Under the auspices of the Pentagon, Dr. Kenneth Allard, Colonel, US Army (Ret.), reviewed US military documents,
including classified materials, and wrote Somalia Operations: Lessons
Learned. (National Defense Univ Press, 1995). This after-action review of
the mission has been used to inform future US military operations. Allard
served as Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff (1987-90). He also served
as Technical Advisor for FRONTLINE's "Ambush in Mogadishu." Now retired from the military,
Dr. Allard currently is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic &
International Studies, an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, and a military
analyst for MSNBC.
This interview was conducted on October 26, 2001. Click here to read FRONTLINE's 1998 interview with Allard.
What are some of the distinctions to draw in comparing the U.S. operation in
Somalia and the Afghanistan operation to date?
When one looks back at Somalia, one has to be impressed at just how vague the
strategic objectives were there. We had probably a well-intentioned idea of
nation-building. However, it wound up becoming something that became a
nightmare. And the reason why it became a nightmare was that, when you were
building the nation, you were doing so in direct contravention of the existing
power relationships of the players who were there. It was, after all, their
turf. They understood it. They were very comfortable with it. And we, of
course, were not.
And ... what I think is equally daunting for Western minds is the extent to
which our concept of time is very different from what you find in any kind of
what we would think of as a primitive or tribal society. They simply have a
different view of the continuum of space and time than we do. We are very, very
much the attention deficit generation. We want to have our pizzas delivered in
half an hour. We want to have no plot more complicated than 60 minutes to be
done prior to the 11 o'clock news. They don't think in anything like the same
time dimensions that we do. They are, consequently, more patient. In the case
of the Taliban, as was indeed with the Somalis, they were prepared to wait us
out, they were prepared to take us on, not only in terms of time, but also in
terms of casualties.
...When one looks at what we're doing in Afghanistan, you have to be impressed
at the utter complete difference in the motivations for going in. ...
When you go into an intervention like Somalia for no real good reason, but only
because of the fact that it makes you feel good, that's one thing. When you go
after the Taliban, go after Osama bin Laden, you're going after them for an
entirely different set of reasons. Your motivations, your intent and your
capabilities are much different.
In Afghanistan now, is there technology, military might, which we didn't
have in Somalia that might give us confidence that we will win?
There's a peculiar arrogance in the American military mindset that came out of
the Clinton years, which itself, I think, came out of Somalia, maybe even a
little bit of Desert Storm. We have somehow gotten ourselves into this mindset
in which we have a child-like faith in technology.
War really is not about technology. That [technology] gives you some of the
baseline tools. War is really about what one group of men does to another group
of men, and which one of those two groups has -- not only the technology, the
weapons -- but the will. And the will, the staying power, the endurance --
those are the things that determine the outcome of our wars.
And somehow, after Somalia, it was a very chastening experience. But then we
did the same thing when we got to Kosovo. We thought that we could achieve all
of these dramatic results by simply using our technology. We don't even have to
have any casualties. Those are very dangerous -- and I would argue very
strongly, false lessons -- to have learned from our experience, not merely in
Somalia, but indeed from Desert Storm.
If they are misapplied in Afghanistan, there is some reason for a very, very
great concern. This is not about technology. This is about waging war against a
very primitive people in one of the most remote, forbidding areas of the world.
It is not about technology; it is about the will, as it always has been.
Are there any signs from where you sit that the arrogance you have said is
in military culture hasn't quite been flushed from it?
You can even hear in the comments of the last several days, a certain
astonishment that the Taliban haven't given up power, that they are as tough as
they are --"Here we've been bombing them with great degrees of precision; they
haven't given up yet. They haven't surrendered Osama bin Laden."
When one thinks back to the lessons, not merely of Somalia, but indeed of the
1990s, then one has to understand that we have rather badly misapplied the
lessons of history by assuming that our technology will always save us from our
strategic and tactical miscalculations. Technology will not do that for you.
Technology is neutral. The electron doesn't care; it does not wear a uniform.
The only thing that you can do is to try and use your technology in a way that
will allow you to carry out your strategy. That also has to get tracked back to
what Clausewitz said it was, which is "the war, the people, and the army." If
you have got that trinity, then you win in war. If you don't, you lose. It's
Could Afghanistan be another sort of "ambush" for the U.S., as happened in
I think so. One of the things that the Taliban have been absolutely blunt in
saying to us was that they, at least, had absorbed the lessons from Somalia.
