Retreat From Somalia

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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

The overriding lesson emerging from Somalia, according to many UN and US officials, Somali analysts, and others interviewed is this: Foreign troops can be a help getting relief food through in emergencies, but they cannot obtain a political settlement -- especially in a country where anarchy reigns.

''We've been able to save a lot of people from hunger and disease, but not been able to contribute anything politically,'' Brig. Gen. Saulat Abbas, commander of the Pakistani troops in Somalia, told the Monitor earlier this month.

Estimates vary on the number of lives saved. The world was slow to respond to Somalia's crisis, which began after dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in January 1991. As the fighting over who would replace him intensified, Somalis fled their farms for towns, many of which lacked supplies to feed them.

Many lives saved

Between early 1991 and mid-1993, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 Somalis died from the fighting or famine, according to UN and US estimates. At least 154,000 of those lives could have been saved if the West had acted sooner, said the Refugee Policy Group (RPG) in Washington, D.C., in a November report completed for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Once the West and the UN swung into action with a relief airlift in August-December 1992, some 100,000 to 125,000 lives were saved, the report says. The RPG estimates that the military intervention in December 1992 saved 10,000 to 25,000 lives.

But a political solution has eluded the UN. Senior UN officials blame the Somalis. ''One of the messages for all of us around the world is that the international community does not have unlimited resources, and there's a limit to its patience,'' says Kofi Annan, the UN's senior peacekeeping official.

But many analysts contend the UN could have done more to achieve a reconciliation.

''I think [the UN mission] delayed a healing process'' among leaders of rival factions, says UN consultant Gilles Stockton, a Montana rancher who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia in the 1960s. ''Somalia was like a big jigsaw puzzle with 2,000 pieces,'' Mr. Stockton says. The UN ''tried to look at it as a puzzle with two pieces.''

Instead of focusing primarily on the two ''warlords,'' Ali Mahdi and General Aideed, the UN should have worked more with other traditional leaders, businessmen, and intellectuals in various parts of the country, Stockton explains.

In the self-proclaimed independent territory of Somaliland in northwest Somalia, four months of negotiations in 1993 by traditional leaders (without UN involvement) resulted in a peace pact among various factions. That could be a ''grass-roots model'' for peace in the rest of Somalia, says Jama Mohamed Omar, a former Somali diplomat from the area.

UN focus questioned

In January 1993, US military spokesman Col. Fred Peck told reporters that Somalia would be stable by the end of the month. But US and UN troops ran into a lot of trouble, especially after the June 5 ambush killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers. The UN immediately passed a resolution directing its troops to go after the culprits. Senior UN officials named Aideed as the mastermind, which he denied.

With 90,000 UN peacekeepers around the world, Mr. Annan says, the UN could not ''let that [attack] go unchecked.'' One US official at the time said it was inevitable that Aideed would attack the UN, because he had opposed UN military intervention from the start.

Annan, the undersecretary-general for UN peacekeeping operations, said the hunt-Aideed campaign from June to October 1993 ''got out of hand.''

On July 12, 1993, UN forces bombed without warning what they thought was an Aideed command post, killing Aideed supporters and others, including some elders; Aideed was not among them. Altogether, 20 or 70 people were killed, depending on whether one uses the UN estimate or Aideed's count.

On several occasions, elite US Rangers searching for Aideed landed by mistake on the roofs of Western relief agencies, raising serious questions about intelligence capabilities. They did snag Aideed aides in other raids, releasing them months later.

The mistake, many analysts say, was that instead of going after Aideed's militia, the UN went after Aideed himself. The UN was no longer seen as a neutral force, Annan and other analysts say.

''So the lesson on impartiality and neutrality was affirmed,'' Annan told reporters earlier this month in Nairobi, Kenya.

On Oct. 3, 1993, Aideed's forces killed 18 US Rangers; at least 200 Somalis were reported killed in the battle. In the US, horrified television viewers saw one of the dead US soldiers dragged through the streets of the capital.

Four days later, President Clinton announced that he was ordering US troops out of Somalia by March 31, 1994.

A US military official told this reporter at the time: ''The lesson coming out of Somalia is: 'It got too hard, and we're going home.'''

Infighting over farmland

Critics charge the UN recruited few real experts on Somalia, did not effectively use the ones they had, and underutilized help available from Somali intellectuals.

And the UN missed a key issue: the inter-clan wars under way during 1993-94 -- and still not settled -- over farmland in southern and central Somalia. These wars are the result of a century-old movement of major Somali clans south from nomadic grazing areas that have become overpopulated, says Ken Menkhaus, a former UN official in Somalia.

