INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 14, 1997
At some point in the days immediately following the Oct. 3, 1993, Battle of Mogadishu, Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, commander of Task Force Ranger, sat down and wrote out in his precise, printed script a very unusual letter.
It was addressed to the House National Security Committee, and it began, ``Please show this to President Clinton and [Defense] Secretary [Les] Aspin.''
Military critics had a lot to work with. Why were American soldiers on foot in Mogadishu with no armored vehicles? How did such a small force end up stranded in a hostile city? Where was the overwhelming firepower from the air that so decisively carried the day in the gulf war?
Aspin had already acknowledged that he had made a bad call when he turned down Task Force Ranger's requests for Bradley Fighting Vehicles and the AC-130 gunship, a propeller-driven aircraft that circles a battlefield and provides devastatingly accurate fire. The defense secretary resigned two months later.
Garrison titled his letter ``Operation on 3/4 Oct. '93 in Mog'' and wrote 13 brief, enumerated paragraphs. In those paragraphs he did something very few people in leadership do nowadays. He took the blame.
``I. The authority, responsibility and accountability for the Op rests here in Mog with the TF Ranger commander, not in Washington.''
But the ``blame'' for what happened - if blame is the right word, since, as Garrison pointedly noted, ``the mission was a success'' - went far beyond the decisions regarding Task Force Ranger. The story of how the forces of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid came to be at war with America begins on July 12, 1993, almost three months before the climactic battle.
Matthew Bryden, a Canadian working with a relief organization in Mogadishu, heard helicopters that morning and didn't think anything of it. Helicopters were always buzzing low over Mogadishu, especially since the United Nations had announced its intent to arrest Aidid.
Aidid's forces had been in a bloody battle with U.N. forces on June 5, and 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. Some were skinned. With the blessing of the United States, the United Nations called for the arrest of those responsible. Weeks later they would formally place the blame on Aidid, leader of the Habr Gidr clan. Ever since, U.N. troops had been hunting Aidid. There had been worsening incidents, fighting back and forth.
After four years working in Somalia for charitable organizations, Canadian Bryden knew the country better than most Westerners there. He regarded the attempt to arrest Aidid as a mistake. A former military officer himself, he felt some pity for those ordered to find the former Somalian general.
Mogadishu was a bewilderingly complex web of interlocking family and kin. It was protected not by any formal army or battlements, but by hordes of gunmen. Its warriors were kids with automatic rifles and grenade launchers who hung around the villages looking for trouble. If they saw someone identified as an enemy of the clan, they rounded up a few of their pals and staged a competent urban ambush. The shooting would draw more of them, then more. So anyone who came in after Aidid would pay an awful price. The general could vanish deep into the thorny hollows of this nest for a lifetime.
The United Nations had learned the hard way not to send its soldiers into these places. Instead its leaders had pinned their hopes on the high-tech methods of the U.S. military. Every day and night the sleek, black attack helicopters of the U.S. Army hovered over the city.
With Bryden that morning was John Drysdale, an Englishman who had worked in Somalia for many years. This morning they were both startled by a loud bang. Then another. Then more. They ran outside. Directly overhead were four Cobra helicopter gunships. They were firing rockets, miniguns and cannons, really letting somebody have it.
The helicopters, 17 in all, had encircled a large building called the ``Abdi House,'' after Aidid's interior minister, Abdi Hassan Awale, also known as ``Qeybdid.'' In a large second-floor room, just before the shooting started, Qeybdid had stood to address a crowd of clan leaders. Men of middle age were seated at the center of the room on rugs. Elders were sitting in chairs and sofas. Among the elders present were religious leaders, former judges, professors, the poet Moallim Soyan, and the clan's most senior leader, Sheik Haji Mohamed Iman Aden, who was more than 90 years old. Behind the elders, standing against the walls, were the youngest men. Many wore Western clothing, shirts and pants, but most wore the colorful traditional Somalian wraparound skirts called ma-awis. In all, there were 80 to 90 in the room.
They represented some of the most successful, respected and best-educated members of the Habr Gidr. Aidid himself was not present. In the weeks since the United Nations had searched and leveled most of the buildings in his residential compound, he had been in hiding. But Qeybdid and many of the others present were his close advisers, hard-liners, men with blood on their hands and impatient for power. Some were responsible for attacks on U.N. troops, including the June 5 ambush. But some were moderates, men who saw themselves as realists. Ruling impoverished Somalia meant little without friendly ties with the larger world. The Habr Gidr were enthusiastic capitalists. Many of the men in the room were businessmen, eager for a flood of international aid and happy ties with America. They were unlikely to prevail, but a significant part of the crowd at the Abdi House was there to argue for more cooperation with the United Nations.