They understood that the United States lacked staying power. They understood
that the United States substituted technology for courage. They were the ones
that understood how the United States would simply fire Cruise missiles and
then declare a press conference, but when push came to shove, would cut and
The great tragedy of Somalia is that it was, given what those Rangers did, one
of the great feats of arms in American military history. Two congressional
Medals of Honor that were given out as a result of that -- guys that gave their
lives, laid down their lives willingly; 82 more that were wounded.
That is a classic definition of American courage. It is a classic example of
what the American fighting man is capable of doing. Because we withdrew those
troops under pressure, the lesson that was given to the rest of the world was
that the United States can be had. All you need to do is to shed their blood.
And if you do that, they'll cut and run.
And, unfortunately, that was also the pattern that followed for the balance of
the Clinton years. When we went into Bosnia, finally, we went in with a "zero
casualties" mindset very firmly fixed. When we went into Kosovo, we went in
from the standpoint of using solely air power to control a situation which was
inherently uncontrollable except on the ground. In my view, we prolonged that
conflict. In my view, we also did not have a credible way to end that conflict
until the Kosovo Liberation Army was capable of threatening the Serbs on the
So when one looks back at that legacy of the 1990s, there is an enormous amount
of misapplied lessons that we will have to overcome if we're going to return to
a fundamental understanding of what war is, and what war means. We are now in
the midst of it. And that education process has only just begun, not only for
the American people, but for the American military.
We know Aidid sort of sucked us into an ambush. But did bin Laden
effectively do that?
... Let's talk about targeting the leader. The thing that was critical as a
mistake in Somalia, that we dare not make again, is personalizing it to the
point that the only thing that we're doing is chasing Osama bin Laden. Every
time that the president, every time Mr. Rumsfeld has talked about this, they
have properly talked about the fact that our fight is not merely against Osama
bin Laden. The reason for that is that military forces usually do not go after
individual targets, even sometimes when they want to. The only time that we
have been able to do that has been with Manuel Noriega in Panama, one of the
world's smallest countries. ... and it still took us over a week to find him.
Every other time that we've tried to apprehend an individual leader, including
Mohammed Farah Aidid, or Saddam Hussein, or to this point, Osama bin Laden,
that's been unsuccessful. So that gets you very quickly into the second thing,
which is you've got to understand that you are fighting, not a hierarchy, but a
Even if we had found Mohammed Farah Aidid and replaced him, decapitated him --
because that was what our strategy had been in Desert Storm two years before --
you probably would not have liked very much whoever it was that instantly
replaced him. That's one of the features of dealing with a network. So we dare
not make that same mistake again in Afghanistan.
The Rangers themselves -- what are the limits, the sorts of things they can
and can't do?
Well, the Rangers are not all-powerful. Rangers, as valiant as they are, are
light infantry. You do not ask light infantry to go up against prepared
positions, heavy army, and all the things that we saw in the streets of
The one thing we have going for us right now in applying some of those lessons
to Afghanistan is the fact that we have got a very tight degree of teamwork, or
should have, between the forces that will be on the ground and those that will
be supporting them very directly from the air.
The stakes have been raised considerably. You dare not make any mistake in your
teamwork, simply because if you leave the light infantry on the ground, Special
Forces Rangers, whatever they are, then they'll likely to find themselves in
some situations in which the guerrillas and their superior knowledge of the
terrain, their long acclimatization to hardship and to the rigors of that
environment, those are likely to be decisive.
That's where you can turn technology into something that can be a combat
multiplier, to use the Pentagon jargon. Basically ... that can even the odds on
what is inherently a very unfair fight.
Bin Laden seems to have learned the lessons of Mogadishu and some of these
other places. He went on TV and said, "This proves the U.S. is a paper tiger."
Was that an astute conclusion?
One of the things that it proves is the fact that enemies can learn lessons.
And anyone that has watched the United States in its approach to war,
particularly over the last ten years, has learned that if you can defeat the
technology -- if you can defeat the American will -- then you have a chance. I
think that the Taliban right now are very much persuaded that they can find a
way to defeat our technology; keep the weapons well hidden in caves, in the
mosques, in the souks, in the bazaars.
Basically, you can wait this kind of an attack out. It's very unpleasant. But
if it's only from the air, it's not necessarily decisive, because at least to
this point the United States has not been willing to commit ground forces to
the kinds of attacks that the Taliban know would be required to actually root
They are determined to retain power. And until they see a lot more from us than
they've seen to this point, they're simply determined to wait us out.
