learning from aidid...
navigation Learning from Aidid; Military Strategy of Mohammed Farah Aidid in Somalia; When, Where and How to Use Force by A.J. Bacevich, professor of International Relations at Boston University Commentary, December, 1993 [Reprinted from Commentary, December 1993, by permission; all rights reserved.

They are a study in contrasts. The one goes by the title of President, but in appearance and manner is the very model--if not the parody--of a modern field marshal. It is all there: the Western-style battle dress, the beret, the epaulets, the ceremonial sidearm, the bushy mustache above stiff upper lip that would win approval in any regimental mess, even the entourage of similarly outfitted staff officers and sycophants hovering respectfully nearby.

The other styles himself General, but makes little apparent effort to look the part, his standard "uniform" consisting of slacks and an open-collar, civilian shirt. His public persona is suggestive less of a warrior than of some political hopeful running for election to the city council, his appearances on the front page of our newspapers typically taking place against a backdrop of cheering constituents. His most prominent feature is a seemingly affable grin--incongruous and disconcerting in that his machinations seldom inspire mirth.

Appearances deceive. In this instance, appearances belie expectations. Which of these two individuals--Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Farah Aidid--is likely to possess the greater military acumen? Billed as a formidable opponent, Saddam turned out to be a pushover. Contemptuously labeled a "warlord" or "thug," Aidid has caused the United States no end of consternation and embarrassment. With all due respect to the ghost of General George S. Patton, sartorial splendor would seem to be a poor predictor of generalship.

Yet the deeper deception--self-deception, really--derives from the conclusions drawn from America's successive encounters with these two adversaries, who in confronting the world's only superpower employed vastly different methods to vastly different effect. With the one, America's encounter was a smashing success; with the other, a minor but frustrating failure. Together, they have distorted our understanding of what war is or is becoming. They have confused Americans about the role of force in international politics. And as a result, they have thrown American military policy into disarray.

II

SADDAM HUSSEIN did more than conform to preconceived American notions of how a "real" enemy should look; his whole approach to warfare reinforced established American views of the proper character and rhythms of war. Just as Saddam affected Western-style battle dress, so did he mimic the standing conventions of combat between modern industrialized states.

Consistent with the age-old faith in big battalions, Saddam weighed his forces down with Soviet-style fleets of tanks, fighter bombers, and guided missiles. He organized and trained his legions (albeit to indifferent standards of proficiency) in accordance with precepts common to mechanized armies going back to World War II. He even initiated hostilities in the manner expected of a dastardly adversary: with an act of brazen aggression.

Yet, having thus boldly seized the initiative, Saddam obligingly allowed the United States and its allies six unencumbered months in which to reclaim it. He ordered his forces to sit idly in the desert while the American-led coalition mustered its forces--equally laden with tanks and fighter bombers and guided missiles--for a massive counteroffensive aimed at liberating Kuwait. The coalition's success in bringing this episode to a rapid and decisive conclusion dazzled the world. Dazzled in something like a literal sense: Americans themselves found it difficult to gauge accurately the factors contributing to the outcome of Desert Storm. That Saddam's own bungling had contributed mightily to his defeat was noted only to be dismissed. A victory so complete, so one-sided, and so sudden required an explanation more compelling than an inept opponent.

Military analysts discovered that explanation in a concept borrowed from a most unlikely source: Soviet military theory. American performance in the Gulf war, these experts determined, portended the arrival of an entirely new approach to warfare, an approach made possible by what the Soviets termed a military-technical revolution (MTR). Although this technology-driven revolution had been under way for some time--as evidenced, for example, by advances in long-range precision weapons, in surveillance and target-acquisition capabilities, and in the military application of computers--it took the showdown with Saddam Hussein to reveal its true scope.

What were the implications of this phenomenon? In short order, discerning an answer to that question became a cottage industry, particularly in the rarefied circles inhabited by Washington's national-security elites. Among the effusions to which this effort gave birth, a report entitled The Military Technical Revolution, issued by the highly respected Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, may be taken as representative.

The product of extensive deliberations by over 75 outside experts," the CSIS report heralds Desert Storm as a portent of things to come. In this one brief, spectacular campaign it divines a template for all future combat. Realizing the MTR's full potential will mean, quite simply, that the face of battle and the nature of warfare will both be completely transformed." Nor will this event be long in coming. By the first decade of the 21st century, according to CSIS, warfare "will look very little like it does today."

IN DESCRIBING the essence of this new style of warfare, the CSIS report generates a fair amount of balderdash: "The MTR is about integration, synergy, and flexibility"; "the MTR is a holistic phenomenon"; the MTR "may boil down to two fundamental effects: tempo and psychology"; "the heart of the MTR is information"; and so on.

