A U.S. soldier was killed in the country this month for the first time in more than two decades. What was he doing there?
The death of Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken and the wounding of two more U.S. troops in Somalia this month marked the first deadly engagement for American forces in the country since the Battle of Mogadishu of October 1993. The two events differ in notable respects, not least in their magnitude—the battle of October 3-4, 1993, resulted in 18 Americans killed and 79 wounded. But both operations reflect the adverse conditions that U.S. special-operations forces, and the United States more broadly, face in the world’s most dysfunctional states.
Back in the summer of 1993, warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid bedeviled an international coalition that was trying to restore order and build democracy in the midst of a vicious civil war in Somalia. A ruthless clan leader known for firing artillery into civilian neighborhoods and starving opposing clans into submission, Aidid had made himself the chief obstacle to the nation-building project. The Clinton administration had removed a large U.S. Marine force months earlier and transferred authority over the remaining international troops to the United Nations. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s UN ambassador, declared at the time, “[W]e will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.”
When the marines had occupied Mogadishu, their relentless patrolling of city streets had kept Aidid and other warlords in check. Once they left, the Asian, European, and African peacekeepers under UN command did not maintain such a visible presence. Sensing weakness, the clan militias began resisting foreign efforts to monitor their weapons caches and limit their activities.
In August 1993, the killing of four U.S. soldiers by a bomb traced to Aidid convinced Clinton that the status quo had become untenable. Clinton was unwilling to send additional conventional forces to Somalia, owing to reservations among congressmen in his own party, some of whom were already calling for the removal of all U.S. forces from a situation they were certain would devolve into another Vietnam. But Clinton was open to sending special-operations forces, since their units were smaller and designed to maintain a low profile. Some in the special-operations community argued that their units could oust Aidid, demonstrating their ability to achieve strategic results without the participation of conventional forces. Clinton decided to send the Army’s most elite unit, Delta Force, to Somalia, along with a Ranger company and a detachment from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
The operation of October 3, 1993, began auspiciously enough. Storming a three-story house in Mogadishu, the Delta operators rounded up several high-value targets without firing a shot. But then a rocket-propelled grenade felled one of the American Black Hawk helicopters flying nearby, forcing some of the U.S. ground troops to move toward its crash site. Caught in the middle of the city with no Somali security forces to assist, the Delta operators and Rangers came under attack on all sides from Aidid’s militiamen. By intermingling with women and children, the militiamen reduced their vulnerability to American fire, wary as the latter were of harming civilians. Most of the American units were able to hold out until the arrival of reinforcements early the next day, but only at heavy loss of life and limb.
The high-casualty toll and the images of dead Americans dragged through Mogadishu’s streets drove Clinton to call off the hunt for Aidid. On October 13, 1993, he announced that U.S. forces would leave Somalia no later than March 31, 1994. In the announcement, he avoided mention of the botched raid, and instead attributed the decision to plans for transition of the mission to the United Nations. U.S. troops would not leave immediately, he stated, because “were American forces to leave now we would send a message to terrorists and other potential adversaries around the world that they can change our policies by killing our people.” Yet ending the hunt for Aidid and setting a withdrawal date for U.S. forces were changes to America’s policies, ones that future terrorists like Osama bin Laden would cite as evidence of the value of killing Americans.
Somalia returned to the attention of the U.S. national-security community after 9/11, as the result of a decision by bin Laden to dispatch lieutenants to the country. On the run in Pakistan, bin Laden was sprinkling his faithful across Muslim lands to reduce his movement’s vulnerability and diversify its recruiting base. The lack of a viable central government and the presence of Sunni Muslims made Somalia an ideal place to recruit followers, plan terrorist strikes, and hide from the Americans.
In 2006, a Somali-Islamic extremist group known as the Council of Islamic Courts took control of Mogadishu, driving out the feeble provisional government. The Council’s fighters swept into central and southern Somalia and seemed on the verge of consolidating control of the whole country. Neighboring Ethiopia, however, became so alarmed at the prospect of an extremist state on its borders that it unleashed its army. The Ethiopians handily defeated the Council, seizing Mogadishu in just a few days.
For U.S. special-operations forces, Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia was a windfall. Arriving in Mogadishu together with the Ethiopian forces, American special operators set up shop alongside them. While the Ethiopians secured roads and swatted down lowly insurgents, the Americans nabbed al-Qaeda leaders.
But after the Ethiopians reinstated the provisional government, it remained incapable of governing effectively or organizing large security forces. Al-Shabab, an ascendant offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, waged a vigorous, effective guerrilla war on the Ethiopian occupation forces, inflicting heavy casualties. To ease the burden on the Ethiopians, the UN Security Council decided in 2007 to deploy 8,000 African Union troops to Somalia for what would come to be known as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).