Let Somalia lesson factor in war strategy

January 3rd, 2011
Published in Stars and Stripes January 3, 2011

Recently, a political decision was rendered on whether to grant a military request for an important weapon in fighting the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. A similar request — rejected by the White House during another conflict — had devastating consequences.

On Oct. 3-4, 1993, a raid to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid triggered a deadly firefight between U.S. Army Rangers and Aidid’s forces in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The book and movie “Black Hawk Down” memorialized this battle, involving the downing of a U.S. Army helicopter and a rescue effort by U.S. forces, costing 18 lives, attributed to a lack of assets requested — but denied. The event saw the bodies of Americans callously dragged through city streets by Aidid’s men and an immense display of courage exhibited by the heavily outnumbered Rangers involved — especially by two posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Mogadishu massacre triggered a two-year congressional investigation, culminating in a scathing critique of national security adviser Anthony Lake and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.

Military commanders — understanding the complexities of the Somalia mission — had recommended against it. The investigation determined the Clinton White House rejected this advice in an effort to please United Nations officials.

Left to perform the mission despite their advice to the contrary, military commanders next recommended force augmentation by tanks — as well as armored vehicles and AC-130 gunships — to maximize protection on the ground. Again, civilian authority overruled wise military counsel — not for military, but political reasons. Clinton administration officials feared that introducing such weaponry into Somalia created a U.N. perception the mission to capture Aidid was morphing into one of occupying the country. The official reason for denying this support was “U.S. policy in Somalia was to reduce its military presence … not to increase it.” U.S. ground forces were denied a protective shield.

The report concluded tanks may well have saved U.S. lives and reduced casualties. Co-author Sen. John Warner, R-Va., noted, “Only compelling military — not diplomatic policy — reasons should ever be used to deny an on-scene commander such a request. Those officials who advocated and approved this policy must bear the ultimate responsibility for the events that followed.”

Somalia’s lesson is, in placing forces in harm’s way, a U.S. president has a duty to minimize their risk by providing every asset necessary to do so — independent of political considerations.

When President Barack Obama announced his decision to send additional U.S. forces — but fewer than military commanders recommended — to Afghanistan, he committed to withdraw them by the end of this year. This violated the lesson of Somalia. Playing domestic politics, Obama wanted to send the message he was not fighting a long war in Afghanistan. But it exposed our forces to greater risk by providing insufficient forces, telling the Taliban you only need to continue the fight for 18 months before we leave and causing locals to ask: “Why support a transient U.S. effort?”

Fortunately, on Nov. 19, Obama decided to send tanks to support the Afghan War effort. He obviously recognizes the 2011 date is no longer viable and even the more recently suggested 2014 withdrawal date may be unrealistic.

It has been quite an education for our president. Appearing committed now to the realities of fighting a long war in Afghanistan, he seems to grasp the importance of giving our forces the assets to defend themselves there.

But this decision will soon give rise to another: what to do about Iran when it arms the Taliban with anti-tank weapons to counter our tank deployment?

The president’s education on the war in Afghanistan continues.

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