IT is fashionable now to say that the United Nations has overplayed its hand in Somalia, following the recent air operations against Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. The sad-eyed sages who offer this judgment, however, usually are mute on the matter of what the UN should be doing in Mogadishu or what the composition of the international presence should be, if not the current one.
What would the future hold if the muscle of the UN force is withdrawn? Are we to believe that when the humanitarian effort turns to reconstruction, and the international organizations are bringing in pumps, generators, telephones, and computers instead of sacks of grain, that these would not be stolen as well? The same humanitarians who now shake their heads at the tactics being used by the UN peacekeeping forces will be clamoring for protection if the chaos is allowed to return. It is useful to remember
how we arrived at the current active phase of UN military operations in Somalia. At the end of the first week of June, Aideed set a very successful ambush for UN peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu. Twenty-three of the UN soldiers - all of them Pakistani - died in the ensuing battle.
The UN Security Council reacted by approving Resolution 837, fundamentally altering and expanding the "rules of engagement" of the 18,000 UN troops then in Somalia. The subsequent clashes with Aideed's forces, including the recent air operations targeting his weapons stores and command center, have been governed by these new rules.
With the adoption of R. 837, the earth moved a little bit. The text angrily called for the "early implementation of the disarmament of all Somali parties," and re-affirmed that the secretary-general was authorized to take "all necessary measures" against both those who carried out the attacks on the UN troops and those responsible for inciting such attacks, including their arrest, detention, prosecution, trial, and punishment. It even called for the "neutralizing" of the radio stations that were contribu ting to the violence. Finally, it called on member states to provide the "armoured personnel carriers, tanks and attack helicopters" necessary to deter attacks against the UN forces.
For the first time in the history of the UN, the Security Council, with all five permanent members voting, had resolved to use multilateral military force to seek out and remove - or destroy if necessary - a major national leader who was defying international law and the will of the international community. The resolution went beyond the rules applied in Bosnia, Cambodia, or Iraq, or any previous peacekeeping operation. This was no longer peacekeeping at all, but a very aggressive form of peacemaking. Th e Clinton administration has even coined a new term for it: "assertive multilateralism."
A chorus of critics has recently joined the relief agencies in faulting the UN-Somalia operations. The Italian peacekeeping contingent even threatened to withdraw its forces if the extensive air operations are not curtailed.
It is not the military intervention per se that is the problem, however, but the way in which it was carried out. Some observations about what might be done differently the next time such UN forces are committed:
* The United States marines who waded ashore on Mogadishu's beaches last December were combat ready but not properly trained for the tasks that awaited them. The force was badly composed. The majority should have been military police and civil administrators trained to deal as an occupation force with civilians. Part of their peacekeeping preparation should have familiarized them with the country and with the complex relief operations already underway there.
* A core rapid-strike force of perhaps 3,500 to 5,000, some 15 to 20 percent of the total number committed, should indeed have been combat units with mobile light armor and air support.
* The primary job should have been locating and confiscating all weapons, starting with "technicals," with their rear-mounted heavy machine guns, then recoilless rifles, mortars, and artillery pieces. These would have been the hardest to hide and the easiest to locate with adequate intelligence.
* Even before forces were sent, an extensive intelligence effort should have been mounted, using high-altitude, high-resolution photography and signals interception, as well as informants.
* From the outset, a stronger emphasis might have been placed upon reconstruction projects, funded, equipped, and staffed in advance. Big infrastructure repair efforts, utilizing food-for-work and perhaps involving some of the UN troops, would have sent a softer message to the Somalis about what the invasion of blue flags and helmets foretold.
THE public bickering and confusion over the UN mission in Somalia should not obscure the point that, whether successfully or not, the UN has attempted some important new roles and functions in that country. Mistakes have been made, but the operation should be carefully studied so that most of them could be avoided next time.
The international community has a sizeable investment in peacekeeping activities, with 14 operations currently under way worldwide involving 80,000 troops from 74 countries. Presently, only one of those is a true peacemaking operation. Several others, however - Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia for example - might require "assertive multilateralism." It is hoped that the lessons of Somalia will not have to be relearned.