interviews: walter clarke

Clarke was the Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy between March and July 1993. He compiled the book Learning From Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Westview Press, 1997). He is currently Adjunct Professor of Peace Operations at the US Army's Peacekeeping Institute.

What was the American public seeing on TV, before President Bush took the decision to intervene in Somalia?

For several months the US public had been seeing a continuing series of films from Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia, showing children who were emaciated, old people who were clearly starving. The American public was really sensitized to doing something. And, of course, there was also Bosnia in the background.

What moved President Bush to make a move?

President Bush took the decision after the election. I'm convinced that he took it for honorable reasons . I think his desire was to be seen leaving office on a high note. He had received a great deal of criticism during the campaign on his seeming unresponsiveness to the situations in Bosnia and Somalia. And I think he chose Somalia because it looked like it was gonna be the easier of these two major humanitarian crisis.

What really motivates a politician in this situation? Is President Bush -- like the American public -- moved by the pictures he sees on TV? Is this enough of a reason to formulate foreign policy?

Well I think he would have to be responsive to that. He is a sensitive man, and as President I'm sure he did agonise over these issues and of course the fact that members of Congress -- one or two of them had actually visited Somalia, during the period after we began our airlift of food from Mombasa into Somalia -- he could not have ignored all of that.

Why should Americans be involved in this?

Well we'd been very deeply involved in the horn of Africa. We had made a large investment in Northern Somalia, and we had certainly used Somalia as an important pawn during the cold war, I don't think that most people in Washington, certainly on the policy side, could have ignored the fact that Siad Barre was about to visit Washington back in 1987. When people discovered that his forces had killed tens of thousands of people in Habr Gidr. So there was a consciousness about Somalia. In addition, I don't think that people in 1992 were entirely certain that the Cold War was really over, and so there were a lot of considerations that went into that.

What caused the famine?

There are many theories about what caused the famine. Clearly there had been a drought, there had been an unsuccessful crop year in the southern valleys back in 1990 and '91, but I think that the food was being used as a weapon and many of the refugees if not most of the refugees are displaced persons to use the proper term. In the south of and west of Mogadishu were people who had previously lived in Mogadishu and in fact, one way of ensuring that the starving Marra on would not come back into the city of course was to keep them hungry. And this was a theme that I heard a lot during my time -- let's not have the displaced persons come back into Mogadishu quite yet.

Was there a genuine shortage of food in Somalia at the time?

Probably not. It was our view at the time, and I think it was later borne out by what we saw on the ground, that a lot of the food was actually being held at warehouses in Mogadishu. I know that many of the people who were involved in planning the operation conceived of it largely as opening the warehouses and then getting the food out to the camps.

And what was stopping the food being distributed?

Well I think it was for purely political reasons, the warlords in Mogadishu, particularly Mohammad Farah Aidid, did not want the refugees and displaced persons to be fed. This was a way of ensuring that they would not come back and regain their properties which had been taken from them. Everyone I think agreed in Somalia that the people who had supported Siad Barre in a way deserved to be punished, and so there were a lot of conflicting and contributing factors in this.

Admiral Howe. Tell me briefly who he was and what President Bush did with him.

Admiral Howe had been the Deputy Director of the National Security Council at the end of the Bush Administration. He had been much involved in planning the operation. He was selected, in my view, because he was believed to be one of the highly skilled managers within the military, although he had retired by that time. And I think that he went out there with the idea, which the Bush administration had, which was the main problem in peace operations was management. And this caused I think the focus to be on having a professional manager at the head of that operation.

But you can't really take politics out of such an operation can you?

No, I think that Admiral Howe was in a situation where the tools available to him really didn't give him the answers [though] I'm not so sure he was asking all the right questions. When he arrived, I spent a lot of time with him and his staff trying to identify what were the levers, what were the political tools which were available, hoping that we could develop some kind of political focus.

But he didn't want to get drawn into politics.

Professional military people, by their training, are not interested so much in politics. They're trained from their first day as junior officers to stay out of -- they're fighters, they're not politicians. There are three things that have been continually brought to my attention that the military don't like. What I call the three P's. And that's policework, politics, and peacekeeping.

That's what the US military want to keep out of.

And that basically is the mind-set of many people still in the US military who are focusing on being war fighters and who feel that when they become engaged in peacekeeping it detracts from their proficiency.

Tell me about your arrival. What was the scene when you came in?