Among them was Mohamed Hassan Farah, a garrulous, balding man in his 30s. Like many of the others, he was eager for some kind of normalcy in his country, and for friendly ties with nations that could help Somalia. He had a personal reason for wanting peace and international aid. Farah was an engineer, educated in part in Germany. He saw before him a lifetime of important and lucrative rebuilding. Farah was on the perimeter of the room with the younger men, but instead of standing, he had set himself down on one knee between two sofas, which probably saved his life.
The TOW missile is designed to penetrate the armored walls of a tank. It is a 14-pound projectile with fins at the middle and back that trails a copper wire as thin as a human hair. The wire allows the TOW to be steered in flight so that it will follow precisely the path of a targeting laser. Equipped with a hollow charge inside its rounded tip, it spurts a jet of plasma, molten copper, through the wall, allowing the missile to penetrate and deliver its full explosive charge within. The explosion is powerful enough to dismember anyone standing near it, and hurls fragments in all directions.
Former national security adviser Anthony Lake, interviewed for this article, said that the raid ``was not specifically designed to kill people,'' but it's hard to imagine any other intent.
What Hassan Farah saw and heard was a flash of light and a violent crack. He stood and took one step forward when he heard the whooosh of a second missile, and then another powerful explosion. He was thrown to the floor. Thick smoke now filled the room. He tried to move forward, but his way was blocked by bodies, a bloody pile of men and parts of men a yard high. Among those killed instantly was nonagenarian Sheik Haji Iman. Through the smoke, Farah was startled to see Qeybdid, bloody and burned, still standing at the center of the carnage.
Abdullahi Ossoble Barre was momentarily dazed by the blasts. It had looked to him as if the men closest to the flash just disappeared. He began searching for his son.
All of the men who could still move felt their way along the wall, groping for the door. The air was thick with dark smoke and the smell of blood and burned flesh. Then a third missile exploded, disintegrating the staircase. Hassan Farah tumbled straight down to the first floor. He sat up stunned, quickly feeling himself for broken bones and wet spots. He saw he was bleeding from a thick gash in his right forearm, and he felt a burning on his back, which had been punctured by shrapnel. He crawled forward. There was another explosion above him. Then another and another. Sixteen missiles were fired in all.
Before making it out of the room, Barre found his son beneath a heap of mangled bodies. He began pulling men off the pile, and parts of their bodies came off in his hands. After a great struggle he managed to free his son, jerking him free by the legs. Then they heard Americans from the helicopters storming the house, so he and his son lay still among the bleeding and played dead. Hassan Farah crawled until he found a door to the outside. In the sky he saw the helicopters that had loosed the missiles, Cobras mostly, but also some Blackhawks. Red streams poured from the Cobras' miniguns. The men with Hassan Farah by the doorway downstairs had a quick decision to make. Some had blood running from their mouths and ears. They could stay in the burning house or brave the helicopters' guns.
``Let's go out,'' one of the men said. ``Some of us will live and some will die.''
They ran. Hassan Farah looked up as he ran and saw more than a dozen helicopters. He made it to a stone wall. Then he saw American soldiers descending on ropes from the helicopters to enter the burning house.
Hassan Farah ran around the building away from the action, feeling certain he would be captured because his clothing was covered with blood, but once away from the helicopters he found he was perfectly safe. A friend in a car saw him on the street and took him to a doctor. Hassan Farah found it was easy to be a fugitive from a foreign power in your own city.
Old Somali hands Bryden and Drysdale had known better than to stick around. The streets of Mogadishu could be friendly one moment and fiercely violent the next. Drysdale liked to say that the Somalis were like a school of fish in a tank who swam most of the time in random directions until something disturbed them. Then they would snap instantly into formation, all facing the same direction. This helicopter attack looked like that kind of a disturbance.
``Is there going to be trouble?'' Bryden asked some of his Somalian friends.
``Yes,'' they told him. ``Get out now.''
Jonathan Howe had opposed the Abdi House attack at first. The retired admiral had made arresting Aidid a top priority. The plan for this attack marked a serious escalation of conflict. So far the U.N. search for Aidid had been fairly benevolent. They had been using loudspeakers to broadcast warnings before targets were raided.
``Couldn't there be a warning?'' he asked. Why, instead of a missile attack, didn't they storm the building and just capture the leaders?
This mission to Mogadishu was not an easy assignment. Howe, who had been George Bush's deputy national security adviser, had slept for months on a cot in his office on the first floor of the decrepit old U.S. Embassy building.
After the June 5 slaughter of the Pakistanis, Howe had pushed Washington so hard for help in apprehending Aidid that he had become known around the White House as ``Jonathan Ahab.'' He was convinced that getting rid of the warlord - not killing him, but trying him as a war criminal and removing him from Somalia - would cut through the tangle of tribal hatred that had bred this war, anarchy and famine.
The U.N. intervention, backed by U.S. Marines, had ended the famine, but where would Somalia go from there? Efforts to build a coalition government from the nation's feuding clans were sputtering.
