TOPICS > Politics

Mohamed Farah Aideed: Death of a Warlord

August 2, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: We’ll get reaction to the death of Somali clan leader Mohamed Aideed in a moment but first, this background report from Steve Scott of Independent Television News.

STEVE SCOTT, ITN: To many Mohamed Farah Aideed will be remembered as the African warlord who humbled the might of the U.S. Army, and as the thorn in the side of the countless peace plans for Somalia, a man who led his militia into years of civil war, bringing famine and virtual anarchy to his country. It was against this background in 1992 the Americans led a U.N. peacekeeping force to restore law and order.

Their efforts to capture Aidid were disastrous. His fighters shot down two U.S. helicopters and killed eighteen Army rangers, dragging some of their bodies through the streets of the capital, Mogadishu. Well ahead of schedule, the Americans pulled out, after suffering their worst losses in combat since Vietnam. Again, Somalia was left to its warring factions. On many occasions, the self-appointed President Aideed and his bitter warlord rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, appeared in public and signed peace pacts, but the warring continued.

Last weekend, Aideed’s supporters say he was shot twice. A few days later, surgeons operated on him. Soon afterwards, he suffered a heart attack. Aidid will be buried today. Many aid workers in Somalia hope a decade of factional violence may well be buried with him.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on this story, we turn now to Ambassador. Robert Oakley, former Special Envoy to Somalia during both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He is now a visiting fellow at National Defense University. Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.

ROBERT OAKLEY, Former Special Envoy to Somalia: Margaret, how are you tonight?

MARGARET WARNER: Very well, thanks. What kind of a mark did Gen. Aideed make, do you think, both on his country but also on ours?

ROBERT OAKLEY: Well, he made two marks on his country. First, being the most important leader to eliminate Siad Bari, who was truly a very, very nasty dictator and who had done terrible things to his country and who was hated by almost everyone, except his immediate sub-clan. And Aideed was the man who really got rid of Siad Bari, therefore, at that point, he was a hero to a lot of Somalis. But when his personal ambition to become president and to have all the power, much as Siad Bari had had the power, carried him away, he then led his country into all sorts of disaster, which we all know only too well.

So in Somalia, I guess, it’ll be a mixed blessing. On the other hand, he does have, from the Somali point of view, unfortunately, the image of a hero who stood up and fought against foreigners who were shooting and killing Somalis. He was in that position sort of accidentally. We misplayed our cards. We misjudged, I think, what type of man Aideed was, and what the situation was on the ground. And so he certainly left an indelible impression on this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the Somali intervention which was the largest commitment of U.S. ground forces since the Vietnam War at the time, is now widely regarded as a disaster. Was that more history, or was that ours, the fact that it’s now considered disastrous?

ROBERT OAKLEY: I think it was a combination but it certainly was traumatic for the United States, as traumatic as what happened in Lebanon 10 years earlier when the Marine barracks were blown up and we had to leave Lebanon. It had a profound impact upon U.S. public opinion, upon our attitudes toward the United Nations, upon our attitude toward ourselves. I think that we’re recovering from that, and the Clinton administration has recovered, but it’s a really deep shock and a great trauma.

Now I think that it was a combination of both. I say we and the United Nations misjudged Aideed’s obsession with becoming president and all the power. He wouldn’t share it with anyone else. He had to have it all. And when we saw him in that mode, we said, well, this man is an obstacle to the sort of Somalia we would like, and so we’re going to marginalize him politically. He said, well, I will not be marginalized; I’m the man that got rid of Siad Bari, I’m going to fight my way back. And if it means war, it means war, but I am here and I’m a Somali. And so it turned to military confrontation. And at that point, the whole U.N.-U.S. operation in Somalia became get Aidid, not save the country, or rebuild the country. It became get Aidid.

MARGARET WARNER: And that was our mistake?

ROBERT OAKLEY: That was our mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: So what lessons do you think, rightly or wrongly, the U.S., both public opinion and sort of political opinion, has taken about this kind of a humanitarian military intervention that, that our venture in Somalia was?

ROBERT OAKLEY: I think we’ve learned several very important positive things, Margaret. One is to assess the situation much more carefully and not take anything for granted militarily or politically. The second one is to recognize the interrelationship between the political, the military, the humanitarian, the economic development. The third one is to move with care and not get too deeply involved, try to adapt to the cultures and realities of the situation, and not try to impose too much upon it. I think Haiti has been a very successful example of the lessons which we’ve learned from Somalia and elsewhere.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t think it’s made the United States timid or more timid about this kind of an intervention?

ROBERT OAKLEY: It certainly did for a while. You remember the Harlan County which turned tail and ran from an angry mob in–

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. warship that–

ROBERT OAKLEY: Old U.S. warship which turned around, rather than trying to land U.S. soldiers by an angry mob of civilians on the dock in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, came only 10 days after what happened in Mogadishu. And I think that was probably the low point of our self-esteem and our courage and our willing to look at things and to assess them carefully and then move ahead once you’ve made the decision, not suddenly retreat.

But I say, I think Haiti later on showed that we’ve recovered from that syndrome, and currently Somalia has also been an object lesson in caution which we’re applying in Bosnia by not getting too deeply into things, but, nevertheless, in being prepared for any eventuality.

MARGARET WARNER: It also introduced, didn’t it, sort of a rally and cry politically about never putting U.S. troops under a U.N. command?

ROBERT OAKLEY: It has really soured U.S. congressional attitudes toward the United Nations. There’s a lot more popular support for the United Nations and for U.S. membership in it, and for the U.S. to pay the debt which it owes, which is about half the total debt up there, rather than welch on a debt.

But the Congress is certainly turned off on the United Nations, and yet, ironically, U.S. troops were never under U.N. command. The troops that were out trying to get Aidid were under U.S. command the whole way. They were doing what they were told to do by U.S. military and political commanders. They were not following the orders of the United Nations at any time.

MARGARET WARNER: But as you say, the political image that lingers is very different.

ROBERT OAKLEY: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Now there were comments today both from the White House and U.N. officials, very cautious ones, but suggesting that with Aideed out of the way, dead, that there was now a chance for peace in Somalia. Do you think it will have that kind of an impact?

ROBERT OAKLEY: I think, Margaret, that there is a chance, but it’ll take patience and time. Aidid’s obsession with having personal power and wanting to gain all the power for himself blocked all the compromise proposals that have been put forward, and there were a number of them. I think the other Somalis have been willing to have Aideed as a president with some sort of checks and balances, but Aideed didn’t want any checks and balances; he wanted all the power, therefore, there was no way they could reach a political solution.

Now the way is open, provided that they give it time. In other words, Aideed supporters are going to be traumatized, and one needs to give them time to settle down, rather than attacking them or coming to them with a peace proposal right now. I was told that his supporters in this country raised a terrible raucous at the State Department on Monday after Aideed had been killed but before people–at least when he was seriously ill–they wanted him recognized by the United States, so you have it–I think if they calm down and people give them time to calm down, the outside world should watch, rather than trying to intervene, and let the Somalis work it out for themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Thanks very much.

ROBERT OAKLEY: You’re welcome, as usual.