The US decision to intervene in Somalia in December 1992 came well after the two-year-old crisis had finally hit the headlines. The power vacuum that followed the flight of Siad Barre from Mogadishu in January 1991, and the subsequent civil war in the capital, particularly the fighting between November 1991 and March 1992, attracted little attention despite the country’s collapse into anarchy. [1]

UN Security Council Resolution 733 in January 1992 called for a ceasefire to allow for the distribution of food aid, shortly after an inept visit by UN envoy James Jonah had failed to halt the fighting in Mogadishu. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s appreciation of Somalia as a test case for the future of UN military intervention pushed the intervention decision forward. Muhammad Sahnoun, Boutros-Ghali’s special representative in Somalia from April to October 1992, accepted the need for intervention, but wanted it carefully prepared and agreed to at the local level. Sahnoun sharply criticized some UN agencies and officials, including Jonah, James Grant of UNICEF and Jan Eliasson, Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs.

Sahnoun was forced to resign in October 1992, clearing the way for the appointment of Ismail Kittani whose main role was to prepare for intervention; though the worst of the dying had ended a couple of months earlier and the ceasefire in Mogadishu had been holding, if tenuously. The immediate problem of famine relief, in the area around Baidoa to the west of Mogadishu, had also eased; the Red Cross had been quietly landing food south of the capital and sending it inland, if sometimes after extensive negotiations.

Setting Precedent

Sahnoun’s fall, however, coincided with changes in US policy. In mid-1992, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum’s well-publicized visit to Somalia and her public call for the US to provide active support for UN operations led to a series of European ministerial and celebrity visits, putting Somalia firmly on the international circuit. Candidate Bill Clinton seized on the issue as evidence of President Bush’s failures in foreign policy. Just before the Republican convention in August, Bush announced an airlift of emergency food. After an embarrassing row with the Kenyan government, not informed in advance of the US decision to use Kenyan airfields, Operation Provide Relief eventually flew in some 28,000 tons of food.

Bush’s decision for military intervention was announced just before Thanksgiving along with a press campaign carefully orchestrated to limit criticism. The president was reportedly appalled by accounts of banditry and theft of aid supplies, and the arrival of US forces did make food distribution in some areas easier. [2]

The decision came too late to influence the US election results, but it fit into Bush’s idea of a world in which the US can and should intervene at will. The Pentagon saw it as a way to help protect the military budget, particularly as Clinton agreed to the intervention in advance, though he may not have realized just how high the price would be. [3] Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had some reservations, based on what he saw as the need to send sufficient numbers and on the necessity for US troops to be under US command. Command of the UN Transitional Assistance Force (UNITAF), came under the field commander, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, who was also given the freedom to take action without prior reference to the local UN authority. This set a significant precedent, which the US managed to continue after UNITAF metamorphosed into UNOSOM2 (UN Operation for Somalia) in May 1993. Now the US provides the deputy commander of UNOSOM2 forces (to which the US contributes less than 4,000 men, mainly in logistics), and Johnston in turn also has an entirely separate position as the commander of the 1,300-man Rapid Intervention Force that has carried out most of the active operations in Mogadishu. During the changeover from UNITAF to UNOSOM2, the new UN commander, Turkish Lt. Gen. Cevik Bir, had an office only a few paces away from Johnston. Indeed, they largely shared a staff. Boutros-Ghali also appointed retired Adm. Jonathan Howe, who served in Bush’s National Security Council and was involved in the original US decision to intervene, as the UN special representative. In New York, US representatives regularly attend the thrice-weekly meetings of the UN Policy Group on Somalia, and the daily Operational Task Force meetings.

US freedom of action appears to be the price the UN has had to pay for its expanded operations in Somalia. With Resolution 837, peacekeeping has become peace enforcement under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter for the first time. (The secretary-general is trying to create a Department of Peace Operations to cover all present aspects of peacekeeping, humanitarian operations, elections supervision and even quick reaction forces.)

The Islamist Dimension

One other factor seems to have been behind US policy. While Somalia has only a limited strategic value for the US, despite the air and sea facilities of Berbera in the north and Mogadishu in the south, and Islamism was never a substantial force in pre-1991 Somalia, the anarchy before and after the fall of Siad Barre gave it a considerable boost. The main Islamist proponent has been al-Ittihad al-Islami, which first came to prominence in June 1992 when it temporarily seized control of a number of towns in the northeast and held the port of Bosasso for two weeks. Al-Ittihad is believed to have links with the International Islamic Relief Organization and the Muslim World League, which organized schools and ran food distribution centers in Merca, Mogadishu and Lugh in the northwest. [4] Another group with links to al-Ittihad is al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya of Sudan, which ran feeding centers and mother-and-child clinics in Mogadishu. Sudan, which sent relief aid to Somalia twice in the last year, was added in August to Washington’s list of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism.

