore Hope was, putatively, to overcome a famine which was attributed to political anarchy and state failure. The intervention notoriously ended in massive bloodshed, with US troops responsible for grave offenses against the citizens they were purportedly defending. In some popular accounts, (this is a representative sample), the reason for this is that the mission was turned over to the UN in 1993 and was broadened into a 'nation-building' exercise, which meant taking on General Aideed and other hostile forces in military combat. In another account, by Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst (the former was Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope) told Foreign Affairs readers that in fact the nation-building component was implicit from the beginning, and that it was forced on the UN as fait accompli by the United States government rather than forced on US troops by the idealistic UN (and at any rate, US troops were not under UN authority). Clarke and Herbst have it that the mission still "saved thousands of lives", regardless of the evident calamity of its later stages, and maintain that the real problem was the 'schizophrenia' of both Bush and Clinton administrations, who committed themselves to a humanitarian discourse without properly appraising the corollaries of such an enterprise. If this were the range of relevant debate - which seems to break down into the familiar dichotomy of 'realists' vs 'idealists' - we could just end the discussion here. But let's just look at what in fact transpired.
The political background is the breakdown of the Siad Barre regime which, though it had built up great popular momentum in anti-famine campaigns through the 1970s, had become straightforwardly a corrupt and authoritarian one by the time it lost the war against Ethiopia in 1978. Having previously aligned to the USSR, it sought the tutelage of the US, abandoned any nominal commitment to socialism and national unity, relied on clan affiliation as the base of its support, and was utterly ruthless in decimating the opposition. Given the divide-and-rule tactics of the Barre administration, the insurgency that developed was also organised along clan lines. International humanitarian aid sharpened the conflict, as the government was able to distribute it selectively to its allies in the combat. By 1991, Barre was overthrown, but several dynamics had already been set in motion by the war. For example, the agriculturally rich riverine areas, inhabited by historically oppressed and poorly armed minorities, had attracted warring parties who could sustain themselves by looting. So, there was a war economy in place. Those who overthrew Barre maintained equivalent power relations, so there were grounds for continuing war. And the minority clans were last to receive official aid. As those from 'ruling' clans such as the Darod fled in anticipation of reprisals and purges, the refugee population soared and villages found themselves inundated by populations they could not support. So, there were food shortages, and already a great deal of resentment and distrust of international aid agencies. And some social layers came to rely on the plunder that had developed in the war, so banditry became a prominent form of subsistence. Former government forces continued to counter the new ruling forces, divided between General Aideed and 'Interim President' Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and sometimes unleashed vicious 'vengeance' against 'disloyal' areas, which included campaigns of rape and murder. It is a cliche, but a roughly accurate one in this case, to say that no side in the war was virtuous. In fact, the depredations of 'both sides' contributed to the famine that struck for 18 months during 1991 and 1992.
Somalis did not wait passively for American or UN forces to arrive. They responded to the overthrow of Barre by setting up independent organisations to express their interests and manage relief. One such was the Somali Red Crescent Society which, together with the Red Cross, engaged in a massive aid effort. That aid was delivered to approximately 2 million people at the height of the effort. A huge portion of the aid was of course looted, and those delivering it were at risk of being attacked by armed forces. Aside from looting, rent extraction was rife as hauliers and others involved in the delivery process extracted high prices for their services. Notably, during the worst period of the famine, the UN declined to invest much aid in the country, and generally remained aloof from political efforts to negotiate a united government of some variety. When it did deliver aid, it tended to cut out or ignore Somali staff. As Alex de Waal points out in Famine Crimes, this tendency to simply overlook Somalis in operations supposedly designed to help them carried over from the food distribution efforts to the military occupation of the country by the US, who never expected General Aideed's war against the US to get the level of support that it did.
By December 1992, the UN had estimated half a million deaths from famine in Somalia, with 4.5 million people in desperate need. This state of affairs provided the backdrop for an experimental post-Cold War intervention by the first Bush administration, and it was in the last month of 1992 that the first of 25,000 US troops began to arrive. Among Americans, it was initially a popular intervention by an increasingly unpopular presidency, since it seen as a simple relief effort.
In truth, as Alex de Waal has written, the operation was launched as the famine was concluding. The main cause of death was increasingly disease, particularly malaria, but the occupiers turned up without any anti-malaria programme. The UN Special Envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, wrote that the actual aid programme that the UN disbursed was so limited and delayed that it actually became counterproductive. The intervention had far more to do with testing out the emerging doctrine of 'humanitarian intervention' than relieving needful Somalis. This should be understood in the context of the US managing 'transitional' societies in the former USSR and of course its attempt to reshape the former Yugoslavia, which was taking place at the same time.
