Retired U.S. Adm. Jonathan Howe, chief of U.N. operations in Somalia, sat in the trailer that passes for his Mogadishu office one recent afternoon, explaining why it has taken the 25,000 troops under his command so long to track down a single renegade warlord.
“Well, it’s a matter of opportunities, it’s a matter of intelligence, it’s a matter of means, it’s a matter of not endangering those who would be involved in the arrest or Somali citizens. You have to have the right stars together,” said Howe, a veteran of U.S. military intelligence and former deputy U.S. national security adviser. “A lot of this is just luck.”
As Monday’s raid by U.S. Army commandos on what turned out to be a U.N. relief agency post in south Mogadishu vividly proved, the United Nations has had little of the above in the 2 1/2 months during which fugitive warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and his ragtag militiamen have frustrated, taunted and attacked the United Nations in the Somali capital.
But the United Nations’ military operation in Somalia, an unprecedented blueprint for U.S. involvement in future U.N. peacemaking missions, has been plagued by more than simple bad luck.
Behind the U.S. Army Rangers’ early morning assault Monday is, in fact, a series of often embarrassing illustrations of apparently bad intelligence, poor communication and occasional mistrust among the United Nations’ multinational command and the more than 4,000 U.S. troops serving in the U.N. mission to pacify and rebuild Somalia.
In recent interviews with The Times, U.S. troops, their commanders, senior officers from other armies serving in the U.N. coalition and several Somalis cited as reasons for the misunderstandings everything from language barriers to disinformation.
“People sympathizing with Aidid are feeding the U.N. more and more false information about him just to anger and frustrate them,” said one well-educated Somali who asked not to be named. “The longer Aidid eludes the U.N., the more people will try to throw the U.N. off his track.”
Even the United Nations’ military spokesman in Somalia, U.S. Army Maj. Dave Stockwell, appeared to blame a lapse in intelligence Monday for the outcome of the pre-dawn raid, which he and the Pentagon otherwise praised as “a successful operation” in the urban-guerrilla jungle that is present-day Mogadishu.
In a telephone interview with CNN later in the day, Stockwell concluded, “Certainly, had our intelligence been a little better it probably would have had a different outcome.”
In contrast with earlier breakdowns in U.N. military intelligence and communications, however, Monday’s raid was something of a breakthrough. No one was killed or injured.
Less than three weeks ago, a U.S. military police patrol apparently was equally uninformed when it drove into the heart of an anti-American street demonstration by Aidid supporters. Under a hail of rocks and insults, the troops were forced to fire over the heads of the 3,000 protesters, who later asserted that the U.S. gunfire had wounded three Somalis.
When asked during the U.N. briefing that day whether the commanding officer of the Army patrol had been advised of the rally that morning--an event covered by half a dozen foreign correspondents in the Somali capital--Stockwell said: “It may not have been clear to him. . . . He had heard a radio report that there were several hundred people gathered near the stadium, but the word ‘rally’ wasn’t used.”
Stockwell was then forced to issue a series of denials to offset assertions by Aidid’s propagandists that the patrol was deliberately trying to provoke and target a peaceful gathering of Somali demonstrators.
Equally difficult to explain was the U.S. Army Quick Reaction Force’s helicopter-gunship attack on an inoperative BM-21 rocket launcher June 14. That was less than six weeks after the United Nations took over the command of the multinational peacekeeping force from the U.S. Marines.
The rocket launcher had been inspected and left for scrap by the Marines several months before, but that information was not passed on to the helicopter gunner, who inadvertently killed a woman and child when the first of two missiles he fired at the rusted launcher misfired and went astray.
In other incidents, several dozen soldiers have been injured in ambushes on U.S. Army trucks as they delivered fuel, water and military equipment to U.N. contingents based in the Somali countryside. Those soldiers complained that they have been unable to communicate with many of the armed escorts who accompany their convoys, among them crack French Foreign Legion commandos with little of English.
But it is the breakdown in intelligence between the various armies and between the civilian and military U.N. administrations in Mogadishu that several commanders said has caused the most serious problems.
In at least one case--a little-known incident that touched off the most serious crisis within the U.N. operation in Somalia since it officially began May 4--the failure to communicate caused a deep mistrust among the U.N. contingents themselves.
It happened June 30. U.S. military commanders in key slots of the U.N. command here, operating on intelligence information, sent a contingent of Pakistani troops to a Mogadishu garage that was suspected of being an Aidid weapons arsenal.
When they arrived at the garage, the Pakistani forces were ambushed. Two of their soldiers were killed, and commanders at U.N. headquarters called in a contingent of Italian troops for backup. Several U.N. commanders later said privately that the Italians refused to fire a single shot to protect the Pakistanis, who ultimately withdrew before they could search the garage. “Two days later,” one U.N. commander confided, “we were forced to take it out by air.”
And two weeks later, the U.N. Security Council in New York announced it was dismissing the Italian commander, Gen. Bruno Loi, amid allegations that his contingent was overly sympathetic to Aidid and actually sharing information with Aidid’s clansmen.
Ultimately, Italy and the United Nations reached a compromise in which Loi agreed to redeploy his troops to the Somali countryside--but not without harsh criticism that the redeployment was a symbolic protest against U.N. military policies in Mogadishu.