The heavy losses suffered by U.S. troops in last weekend's ill-fated military operation in Mogadishu highlighted a grim--and important--reality for the American role in Somalia: The militiamen led by fugitive warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid are far more effective fighters than they were a few months ago.
U.S. military analysts said the problem, from the U.S. viewpoint, is not that the guerrillas have acquired more sophisticated weapons or that their leader has expanded the size of his urban army significantly.
In numbers, Aidid's force is no bigger than it was at the start.
What has changed, experts said, is that the militiamen are far better organized than they were when the United Nations took over the Somalia operation in May and far more ready to use such weapons as command-detonated mines that make it more difficult for U.S. forces to attack.
More significant, they also have learned--to the Americans' horror--how to shoot down helicopters, easy enough for any guerrilla group once it understands the vulnerability of hovering choppers.
As a result, defense analysts said the military situation in south Mogadishu has shifted from a security problem that was manageable with routine patrols to an urban guerrilla war that may be resolvable only by a costly--and highly risky--house-to-house sweep by U.S. Rangers.
"If they're looking for some sort of military solution, it's going to take a hell of a massive force and the risk of a lot of collateral damage," said Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine Corps general now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
"If you look at it, we have Americans who don't know the language, are facing a foreign culture and who have very little solid (information), in an urban setting that is growing increasingly hostile," Trainor said.
Raoul Alcala, a former key Pentagon strategist, agreed, adding that the only real way out of the situation in Somalia now is to press for a political solution that would allow Aidid to participate in the political rebuilding of Somalia.
"We've been using relatively high-tech but very risky tactics," Alcala said, "air assault operations in a built-up area in which the enemy can hide easily and intelligence isn't all that good. We are playing to the strengths of the Aidid forces."
Moreover, experts said, the extra troops and mechanized equipment that President Clinton has ordered sent to Somalia--about 400 soldiers, with tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles--may work temporarily, but for the longer haul U.S. forces still face some serious disadvantages.
Don Snider, a strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted that Aidid soon will bring out his antitank weapons to counter the extra tanks and fighting vehicles.
"It's not a long-term solution," he said of the President's new move.
Harvard's Trainor noted that Aidid's forces have been able to step up their effectiveness with relative ease. Aidid "has always had the weapons--it's just that they've been dormant until recently," Trainor said.
Changing circumstances have given Aidid new incentives to use the weaponry that he once held in abeyance, experts said.
First, the size of the U.S. force in Somalia has shrunk dramatically since the United States turned the operation over to U.N. troops May 4, emboldening the warlord. At its peak, the United States had 28,000 troops and hundreds of armored vehicles in Somalia. Only 4,700 U.S. soldiers are there now.
Second, the U.N. decision to declare Aidid a pariah and issue a warrant for his arrest has contributed to heightening the former general's resolve, prompting him to step up his military operations and to act far more aggressively.
One important turning point came a few weeks ago, when Aidid-led militiamen began using remote-detonated mines, instead of just planting contact mines in roadways where trucks might run over them.
Another came when the guerrillas began using their old Soviet-made 23-millimeter machine guns as antiaircraft weapons, instead of merely using them against ground targets.
The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that many Somalis, at least those in south Mogadishu, have become increasingly hostile toward the United States.
As a result, U.S. military options in Somalia are limited, defense analysts agreed. The only sure way to "take Aidid out" would be through block-by-block combat on Aidid's own turf--a move certain to result in massive casualties.
However, virtually none of the experts advocate that the Administration simply cut and run from Somalia. If there is one consensus, it is that Somalia would quickly return to the anarchy that prevailed in 1992 and the starvation that prompted Washington to intervene in the first place.