In a way, the aid operation - supposedly the purpose of the US dropping in - swiftly became auxiliary to the military one, in which rebels were attacked and Somalis disarmed by US forces on the streets. Similarly, the UN began in early 1992 to try and negotiate a political settlement, which resulted in a plan for a Transitional National Council (TNC) on 27 March 1993 - although if Clarke's testimony is accurate, this was all driven by Washington. The previous day, the US had pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 814, which gave the new UN authority extraordinarily wide-ranging powers and remit, without actually saddling the occupying forces with the status of occupation armies (which would burden them with the legal responsibilities of occupation, including building infrastructure and protecting civilians). The United Task Force (UNITAF), effectively a US occupation force with tiny contingents from supporting countries, ran the operation from December 1992 until May 1993, when authority was handed over to the UN mission, UNOSOM. When UNOSOM took control, all US forces aside from the logistical ones, were independent of the UN's command structure.
The US authorities had spent the first few months of their involvement siding with General Aideed, and even attacked his rivals on several occasions. They did allow General Morgan, a rival of Aideed, to attack and occupy the port city of Kismayo, which in fact led many to conclude that the US was supporting Morgan. When Somalis protested against the UN, by contrast, they were shot at and several killed. However, the US had changed tack by May, deciding to marginalise Aideed rather than rely on him as an ally, he was quickly the leading figure in an anti-occupation insurgency. As the UNOSOM mission came into increasing combat with Aideed and the Sudanese National Army that he represented, Aideed used Radio Mogadishu to broadcast against the UN. In June 1993, the UN raided the station, claiming that the place was a weapons depository, which resulted in 17 Pakistani soldiers being ambushed and killed. The response was a search-and-destroy operation by the United States, beginning in August with the arrival of Delta Force and Army Rangers. There followed three months of intense urban warfare by no means characterised by a humanitarian impulse. This culminated in a notorious battle near the Olympic Hotel in October 1993, in which the US lost severely - the topic of 'Black Hawk Down'. What is not usually discussed in the films and hit books is the fact that the occupation armies had been treating the civilian population with contempt. African Rights published reports of Belgian troops murdering and torturing civilians, which allegations were dismissed until soldiers started to issue blunt confessions. In fact almost every component of the patchwork UNOSOM force was implicated in such crimes. These were different in character from the war crimes of the US, however: the former were not planned or part of a military strategy, while the latter were. Among them were a US-led mission to attack a hospital where it was supposed General Aideed might be, which resulted in patients being slaughtered as helicopter missiles rained down. Another was an attack on a civilian meeting of Aideed's political movement, which resulted in 54 deaths. In fact, US helicopters regularly opened fire on crowds, not as a result of the intrinsic evil of the pilots or even their superiors, but as a necessary dynamic of a war in which the US found itself increasingly opposed to the majority of the Somali population. As de Waal writes:
One thing that the us and un never appreciated was that, as they escalated the level of murder and mayhem, they increased the determination of Somalis to resist and fight back. By the time of the 3 October battle, literally every inhabitant of large areas of Mogadishu considered the un and us as enemies, and were ready to take up arms against them. People who ten months before had welcomed the us Marines with open arms were now ready to risk death to drive them out.
Since it is always raised, it is worth addressing the argument that, at any rate, UNITAF was of some help in opening up supply lines and distributing food. Already, this is problematic because of the way aid interacted with the war dynamic, but even so the expectation created by the US at the time was that 2 million lives would be saved. In fact, the estimate of the US Refugee Council is that 25,000 lives at most were saved by the variety of food and medical aid that was actually delivered. A non-militarised aid operation working alongside, rather than against Somalis, drawing on their knowledge and relying on their leadership, would have achieved similar results - perhaps better results, and without the need for mass murder. It is certainly true that delivering food aid in a timely fashion and on the basis of local knowledge would reduce food prices and thus alleviate some of the problems contributing to the war. But any relief operation was always subordinate to ulterior concerns and ultimately thwarted by the chaos and brutality inflicted by the US on the country. The reason why Somalia is officially considered a failure is because the US did not succeed in creating a client-regime that would cheerfully implement IMF dispensations. The response to the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union, the first stable and relatively popular government Somalia had experienced in some time, has been to revive that attempt but this time without American troops in the line of fire, and with a narrative of civilizational contest rather than 'humanitarian intervention'. Instead of Belgian, Italian, Pakistani and Moroccan troops torturing and murdering and raping civilians under a US-led mandate, the Ethiopian Army has been charged with this vital task. Thousands have died already, and what was an improving situation has become a catastrophic one. That is what can be done to Somalia in relative invisibility, and in the high-octane racist climate of the 'war on terror'.