Bantu and other local residents have been shoved off their lands by armed militias moving south, says John Prendergast of the Center of Concern, a private group in Washington focusing on Africa. With UN help, those militias could have been demobilized to farm and do other work, he says.

UN weaknesses, critics say, were compounded by internal corruption. Some UN assets were stolen by its own forces, according to UN and US officials.

''Egyptians were selling vehicles [at the port]; Nigerian forces were selling passes into the [now-looted UN] compound; Pakistanis were caught leaving [Somalia] with crates of 'military equipment' that turned out to be full of UN air conditioners and appliances,'' Mr. Menkhaus charged last year.

''It's absolute corruption; it's awful,'' says one US diplomat.

The UN mission was also costly in terms of lives. Altogether, 135 troops have been killed in the UN operation. The Pakistanis, who suffered the worst casualties (33) ''were the first to come [to Somalia] and will be the last to go,'' General Abbas says.

Signs of progress

Despite the precarious situation in Mogadishu as troops pull out, there are signs of progress in several parts of the country.

''Somalia is not the black hole a lot of Americans think it is,'' says Christine Hjelt, an official with USAID. Rudimentary, poorly-equipped schools have reopened in many places, sometimes with funds from relief agencies or the UN.

Last August and September, farmers had a good harvest, and they appear to be bringing in another one now, giving them a cushion for one to two years in case of drought, Ms. Hjelt says.

In the area between the Juba and Shabelle Rivers in central and southern Somalia, many farmers are back home after fleeing earlier violence. In Baidoa, more than 100 farmers gathered late last year for a workshop on better farming methods organized by local leaders, Hjelt adds. ''Very little food is given away right now,'' she says.

The UN World Food Program provides food to unpaid teachers, and for development work.

In northern Somalia, livestock exports have reached the pre-civil-war levels of the 1980s, says Gilles Stockton, who just completed a livestock survey for the UN.

Somalia's economy depends largely on exports of bananas and livestock, particularly to the Gulf States. Some of Somalia's northern ports are very active now. Somaliland is using import duties to help run its fledgling government, says Mr. Omar. ''Life there [in Somaliland] is coming up.''

Of approximately 58 district councils (local governments) formed with the encouragement of the UN, about 45 are still functioning to some degree, says Ahmed Warfa, who helped the UN supervise their creation. He says it was ''a Somali process'' rather than a direct UN effort that brought them into being. Today they are struggling financially, however, and may not survive without greater regional taxation or outside assistance.

Continuing tensions

Even in divided Mogadishu, changes have occurred. By some assessments, Aideed has lost some power because of factional splits in his ethnic group, the Habar-Gedir, a sub-clan of the Hawiye. Ali Mahdi has also seen splits develop among his sub-clan, the Abgal.

''Things are changing here,'' says Halima Ismail, who helps run a cooperative for women that teaches them handicrafts, computer skills, and other ways to make money. ''People are asking: 'Why are we fighting?'''

With the Ali Mahdi and Aideed factions weakened, and with some pro-peace pressure developing on both sides, any renewed fighting may be less intense.

Yet splits can heal quickly if new inter-clan fighting breaks out. ''Somalis love their clan more than religion,'' says one Somali analyst.

Wars over land in the central Somalia farming regions are ''possible'' says Abdul Khaliq Ali, a Somali businessman from the north. And Kismayu, a major southern port city, is ''smoking from the bottom'' with political tensions, he adds. Formation of a central government is unlikely for years, Ali adds. ''We learned from [former dictator Gen. Mohamed] Siad Barre that the clan in power will grab all the power. No clan will trust another clan for some time.''

After the troops leave

As the last UN troops pack up, many Somalis ''feel like the world is abandoning them,'' says Nancy Smith of the British charity Oxfam.

But most UN agencies and private relief groups intend to stay, although they have withdrawn staff from Mogadishu temporarily until things settle down again.

CARE, like many agencies in Somalia, shifted to development work after the famine. It is now training health workers, restoring water catchment areas near Baidoa, and supervising agricultural and other work by various agencies under USAID funding, says CARE's Bob Laprade. The UN troop pullout will have little immediate effect on many parts of Somalia, he says, ''because they [the UN] have not really had a presence ever in most of the country.''

Mrs. Ismail predicts more fighting, but says the UN pullout may actually help Somalia. ''Now we realize there's no more international rescue ahead,'' she says, from a veranda in a neighborhood that has seen fierce street fighting in recent weeks.''So if they [UN troops] go,'' she says, ''maybe we'll get our own solution.''

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