While the reality of al-Ittihad’s power is small, its influence has increased greatly in the last couple of years, partly as a response to clan conflicts. The US sees the possibility of “the infection” spreading to Kenya, where the growth of Islam in the coastal constituencies has been considerable, and Ethiopia, where the Islamic Unity Party (known to have close links with al-Ittihad and with Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi) clashed with government forces in 1992.

The Required Villain

On arrival, US Special Envoy Robert Oakley made it clear that any move to disarm the “warlords” would be “too imperialistic.” [5] This was a major disappointment for Somalis, who had expected and hoped for large-scale disarmament. Oakley also said the US wanted new Somali leaders to emerge naturally. Here again the US managed to disappoint, by concentrating on leaders of existing factions and warlords.

US administrations seem to have difficulty understanding ethnic or territorial disputes, and usually look for the “wicked leader” whose removal would provide the simple solution. While Oakley remained the US representative, Gen. Muhammad Siad “Morgan,” a son-in-law of Siad Barre, played this role. He had been responsible for the destruction of the northern city of Hargeisa in 1988. [6] Today it is Gen.Muhammad Farah Aidid, the warlord who had been most skeptical of the UN-US role and who is now blamed for the death of 350,000 Somalis last year (a figure plucked out of thin air).

Certainly Aidid bears responsibility for the situation in which famine conditions occurred, but so do Ali Mahdi and several of the other faction leaders and warlords currently negotiating with the US (including Gens. Morgan, Gebiyu, Ahmed Warsame and Gani, all late of Siad Barre’s armies). It is more than likely that Aidid was responsible for the attack on Pakistani troops on June 5, but the UN launched several days of bombing raids in reprisal on June 12, six days before it launched a formal investigation into the incident.

Aidid (who himself has called several times for an independent inquiry into that clash) has a lot to answer for. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that his attempts to stand up to the UN and the US lie at the root of their opposition. Later UN responses, carried out by US Rapid Deployment Units, have included the June 17 attacks on the Digfer Hospital and the July 12 bombing of a house where dozens of clan elders, meeting to discuss peace moves, were killed. “Increasingly, Somalis regard UNOSOM as another faction and Adm. Howe as another warlord,” concluded the London-based African Rights group in a July 1993 report. [7]

Clan Terms

Aidid and Morgan, as with all Somali leaders, can only be seen in clan terms. [8] Aidid is from the Habr Gidir, one of the main clans within the Hawiye, the clan family which controls Mogadishu and much of central Somalia. Morgan is from the Majerteen, one of the Darod clans, which include the Marehan, the clan of Siad Barre. The history of southern Somalia, and of the Somali state after 1960, can be seen in terms of the competition for power between the Darod, the Hawiye and the main northern clan, the Isaaq. The UN pressure on Aidid is clearly seen as meddling in Somali clan politics; it supports Aidid’s great rival, Ali Mahdi, the self-proclaimed president of Somalia, who comes from the Abgal clan of the Hawiye. The largely nomadic, camel-herding Habr Gidir clans despise the more urban-based Abgal. Located in and around Mogadishu, the Abgal did not rise against Barre until near the end, and then seized the spoils. The Abgal, for their part, consider the Habr Gidir rough and uncivilized.

On a wider level, action against Aidid becomes support for the Darod clan, the main Hawiye rivals for control of Mogadishu. There is a widespread presumption that the US will put in a Darod as the next president. For the Hawiye and other southern clans, the Darod have been tainted by the events of recent years. The Darod themselves, who are hardly united, would argue that the problems lay with Siad Barre’s Marehan sub-clan. [9]

Another concern is that the UN and the US have a hidden agenda: to reunify Somalia by reincorporating the republic of Somaliland, the area formerly under British control which proclaimed itself independent in May 1991. Somaliland has not yet received any international recognition, although its creation was very much the result of grassroots action from its people, who would certainly resist any attempt to reincorporate it. [10]