I arrived on the 4th of March in 1993 as it happened the day after Ambassador Oakley had left. I was met by his deputy who I was replacing, John Hirsch. I was taken from the airport to the oil compound that had been rented for use of our liaison office. I had barely put my bags down in my room when I was taken off to meet with Mohammad Farah Aidid. This seemed to be a regular routine for the Embassy liaison office staff, and in fact during the first four days I was there, I was in his office on three occasions.

Describe Aidid to me. Where was he living? Was he surrounded by guards? What was the atmosphere like?

Aidid's headquarters was about 200 yards from where we were staying. Just up the road. Surrounded by guards and a wall with a gate that controlled access. He met us, very kindly, clearly he knew my predecessor. He was a very powerful man.

I found him to be rather charismatic, at the same time I found him rather devious, clearly somebody with a very high opinion of his role. He of course gained a great deal of credibility during the period of UNITAF. He'd been treated by many people, not just the Americans, as almost a de facto president of the country, although as far as I knew he was only president of Southern Mogadishu.

My view of the man is that -- here's a man who clearly is going to be someone we're gonna have to deal with. I felt at the same time certainly by my third meeting that we may have been overdoing our close relationship with the gentleman. But as it happened, and I thought it rather fortuitous in some ways, he left the country to go to some meetings at Addis Ababa, and he didn't come back to Mogadishu for about six more weeks, during which time we had opportunities to meet many other people and including many people from his clan. He did not come back until the end of April of 1993 and after that the nature of the relationship was not the same.

How did Aidid get to be who he was? And is warlord or clan leader a good way to describe him?

Aidid had been selected by his clan as a warleader. This is quite usual within Somali culture where their political leadership and their military leadership will often be different people. Now the man who had selected him [who was] the political leader -- and frankly I've forgotten his name -- died in a Rome hospital in '91. And after that Aidid became more or less the de facto political leader at the same time. His forces had of course come from the central region. Many of them were herdsmen, nomads who had been involved in the drought and had lost their flocks, and are ready for battle if you will. Certainly providing grist for his army and this was not a professional salaried military that it formed. It was miscellaneous armed people and they were promised booty and the booty in fact was found in Southern Mogadishu. And many of them had settled into the houses that I was speaking about earlier and they wanted to stay. They had at least a place, a roof over their heads. And of course much of the civil war in Mogadishu in 1991 and '92 in which 35,000 people -- mostly non-combatants had been killed-- was due to the desire of Ali Mahdi the man who ran North Mogadishu and Mohammad Farah Aidid in Southern Mogadishu to extend their range of properties if you will. I thought that Aidid was going to probably be an adversary.

Why did you feel that so soon? In the first four days you said you met him three times and yet by the end of that 4th day, you already had a bad feeling about him.

Well, I did not see that he was focused frankly on returning to any kind of normalcy. You know every peace operation tends to begin as a humanitarian disaster. You can focus on the political origins of the humanitarian disaster after the people have been fed and certainly by March people were being fed. And after my discussions with him I could not see that he had any interest in normalcy. His view was continuing conflict until frankly he owned all of Somalia.

He thought that the peacekeeping operation would effectively get in the way of his war?

Well I think in plain military terms the area which had been occupied by the various contingents in the UNITAF and later by the UNOSOM too, cut off his internal lines of communication. They tended to slow down his incursions into areas they did not yet control, he was not able to move his technicals which had been taken off the streets very early in the operation and as a result, I think he tended to look at the UNITAF period as a period for putting his force together, restoring some of his units, but certainly in preparation for other events after UNITAF had gone.

So in other words he regarded the initial UN intervention as a chance to build up and prepare for the next phase of the war?

Well I think he would have had to, because we announced at the outset we weren't going to be there very long. And I think he was genuinely afraid of confronting the US Marines and the US army 10th Mountain Division representatives who were there. He simply, I think, was waiting to attack once the stronger force had gone.

So once the Americans are gone, he's gonna go back to war.

Well obviously the fact that UNOSOM continued in there was an inconvenience to him. But it was a less cohesive force. It was not a force which had really ever had an opportunity to train together. If he was going to get the UN out of there, which I think was clearly one of his objectives, he was going to have to take some actions.

What was the point do you think at which Aidid decided that he actually wanted to get the UN/US out?

Well, despite his efforts, life was beginning to look more normal in Mogadishu. Tradesmen were back at work. There were initiatives being taken by NGOs and others to set up trading schools and things like that. So life was coming back to normal, and if you're a warlord, perhaps uncertain of what your real popularity is, normalcy is the enemy.

