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Retreat From Somalia

Lives were saved, but opportunities for peace were lost during the United Nations' mission

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 1995


WHEN Gunnery Sgt. Franklin Reid of Richmond, Texas, landed on the dune-lined beach here in December 1992 to protect food convoys to starving Somalis, he was amazed.

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In full battle gear, he looked around and found no enemies -- only smiling and waving Somalis, including many children. ''I've been in quite a few landings,'' he said that day. ''I've never seen one like this.''

Now, 27 months later, some 7,000 United States troops have returned to Somalia's coastal waters to protect the exit of the last Pakistani and Bangladeshi United Nations peacekeeping troops from the country.

But instead of friendly faces lining the beaches, heavily armed vehicles (''technicals'') and their machine-gun crews wait outside the port and airport to seize every bit of property the departing troops abandon.

The scene underlines the inconclusive nature of the UN's Somalia mission. While thousands of Somali lives were saved from famine and war by the troops' early efforts, the attempt to stabilize the country and find a political solution failed. That failure occurred, say many Somali and Western observers on the scene, for at least three reasons: The mission never shifted from a military effort to a genuinely political one; the attempt at political negotiations was not built on knowledge of Somali traditions; and the military mission took a turn that undermined its peacekeeping role.

In fact, many of the resources spent on the mission bolstered the power of the very warlord most responsible for harassing and obstructing the UN in Somalia.

Those poised to move into UN-evacuated areas are mostly supporters of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. General Aideed never liked the idea of a UN military intervention. Yet the UN located its headquarters in south Mogadishu, the area of the capital he controls, and it was largely his supporters who were paid rent, received many UN contracts and jobs -- and, almost certainly in some instances, spied on the UN for their leader.

Money spent by the UN in Aideed's territory fueled the conflict by providing his side with money for arms to fight rival Ali Mahdi Mohamed, according to Fred Cuny, a consultant on Somalia for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Andrew Natsios, President Bush's relief coordinator for Somalia.

Now those Somalis employed by the UN will be jobless and, Somali analysts say, more likely to fight other clans to get what they need to support their families.

''I expect new inter-clan conflict; the port and the airport are big assets which will help whoever takes them,'' says Ahmed Warfa, a former UN official in Somalia. Somalia may fall back into the anarchy and hunger of pre-December 1992 ''or worse,'' says A. H. Osman, a Somali medical technician with contacts in various factions. ''The gunmen can still do what they want.''

Aideed rival Ali Mahdi and his supporters -- who control north Mogadishu and who were more friendly to the UN -- resent the fact that the UN set up shop near Aideed, yet never disarmed him and failed to bring about peace.

The UN spent some $1.7 billion on the Somalia operation, mostly to support and guard itself. The US paid another $1.8 billion between April 1992 and July 1994, State Department figures show.

''We don't know where the money has gone,'' says Abdi Dubaay Madoobe, a local chief in Saco Uen, a central Somalia town. He says he's glad to see the UN go.

What was learned