What about bin Laden making these tapes and at one point saying, "I take
credit essentially for what happened in Somalia." Anything to that?
But reading some accounts, you get the feeling that there are all sorts of
forces operating in Somalia.
I don't think so. I think that was a local conflict. From all the evidence that
I've seen, or in fact, not seen -- much more to the point -- I think he is
simply claiming credit in retrospect for something that he really didn't have
very much to do with.
No actual linkages...
If it's there, I haven't seen it. I've talked to guys like Bob Oakley, Tony
Zini, who are probably a lot more knowledgeable about that than I am. But I
haven't seen it. I've looked at the Joint Staff archives when I was doing
research for my book; I didn't see it there either.
The main source material for your book were the after-action reports,
classified documents. What did you learn from them?
...What I found was that indeed they were the classic lessons of warfare. They
were the classic lessons from the American military style of warfare, in which
we have taken -- and ignored -- all of the wisdom, the accumulated wisdom, of
how to fight wars. We had simply assumed that "Gee, now everything was
different. We have technology. We have a new class of missions that have been
given to us by our political leadership. We can pretty much ignore all that
other stuff." In point of fact, you cannot.
If you go into this kind of a war and ignore the basic lessons of military
history, someone who maybe knows those lessons a little bit better than you do
will teach them to you in a way that you don't like. And indeed that was
exactly what we saw with Mohammed Farah Aidid.
My favorite part of FRONTLINE's film ("Ambush in Mogadishu") was when General
Zini recounted how Mohammed Farah Aidid had simply told him, "We knew where we
were. We knew we had to meet. We knew with your technology that you could
probably tell where we were. So all we did was to knock down one of your
helicopters, because we knew which way you would have to come."
And again--"We knew where you were, we knew where we were, we knew where we
could take you on"--that is something that Geronimo would have understood
immediately and instinctively.
So we have this interesting way of forgetting some very, very old lessons. And
I hope that, at the end of the day, what we will have seen from our experience
in Somalia and possibly even with this film is that we have not merely
identified the lessons of Somalia; that we have indeed learned them.
As a result of the Somalia failure, within the military, was there anything
substantially that they did in commissioning a new unit, or changing tactics?
The major lesson that was learned out of Somalia was the fact that we simply
could not go at this new class of missions, and ever afford to forget who and
what we were as a force that was primarily intended to fight wars. And there
was a tension throughout the balance of the 1990s that began in Somalia between
the peacekeeping and the war-fighting aspects of what we were now being asked
If there is one thing that I think that that experience will allow us to profit
from, it is the fact that when you come to something like Afghanistan, you have
to in some sense do not only the war fighting, but the humanitarian side
You're now dealing with a problem of refugees. You're now dealing with the
problem of winning over the allegiance of people that really have very little
reason to trust the United States, who, in fact, remember that we sold them out
after they had done our bidding in going up against the Soviets during their
occupation of Afghanistan.
So in some sense, the peacekeeping experience that we had in the 1990s
--although it corrupted various elements of our military culture, particularly
the zero casualties problem, which led to inevitably micro-management and zero
defects, which are terribly corrosive of the core military values of sacrifice
and initiative -- we have to unlearn those lessons.
But the one thing that I think that we can probably take away from the
experience of peacekeeping is the fact that we were able to extend that to the
NATO alliance, very successfully, in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO is now a very much
more vibrant and more relevant force, simply because of the fact that we did in
Bosnia and Kosovo.
Summing up, what's the difference in comparing the Rangers in Somalia and
the Rangers today in Afghanistan?
Here's the difference between the Rangers in Somalia, and the Rangers in
Afghanistan. The Rangers in Somalia essentially were the ones who had to cash
the checks for political miscalculations which had occurred all the way back in
Washington, D.C. We had had a very imprecise idea of our strategy and our
objectives. It went from bad to worse. And eventually the American fighting man
paid that price on the soil of Mogadishu.
What we're doing right now in Afghanistan is not the result of miscalculation.
What we're doing in Afghanistan right now is the result of war in the
old-fashioned sense. Someone attacked you directly. He told you that he was
going to. He carried out the threat. Now he's waiting for you to either accept
that humiliation, or to come get him. And when it comes to going and getting
him, the Rangers are primarily and absolutely the best choice of the American
presidential leadership to say, "Go in and get him, and don't come back until
Tough orders to get, tough orders to give. But that's why we have the military,
and that's why we have this military.
(read the original Allard interview).