It didn't take long after arriving in Mogadishu in the spring of 1993 for Howe to conclude that Aidid had no interest in power-sharing. Aidid's army had overthrown longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre two years earlier. He and his clan felt that it was now their turn to rule Somalia. They had purchased that right with blood, the ancient currency of power.
With 20,000 Marines patrolling the city, Aidid didn't dare confront the United Nations, but when the Marines pulled out on May 4, the situation deteriorated. Howe was stuck trying to advance a more ambitious U.N. agenda at the same time that the United States was scaling back its military muscle. After the June 5 disaster, Aidid was officially dealt out of the nation-building process.
Aidid was a formidable opponent. A slender, bald man with delicate features, he could be charming, but also ruthless. Howe also had a hard side. He was a man accustomed to having his wishes carried out.
Right after the June 5 attack Howe began asking for Delta Force, the secret three-squadron Army unit that specialized in covert missions. Howe envisioned a small group of well-trained soldiers who could mount a bloodless arrest. His request was taken seriously in Washington. Members of the elite unit begin to train for the mission early in the summer. Commanders dispatched an assessment team to Somalia in June. They reported back that the warlord could easily be picked up off the street.
There was some enthusiasm in Washington. Flush with success against Saddam Hussein in the gulf war, some in Congress and the Clinton administration were keen on building a new world order.
The generals, however, wanted more solid reasons for getting their soldiers killed. Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was skeptical of the whole nation-building effort. He considered Somalia a tribal nation that had been living that way for centuries. Did Howe and the U.N. think they could establish a Jeffersonian democracy there overnight?
As U.N. efforts to grab Aidid met with one failure after the next, frustration mounted. The plan to attack the Abdi House reflected that. The Turkish commander of U.N. troops, Gen. Cevik Bir, and his second, U.S. Army Gen. Thomas Montgomery, wanted to attack without warning in an effort to chop off the head of Aidid's organization.
When Howe proposed issuing a warning, or just storming the building, he was told that such approaches would subject the attackers to unacceptable risks. The Quick Reaction Force, Gen. Montgomery's 10th Mountain Division that was in Mogadishu as a reserve to aid U.N. forces in trouble, lacked the capability to perform the kind of snatch-and-grab tactics used by Delta Forces. Approval for the assault was obtained from the Pentagon and White House.
It was the deaths of four Western journalists who raced to the scene of the June 5 attack that dominated news the next day. But the outraged Somalian mob that killed them was just a reflection of the anger in Mogadishu. The vicious helicopter attack greatly bolstered Aidid's status, and bloodied the image of the United Nations in Somalia and around the world.
From the Habr Gidr's perspective, the United Nations and, in particular, the United States, had declared war.
Howe kept pushing for Delta, and he had allies. Madeleine K. Albright, the ambassador to the United Nations, had just visited Somalia weeks before, and she favored the move. So did Secretary of State Warren Christopher and U.S. envoy Robert Gosende. The Central Intelligence Agency believed the plan would work. Lake, the national security adviser, and his deputy, Samuel R. Berger, now supported it as well.
In August, when remote-controlled land mines first killed four American soldiers and then, two weeks later, injured seven more, even Powell approved. Vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, President Clinton assented. Delta would go. Aidid became America's white whale.
Delta arrived with a three-phase mission. Phase One, which would last until Aug. 30, was to get the force up and running. In Phase Two, until Sept. 7, they would concentrate exclusively on finding and capturing Aidid. Phase Three would target Aidid's command structure. Task Force Ranger was going to put him out of business.
Howe weathered with patience the Rangers' early missteps, and by late September the unit hit its stride. Howe was especially pleased on Sept. 21, when a surprise daylight assault on a convoy of cars resulted in the capture of Aidid's chief banker and munitions supplier, Osman Atto. He was imprisoned with a growing number of captives on an island off the coast, in pup tents surrounded by concertina wire.
Aidid was feeling the heat. A Habr Gidr leader cooperating with U.S. forces told them: ``He [Aidid] is very tense. The situation out there is very tense.'' In late August the Somalian warlord had written to former President Jimmy Carter, pleading for him to intervene with Clinton.
Carter had taken this message to the White House, and the suggestion was received warmly by Clinton, who ordered a resumption of efforts to resolve matters peacefully. The State Department began quietly working on a plan to intercede through the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The plan called for an immediate cease-fire, for Aidid to voluntarily remove himself from Somalia pending the results of the international inquiry he had requested, and for a new round of nation-building talks in November. There were other feelers being put out in Mogadishu by Howe through Habr Gidr elders alarmed at the recent turn of events. All of this, he was convinced, was a direct result of Garrison's pressure.
On the weekend of Oct. 2-3, Howe planned a trip to Addis Ababba and Djibouti to work on the peace effort. His return flight to Mogadishu that Sunday afternoon was held up, and his plane circled over the city. The big fight was under way.