Twenty-five years ago, I was drawn to Somalia in the aftermath of Operation Restore Hope, a U.S. initiative supporting a United Nations resolution that aimed to halt widespread starvation.
The effort, started in 1992, secured trade routes so food could get to Somalis. The U.N. estimated that no fewer than 250,000 lives were saved.
But Operation Restore Hope would be best remembered in the United States for a spectacular debacle that has shaped foreign policy ever since.
Almost right away, militias led by the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid began attacking and killing U.N. peacekeepers.
On October 3 and 4, 1993, U.S. forces set out on a snatch-and-grab mission to arrest two of Aidid’s lieutenants.
The plan was to surround a white three-story house in the capital city of Mogadishu where leaders of Aidid’s Habar Gidir clan were gathering.
Rangers would helicopter in, lower themselves on ropes and surround the building on all sides. A ground convoy of trucks and Humvees would wait outside the gate to carry away the troops and their prisoners. Altogether, the operation would involve 19 aircraft, 12 vehicles and around 160 troops.
The operation didn’t go as planned. The ground convoy ran up against barricades formed by local militias. One helicopter landed a block north of its target and couldn’t move closer because of groundfire.
A ranger fell from his rope and had to be evacuated. Insurgents shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades.
When about 90 U.S. Rangers and Delta Force operators rushed to the rescue, they were caught in an intense exchange of gunfire and trapped overnight.
Altogether, the 18-hour urban firefight, later known as the Battle of Mogadishu, left 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead. News outlets broadcast searing images of jubilant mobs dragging the bodies of dead Army special operators and helicopter crewmen through the streets of Mogadishu.
The newly elected U.S. president, Bill Clinton, halted the mission and ordered the Special Forces out by March 31, 1994.
For Somalis, the consequences were severe. Civil war raged—Aidid himself was killed in the fighting in 1996—and the country remained lawless for decades. Pirate gangs along the country’s long Indian Ocean coastline menaced vital shipping lanes. Wealthy and educated Somalis fled.
When I visited Somalia for the first time, in 1997, the country was well off the map of world interest. There were no commercial flights to the capital city, but each morning small planes took off from Wilson Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, for rural landing strips throughout the country.
My plane was met by a small platoon of hired gunmen. On our way into the city, smaller bands of brigands grudgingly removed barriers that had been stretched across the dirt road to halt traffic. The driver of my vehicle tossed fistfuls of near-worthless paper Somali shillings as we passed these local versions of toll booths.
The city itself was in ruins. The few large buildings were battle-scarred and filled with squatters, whose fires glowed through windows empty of glass and stripped of aluminum frames.
Gas generators banged away to provide power to those few places where people could afford it. Militias fought along the borders of city sectors, filling the hospitals with bloody fighters, most of them teenagers. The streets were mostly empty, except for caravans of gunmen.
Without government, laws, schools, trash pickups or any feature of civil society, extended clans offered the only semblance of safety or order. Most were at war with each other for scarce resources.