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War and Conflict

Africa

What was “Black Hawk Down”?

Though the U.S. military uses the term to communicate any crash of one of its Black Hawk helicopters, the phrase is closely associated with events in Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 3, 1993. The term became synonymous with that day after American journalist Mark Bowden wrote a book, by the same title, describing a disastrous U.S. raid on a Mogadishu warlord. The book was turned into a movie in 2001.

The background is this: Somalia threw off its colonial constraints in 1960 to become an independent nation. But warring factions within the impoverished east African nation made a stable central government elusive. After staging a 1969 coup, Soviet-influenced army commander Mohammed Siad Barre (1919 or 1921–1995) established a military dictatorship in Somalia. His authoritarian rule, which was marked by human rights abuses, lasted until 1991 when he was deposed in a popular uprising (he died in exile four years later). The nation of about 8 million people was in chaos, and many were starving. International donations of food were hijacked and used by competing warlords to secure weapons from other nations, thus furthering civil strife. After a 1992 cease-fire, the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Somalia and launched a humanitarian relief operation. Outgoing U.S. President George H.W. Bush (1924-) supported the UN effort by approving a deployment of 25,000 American troops to Somalia to help secure trade routes over which badly needed food supplies could move. In 1993 the United States, then led by President Bill Clinton (1946-), reduced the number of troops to less than half the original deployment.

Trouble was ignited on June 5, 1993, when 24 Pakistani soldiers, in Somalia as part of the UN operation, were killed in an ambush. The warlord thought to be responsible for the massacre was Mohammed Farah Aidid. Somalia’s government ordered Aidid’s arrest. His capture was an imperative to peace: He and his followers were staging a violent rebellion against the provisional Somali government, led by Aidid rival Ali Mahdi. Over the next several months, UN and U.S. forces launched several attacks on what were believed to be Aidid clan strongholds, but Aidid himself remained an elusive target.

On October 3 U.S. elite forces launched an assault on a Mogadishu hotel believed to be an Aidid hideout. They were met with an ambush. Over the following 17 hours, U.S. troops, including a military mission to rescue downed Black Hawk helicopter crews, engaged in a battle with armed Somalis in the streets of Mogadishu. Eighteen American servicemen were killed; the bodies of some were dragged through the streets of the city. Another 84 American soldiers were wounded. Hundreds of Somalis were killed in the fighting. Video footage of the chaos was shown on international television. The Battle of Mogadishu, as it is officially called, was the most intense combat firefight experienced by U.S. troops since Vietnam. On October 7, President Clinton signed orders to withdraw all American troops from Somalia. The United States pulled out in 1994, and the UN peacekeepers followed in 1995. Even after a 2002 reconciliation conference, Somalis had not secured a central government by 2004. The country remained impoverished, strife-ridden, and lawless. The UN and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worked to provide much-needed humanitarian relief to Somalis.

Some military and foreign affairs experts point to the Battle of Mogadishu as a primary reason for American reluctance to engage troops in the world’s hotspots in the 1990s.



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