Colonial Concerns

The collapse of UN and US relations with Aidid have caused a serious deterioration in the relationship with Italy, the former colonial power of southern Somalia. Italy has been a generous benefactor to Somalia over the years, while doing remarkably well itself from the association. The largest single aid project was the Baardheere dam scheme, priced at over $750 million. The value lay not in the possibilities for irrigation or electrical generation, discounted respectively as temporary and excessive by most observers, but in the contracts awarded by the foreign donors. Even the World Bank objected to the scale and cost. Another major project was the northeast development, which included the rehabilitation of Bosasso port and road links to Garowe at a cost of up to $400 million. The European Community, as late as 1989, granted another $54 million for a road into the Baardheere area. In its highly creative public investment program for 1987-1989 the Somali government sought $1.025 billion in external aid; over 80 percent was pledged despite an impressively poor rate of debt repayment.

These projects provided lucrative contracts to Italian construction companies in particular, as well as payoffs to Somali government officials. The norm appears to have been 10 percent, though higher figures were often demanded and obtained. The spoils were carefully divided. The Christian Democrats had Ethiopia; the Socialist Party took over Somalia from the Communist Party in 1978, after Somalia broke with the Soviet Union. Between 1981 and 1990, Italy was Somalia’s largest donor, providing over $1 billion for some 114 projects, most subsequently categorized as “absurd and wasteful.” [11]

The fall of Siad Barre did not bring these contacts to an end. In the late 1980s, Italy extended links to the opposition, helping to organize the “Manifesto” group within the Hawiye clan in mid-1990. The group, which called for peaceful change to a democratic government, included Ali Mahdi, a prominent businessman and hotel owner, who was proclaimed president after Siad Barre fled. The Italians also backed the creation of the United Somali Congress, a Hawiye group which opted for armed struggle, though it included a number of the “Manifesto” group. [12] The Congress subsequently split; when these divisions turned into violence, the Italian and Egyptian governments cosponsored two unsuccessful reconciliation conferences in May and July of 1991.

Hence Italian irritation with the US assumption of control over UNITAF and UNOSOM2. Neither Italy (with 2,600 troops) nor France (1,090) has any representation on Adm. Howe’s advisory group, or in the command structure. The Italians believed they could have achieved Aidid’s disarmament through negotiations. The other side of this is the UN contingents which insisted on referring orders home, much to the anger of the US. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Italy are said to have been particular offenders in this respect. The UN’s response, publicly ordering the Italian commander home, caused an international incident. Following suggestions that it was time to review the UN’s tactics, David Shinn, US State Department Coordinator on Somalia, was sent to Mogadishu and Rome to smooth things over. As a compromise, it was agreed the Italian general would be replaced when his tour of duty ended September 1, and an Italian was posted to the operations center in New York. But no changes were made in current policy — summed up by Adm. Howe when he described the sound of a passing Cobra helicopter gunship as “the sound of freedom.”

Unanswered Questions

The UN can take some credit for encouraging the return to agricultural activity and the renewal of market operations in some areas, but there remains the major query of how far humanitarian considerations have been lost in the fighting. UNOSOM2’s costs for the first six months are estimated at $600 million, and at $1.6 billion for 18 months, to cover 20,000 troops and 8,000 support staff; in August the secretary-seneral called for another brigade. These sums are in sharp contrast with those pledged at the March conference on Humanitarian Assistance for an Action Program on Somalia. The UN requested $166 million, scaled down from the original $250 million. Pledges totaled $130 million.

Another question concerns Somali involvement in the whole process. UNOSOM seems reluctant to recruit Somalis. Few, if any, were consulted before the troops moved in, and efforts at reconciliation appear confined to those largely responsible for the present state of the country. There is an obvious need for local reconciliation as a prerequisite for regional and national debate; for any new administrative structures to be related to Somali clan balance; and for a sustained effort to involve women’s groups, merchants, Somali NGOs, professionals, intellectuals, even poets (a political class of importance in Somalia). The reality of Somaliland has received no acknowledgment. The UN and the US appear prepared to ignore the parameters of the Somali economy, whose reconstruction is just as necessary as political change. It, too, has to start at the local level; large-scale development projects, like high-level reconciliation meetings of warlords and faction leaders, run the risk of repeating past problems. Siad Barre, and his manipulation of aid, left Somalia with no functional administration (and essentially no government income except aid flows). Major forms of economic activity were cross-border smuggling, extortion and protection rackets, looting and qat trading. These have provided the funds for the militia forces of the warlords. Aidid, for example, has benefited largely from his control of the qat trade from Kenya. Qat supplies from Ethiopia into Hargeisa in Somaliland in 1992 were running at an estimated value of $50 million per year; in Mogadishu the value is likely to have been twice as high.