On two points, however, the report is emphatic. First, for the foreseeable future, "only the United States has the capability to achieve the MTR." Second, as Desert Storm's low-cost, lightning victory seemed to promise, this revolution in military affairs expands the utility of force. The military-technical revolution will provide American political leaders with an instrument possessing broader application while easing the constraints--notably the prospect of heavy casualties and widespread collateral damage--that heretofore have limited the willingness of democratic societies to use force.

By exploiting the promise of this revolution, the report concludes, U.S. leaders will be increasingly free to conduct such operations without assuming massive risks. The MTR will render the military instrument more effective by reducing the costs of military operations, both to the United States and to its adversaries, and will thereby help mitigate the constraints on military operations imposed by media coverage and public opinion. The language may not be crisp, but the implications are clear: the MTR will free the United States to employ force not simply as a last resort--responding to outrages perpetrated by the likes of Saddam Hussein--but in pursuit of more positive goals.

In short, according to the experts convened by CSIS, the MTR endows the United States--and the United States alone--with the ability to use military power to shape the future political order.

To be fair, the CSIS experts describe the military-technical revolution as still in the process of being realized. Yet, as the "lessons" of Desert Storm worked their way into elite and then into mainstream opinion, such distinctions were soon lost. Confidence in American military superiority became so pronounced that the capabilities foreseen by MTR's prophets acquired the sheen of accomplished fact.

Because such thinking discounted the peculiarly favorable circumstances of the Gulf war--circumstances as much, or more, the product of Saddam's bungling as of American genius--a belief took hold that the "troops" could accomplish almost anything. In the wake of the Gulf war, this perception opened the door to a rush of new American military undertakings. Viewed as a whole, it is the widely divergent character of these tasks that is striking: delivering humanitarian relief (Operation "Provide Comfort"); rebuilding shattered nations (Somalia); deterring the spread of ethnic violence (Macedonia); unseating oppressive regimes (Haiti); protecting minorities (Kurds and Shiites); and parceling out retribution from afar (Iraq)--not to mention proposals too numerous to count for military intervention in Bosnia.

Few of these initiatives were anchored in any prudent calculation of American strategic interests. Rather, as many observers have noted, things were done largely in response to some uproar in the media. But in any case, there was no particular reason not to do them. What was there to lose?

III

ENTER Mohammed Farah Aidid. Whether the Somali leader ever had occasion to contemplate the wisdom proffered by CSIS, the display of American military might in the Gulf war can hardly have failed to impress him. Yet whatever thought Aidid might have given to theories of a military-technical revolution, he remained unintimidated. Contrary to the expectations of many American policy-makers, Aidid did not take to heart the lesson administered to Saddam Hussein and behave accordingly.

As a military commander, Aidid appears to have had one great insight: unlike Saddam, he knew that to play your enemy's game is the height of folly. On the other hand, to engage your opponent on terms that emphasize your own strengths and expose his weaknesses is to gain a priceless advantage. Too few generals have grasped this seemingly simple idea. Grant understood it; Lee refused to acknowledge it, and led the Confederacy to exhaustion and collapse. In Vietnam, Ho and Giap understood it; French military leaders of the 1950's and Americans in the 1960's did not, and suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of a nominally weaker power. To be sure, properly applying this insight to the amalgam of circumstances bearing on a particular conflict is far easier to do after the fact than before. But doing so is a mark of true generalship.

Saddam had challenged the United States on terms that could hardly have been less conducive to his own success. It was war in the preferred American style: a high-tech, high-firepower encounter conducted (for the most part) on a battlefield remote from large civilian populations, in which combatants and noncombatants were (for the most part) clearly differentiated, and where the operational goal--liberating Kuwait--had the virtue of being limited and unambiguous.

The terms under which Aidid took on the United States were quite different. For starters, his chosen terrain was urban--a complex and congested environment as alien to American forces as it was intimately familiar to Aidid's supporters. The technology that had given rise to speculation about a revolution in military affairs proved ineffective, if not counterproductive, for close-in urban warfare. By the time Americans resorted to the use of anti-tank guided missiles to root out snipers, it had become apparent that the firepower which had demolished the Iraqi Republican Guards was ill-suited to the streets of Mogadishu. As American attack helicopters took to dispersing crowds of angry Somalis by spraying them with the fire of 20-millimeter cannon, the large numbers of dead and wounded--many of them women and children--suggested that the Gulf war's promise of a style of fighting minimizing noncombatant casualties was a long way from fulfillment.

But all that was nothing compared to the astuteness with which Aidid identified the American "center of gravity"--the point at which Americans are most vulnerable, against which a successful blow will likely have a decisive effect. As is now readily apparent, that point is the new American sensitivity to casualties, a sensitivity as pervasive as it is acute.

No doubt many factors contribute to this sensitivity, not least of them the trauma of Vietnam and even the personal history of the incumbent commander-in-chief But the main factor is the Gulf war itself, and the expectations inspired by that conflict. As the CSIS report suggests, at the very heart of the military-technical revolution lies the belief that American military power can hence forth achieve success without significant loss of American life. That expectation has become a bulls-eye painted on the chest of every G.I. sent into harm's way.

