Black Hawk Down: 20 years on

A Ugandan soldier serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) holds a rocket-propelled grenade at sunrise, on the frontline in Maslah Town, on the northern city limit of Mogadishu.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of recent history’s best known small-scale battle, immortalised in Ridley Scott’s movie Black Hawk Down. An attempt by a small US special operations force to apprehend two of Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid’s lieutenants went disastrously wrong when militiamen shot down two US helicopters. The result was a running fight that cost the lives of 18 US service personnel, two UN peacekeepers and hundreds (exact numbers are unknown) of Somali militia.

Less well known is the context in which the battle took place and what its outcomes mean for stabilisation operations and the fight against extremists like al-Shabaab today. An amalgam of two former European colonies, Somalia achieved independence in 1960, and from 1969 was ruled by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, a brutal dictator backed first by the Soviets and then the United States. After the US withdrew its support, Barre could no longer suppress his many opponents, and in January 1991 fled into exile. He left behind a clan-based civil war which, together with a severe drought, led to a humanitarian crisis.

Anarchic lawlessness prevented aid from reaching desperate Somalis, so in July 1992 the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) deployed its first military forces, including a small Australian contingent. However, it soon became clear that UNOSOM needed more muscle, and in December 1992 the UN authorised Unified Task Force – Somalia (UNITAF). This 37,000-strong multinational force was US led and about two-thirds American in strength. Australia’s primary contribution to UNITAF was a battle group built around 1 RAR, commanded by the current Chief of the ADF, David Hurley (then a Lieutenant-Colonel).

In terms of achieving its objectives, UNOSOM was a success, enabling the distribution of massive amounts of aid. For their part, the Australians maintained positive control of the Baidoa region between January and May 1993. Despite that, UNOSOM/UNITAF was considered to be too limited: incidents of violence continued and there was no effective functioning government. It was replaced in May by UNOSOM II, which had a mandate focused on rebuilding the Somali state.

Most Australian troops were withdrawn after the transition to UNOSOM II but a Movement Control Unit and a contingent of air traffic controllers remained in Mogadishu. A 10-man SASR patrol also arrived to provide force protection. Australia maintained its presence for another seven months but the US decision to withdraw after the ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster spelled the end of UNOSOM II, which concluded unsuccessfully in March 1995.

For the next decade Somalia was effectively forgotten. In 2006, the world briefly paid attention again when Ethiopia, alarmed by the growing strength (and alleged Eritrean backing) of the Sharia-based Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia, conducted a US-supported incursion into Somalia in support of the fledgling but growing Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces. The growing presence of foreign Islamist fighters alarmed Ethiopia and the United States, which led to US support for the incursion.

Throughout 2007, clashes continued between Ethiopian/TFG forces and the ICU. In March the first troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were deployed. Ethiopian forces, unpopular with Somalis, began withdrawing in 2008. The conflict shifted to one that primarily pitted TFG and AMISOM troops against the al-Qaeda aligned al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist offshoot of the now largely defunct ICU.

AMISOM looked from the outset to be another exercise in futility. Underfunded, understrength, inadequately trained and constrained by an unclear mandate, AMISOM forces could do little more than cling to one patch of Mogadishu. Nonetheless AMISOM’s African soldiers stuck doggedly to their mission. While exact figures aren’t available, it’s clear that the casualty ratio suffered by AMISOM forces far outstrips that endured by US forces in Afghanistan. Largely ignored by the outside world, AMISOM endured, offering a small beacon of hope to the people of Somalia.

Over time it became possible to build on AMISOM’s small success of ‘simply enduring’. Mentored by US-funded contractors, AMISOM’s forces became more effective and were finally able to force al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu in August 2011. Encouraged by AMISOM’s success, and in reaction to al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya, the Kenyan Defence Forces entered the fray alongside Somali government forces. After several months of hard fighting the Somali-Kenyan-AMISOM forces have succeeded in bringing much of Somalia under the (tenuous) control of the Somali government. For the first time in decades, Somalia—now under the leadership of the moderate and progressive Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon—looks like it might actually have a future as a functioning state. There remains much to be done—al-Shabaab remains a significant threat—but there’s a cautious sense of hope among the people of Somalia today.

Looking back over the past 20 years, there are lessons to be drawn from the Somalia experience. Armed humanitarian operations with a clear and limited mandate like UNOSOM can be successfully achieved by coalitions involving Western forces. However, broad ‘nation-building’ missions will seldom be successful if conducted by international forces with little vested interest in the outcome. Even if not optimally equipped and trained, regional forces are more likely to display the required doggedness to make success a possibility. Even so, missions of this kind are costly and risky—as Kenyans were brutally reminded last month when al-Shabaab launched a vicious terror attack on a Nairobi shopping mall. Where wealthy nations lack the national will to commit troops, an option to help local forces to build capacity and capability is to provide contractors, as the US did in Somalia. Enabling effective and legitimate local partners is always essential. Even so, success in missions of this kind is likely to take decades rather than years.

In many respects these lessons are simple common sense. But as Canberra considers ‘what next’ in the aftermath of the Afghanistan drawdown, they’re lessons worth repeating.

Deane-Peter Baker is a lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.