The disaster of Somalia grew out of the collapse of the moral authority of the elders, and their replacement by the coercive powers of Siad Barre’s state and the warlords who succeeded it. [13] Re-empowerment of the institution of elders at the local level would go a long way toward resolving economic and political problems. There is, unfortunately, still little evidence of awareness at the UN or in the US of the need for appropriate tactics and strategies if Somalia is to be restored.


[1] The institutions of the Somali state were in terminal decay long before 1991, largely because of Siad Barre’s policies, although foreign aid preserved a facade. Cohesion in the armed forces broke down after defeat in 1978, the small civil service was undermined by low pay and overlapping spheres of authority which paralyzed it, the economy was dependent upon refugee aid and monetary assistance, and the end of aid in 1990 meant a total lack of resources to pay for state institutions.
[2] Estimates that 80 percent of food aid failed to reach its target were grossly exaggerated (as was the 95 percent malnutrition figure). The Red Cross estimated that its losses were about 20 percent. One senior UN figure was quoted as saying “this figure of 80 percent blasted about. That’s crap. It was used by the US to justify intervention.” Quoted in “Somalia. Operation Restore Hope: A Preliminary Assessment,” African Rights Report (London) (May 1993).
[3] The US special envoy to Somalia, Robert Oakley, has estimated the total cost to the US from the period December 1992 to May 1993 (when the UN formally took over) at well over $2 billion.
[4] The director of Islamic Relief in Djibouti, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Qaydi, responsible for Horn of Africa activity, denied in a November 1992 interview that his organization had any links with al-Ittihad, emphasizing that his organization was purely an Arab humanitarian NGO. Al-Qaydi also denied that Islamic Relief had any contact with the al-Ittihad training centers in Somaliland in 1992, near Boroma and Burao, where military and religious training was reportedly combined.
[5] United States Institute of Peace Journal 6/3 (June 1993).
[6] In May 1988, following a peace deal between President Mengistu in Ethiopia and Siad Barre, the main northern guerrilla opposition movement, the Somali National Movement, seized Burao and most of Hargeisa. The government response was horrific. For a devastating indictment of Somali government policy, and of the government commander, Gen. Morgan, see Robert Gersony, “Why Somalis Flee,” report for the Bureau of Refugee Programs, August 1989.
[7] “Somalia. Human Rights Abuses by the UN Forces,” African Rights Report (London) (July 1993), pp. 33-34.
[8] The best introduction remains I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa (New York, 1980). See also, S. S. Samatar, Somalia: A Nation in Turmoil (London: Minority Rights Group, 1991).
[9] The main Darod clans are: Ogaden, Marehan (the clan of Siad Barre), Majerteen, Dolbuhunta and Warsengeli. These last three are sometimes referred to as Harti, particularly with reference to recent fighting in and around Kismayo in the south, though all three essentially live in the northeast or north.
[10] Somaliland should provide a valuable example for the south of the way elders can solve problems and reestablish local control. The local council of elders of the Gadabursi in Boroma, for example, set up a permanent five-person committee in 1992 which met daily to deal with local administrative issues. They also appointed their own executive commissioner. The UN has been trying to set up “neutral” local councils of elders, but most have been carefully arranged by the local power brokers to perpetuate existing local relationships. The core of the northern approach has been settlement of disputes at the local level and then trying to build up to the sub-clan, clan and inter-clan levels.
[11] See Wolfgang Achtner, “The Italian Connection: How Rome Helped Ruin Somalia,” Washington Post, January 24, 1993.
[12] Gen. Aidid’s own connection with the Socialist Party broke down in 1989, when he sued Craxi and his brother-in-law for a promised commission and lost. See Achtner, op. cit.
[13] Criticism of the extensive, degrading and superficial designation of Somalis as famine victims, bandits or warlords has considerable validity. Nevertheless, the term “warlord” can be defended as an accurate definition: “a military commander who had a regional power base and ruled independently of the central government.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

How to cite this article:

Patrick Gilkes "From Peacekeeping to Peace Enforcement," Middle East Report 185 (November/December 1993).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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