It was Aidid's genius to seize upon this sensitivity, to orchestrate a campaign in which technological superiority counted for little and in which it would be only a matter of time before a minor reverse laid open the flaws of recent American thinking about war. The bloody firefight of October 3 did just that.

Aidid's reward was not long in coming: the Clinton administration promptly signaled its intention of surrendering the field to the Somali warlord as rapidly as a semi-respectable withdrawal could be arranged. That American military power could destroy Aidid and all his henchmen--could obliterate the entire city of Mogadishu, for that matter--was beside the point. The United States would not do so. Having inflicted approximately 100 casualties on the American forces deployed to Somalia, Aidid had won a victory that by any definition of the term was decisive.

IV

WHAT are the implications of this defeat? Many analysts worry that the setback in Somalia will seriously undermine American military credibility. Whether that will be the case remains to be seen. Much depends on how the Clinton administration manages the details of disengagement, and how it responds to subsequent crises. (Haiti comes immediately to mind.)

In some respects, however, the fallout from Somalia may even be positive. Among other things, the American encounter with Aidid might--indeed, should--accelerate the pace of Gulf-war revisionism. Did Desert Storm give us a glimpse of the future of warfare? Or was the conflict there a splendid anachronism, a style of warfare approaching obsolescence, if now finally done right? Is Somalia an unpleasant throwback to the colonial wars of the previous century? Or does it hint at a type of conflict that will continue to proliferate in the post-cold-war era?

In considering these questions, we cannot remind ourselves too frequently that by its very nature, warfare is rooted in politics. Just so, the continuing evolution of war will be driven by political as much as by technological developments. The world today is entering into a period of profound political transformation; any nation fancying that a corner on the market of leading-edge technology will give it a military mastery that effectively transcends politics is setting itself up for disappointment. Indeed, such a nation ventures forth into an unruly world at its peril.

Somalia provides the United States with a sharp reminder of what that peril entails. The fighting in Somalia has had little to do with the stakes over which wars have been waged since time immemorial--preserving sovereignty, controlling critical resources, extending spheres of influence, or seizing strategically vital terrain. It has had everything to do with ethnic identity, culture, history, and the rivalry of unsavory local elites vying for the privilege of picking over the remains of their pathetic quasi-state. In this regard, the Somali conflict shows a marked similarity to the brutal and murky conflicts convulsing many other societies of late. Events in Mogadishu--like recent events in Moscow, Sarajevo, Belfast, Monrovia, Port-au-Prince, and perhaps even at New York's World Trade Center--suggest that it is no longer the desert or the steppe or the pampas that forms the cockpit of struggle. Instead, the use of violence to achieve political aims is increasingly an urban phenomenon.

Furthermore, as the fighting in Mogadishu and elsewhere suggests, when war erupts in the streets, distinctions between combatants and noncombatants become blurred, chivalrous "rules" of warfare go by the board, methods appropriate to winning air superiority or targeting armored columns prove of limited utility, and relatively crude hardware--mines, mortars, and small arms--is employed with telling effect. Such conflicts are seldom susceptible of rapid resolution. Where they are concerned, the finesse and expertise that are the hallmarks of modern military professionalism count for less than persistence and pure bloody-mindedness. He who refuses to quit wins--eventually.

Thus, the expedition inaptly named Restore Hope can hardly be said to point the way toward a future in which "U.S. leaders will be increasingly free to conduct such operations," as the CSIS report hopefully predicted. Nor are such conflicts likely to loosen "the constraints on military operations imposed by media coverage and public opinion." Far from it. Absent clearly stated objectives and a persuasive rationale pointing to substantial American interests at stake, the firstsign of trouble will provoke a public backlash, a prospect that increases dramatically the political risk of such undertakings.

So if General Aidid has deflated some of the wilder expectations derived from Desert Storm, it may be just as well. The painful lesson he has taught the United States will remain a useful one. The lost battle for Mogadishu has shattered the dangerous illusion that the American military prowess displayed in the desert foretold an era of war without the shedding of American or civilian blood, an era in which American military might would guarantee political order. Americans have learned again what they should never have forgotten: that to resort to arms is a proposition fraught with uncertainty.

The lesson of Somalia is not that the United States must avoid conflicts of that type at all costs. Rather, Somalia reminds us yet again that for even a small war, clarity of purpose, resolution, and willingness to sacrifice are prerequisites of victory. Any adversary worthy of the namewill bring as much to the battlefield. No revolution in warfare can guarantee success on the cheap.

The errors and oversights that led to the debacle in Somalia are mostly attributable to Washington. For those errors, young American soldiers paid the price. This is as usual. We can only hope that in helping to restore some sense of realism to American military policy, those sacrifices may yet be redeemed.



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