On Dec. 4, 1992, President George Bush announced that he was sending troops into Somalia on a humanitarian relief effort. Here, NBC News Pentagon Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski recalls that announcement and the ensuing conflict that resulted in the now infamous "Black Hawk Down" battle.
In the final weeks of 1992, I like most White House correspondents, was focused on the transition to President-elect Bill Clinton who had just defeated President George Bush. The last thing on our minds was the possibility that the lame-duck President Bush would order U.S. military forces into a high-risk mission overseas. Somalia? It sent most of us reporters scrambling for a world atlas.
On Dec. 4, President Bush delivered an oval office address to the nation in which he announced Operation Restore Hope, a mission designed to ensure that vital relief reached more than 1 million starving refugees caught in the middle of a violent civil war in the East African nation of Somalia. 80 percent of desperately-needed food and medical relief was stolen by armed militias. 500,000 Somali civilians had already been killed or starved to death. It was a human disaster.
The day after President Bush announced Restore Hope, 1,300 U.S. Marines and Navy SEALS hit the beaches at the capital city Mogadishu. Backed by a United Nations resolution authorizing the use of military force, their mission was to provide armed protection for the international relief shipments.
While President Bush's decision gained widespread support, it also drew a fair amount of criticism. Political critics and skeptical reporters suggested the President was engaged in a little political grandstanding, playing the humanitarian in an effort to enhance his legacy. Some Clinton aides claimed Bush had dumped Somalia into the incoming President's lap. But Bill Clinton issued a written statement supporting the decision and praising Bush's leadership.
As one who covered President Bush for four years, I personally found him to be an honorable and decent man who would presumably commit U.S. forces to a dangerous mission for what may at the time seem all the right reasons. Nevertheless, it was hard to imagine that this humanitarian gesture would go so horribly wrong, drag American forces into the middle of a civil war and end in a costly retreat.
While the relief operations initially proved successful, U.S. military forces were inexorably being sucked into "mission creep." By March 1993, the U.N. Security Council ramped up the mission. International "peacekeepers," including the Americans, would now become "peacemakers." American forces were now expected to take on the armed militias. The war was on and Bill Clinton was now the Commander in Chief.
During the Presidential campaign, Clinton was accused of being a draft dodger. Questions were raised about his ability to lead the military. At the White House all reporters watched closely for any sign of weakness. For nearly a year, Clinton hung tough, until "Black Hawk Down."
On Oct. 3, 1993, U.S. special operations forces launched a combined air and ground operation in Mogadishu, aimed at capturing two top lieutenants of the most notorious warlord, Mohammed Aidid. During the operation, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in a ferocious 15-hour battle that killed 18 American soldiers and wounded 79 more. The battle, dramatically documented in Mark Bowden's bestseller, Black Hawk Down, was the beginning of the end for the U.S. military mission in Somalia.
By December, Clinton's Secretary of Defense Les Aspin resigned over Somalia. Within six months after the bloody battle of Mogadishu, President Clinton had cut the losses and pulled all American combat forces out of Somalia. Today, 13 years after Black Hawk Down, a shaky Somalia government is under threat from Islamist terrorists believed to be backed by al-Qaida.
As a Pentagon correspondent for NBC News years later, I talked with U.S. military commanders involved in or familiar with the Somalia relief effort. To this day they insist that operation was a success. U.S. forces had captured the two targets they were after and killed a large number of enemy forces. The commanders believe President Clinton withdrew from Somalia strictly for political reasons and are convinced the overall mission still had a chance to succeed.
It sounds much like the argument we heard 30 years ago about Vietnam. It sounds much like the argument we hear today about Iraq.