The intelligence sources that you'd obviously developed over there -- you began to get some rather ominous indicators didn't you? What did you hear?

During the month of May we were getting conflicting intelligence [about] what the overall intentions that Aidid had. Clearly he was planning something. I guess it was about the middle of month when we got some very good information that in fact, Aidid was debating within his group the advantages that might come from assassinating a member of our Embassy staff.

And naturally we were alarmed by this but we were very well-guarded by the US Marines and we didn't think that we were necessarily in any direct danger, although obviously we were already taking every precaution.

What did he hope to gain from that?

I think Aidid clearly looked upon us as people who were causing him some difficulties. We had been able to develop relations with other members of his group. I was meeting regularly with a group of Somali elders. We were trying to have many sources.

There were other things that were going on that may have been disturbing to Aidid and his group. We had a suggestion being brought to our attention by a Somali NGO closely attached to his clan, who in fact had come to us with a very good idea to try to get these teenagers with guns off the streets. They had suggested that from their analysis of the situation the best way to get 'em off the streets was to get 'em into school. And they provided us with some ideas on how that might be achieved. This was simply indicative in my view [that] the normal people in Somalia were beginning to have their voices heard.

We tended in the Embassy or the liaison office to look at the Somalis as two major groups. You had the warlords, you had the normal people. And the normal people clearly were working toward objectives which would have caused Aidid difficulties.

On June the 5th -- describe briefly the two ambushes that happened.

Well, the attack at the radio station which started about 9:45, as evidenced by the gunfire, took place after a Pakistani company had investigated the radio station and were in fact leaving the compound. The other attack which is even more grievous and I think there can be no confusion about, is the fact that they had selected a feeding site -- as I recall feeding site 50 which was located a couple of miles away from the radio station -- and they'd simply mowed down the Pakistani soldiers who were delivering food. They were lightly armed, they were under fire for several hours. Every member of that group of Paks was either killed or seriously wounded. And very clearly the intention was to try to break the Pakistani force which was then the one with control responsibilities in Mogadishu.

How many people were killed at the radio station?

12 of the Pakistanis were killed at the radio station, and 12 others at the feeding site. The deaths were bad enough but this was a particularly bloody planned series of ambushes There were 94 soldiers wounded, and I believe that a third of them had permanent injuries, loss of limbs, blindness etc. It was meant to be a message in my view and I thought that the message was not to the Pakistani government so much as it was to my government.

And what conclusion did you draw from these two events -- coincidence?

I think there was no coincidence the whole city blew up at the same time -- at least the Southern part of Mogadishu blew up at 9:45. And telephone poles were down blocking the streets, there were bonfires in various areas, there was gunfire brought against UN groups all over the city. Very clearly we were at war.

So Aidid made his big move.

Aidid had the opportunity to finally rid himself of the international presence. He had the time and he tried to obscure the issue by focusing on the radio station. Perhaps we were unwise in that part, giving him that cover story but essentially it was Aidid's initiative.

The decision is taken now to get Aidid. Who takes the decision?

The decision to get Aidid was not taken in Mogadishu, although we had no difficulty understanding it. There was a special session of the Security Council on that Sunday which would have been the sixth of June and perhaps in an over-rushed judgement, there was in fact a resolution, I think it was 834, which did not condemn Aidid by name, but condemned those people who'd attacked the UN forces. And they called for these people to be brought to justice.

The meeting had been called by the Pakistani government. I don't know who was responsible for the actual text of the resolution -- but a resolution was quickly passed condemning those people who had attacked the United Nations. Aidid was not mentioned by name but it was clear to everyone who the resolution was directed against. How to implement that was more difficult.

Whose decision was that then?

Well the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General was Admiral Howe. It would have been his responsibility to carry out the Security Council resolution. And as it happened, the fact that the Pakistanis had been the focus of the attack on the 5th of June caused them to stop some of their night-time patrolling and to cut back on their daytime repo as well. And as it happened the force which was the most capable of carrying out the terms of the resolution was the US Quick Reaction Force.

So, would Admiral Howe have cleared that decision with the White House? Or was Howe effectively the person to make the decision?

Well Admiral Howe would not have the command and control over US troops. At that time in Somalia it would have been through the US central command in Tampa. And the US Force Commander would have referred the matter back to Tampa and Tampa obviously would have then gone to Washington.

Part of the problem of this whole event is this complicated chain of command.

Just for my own clarification -- the UN passed a resolution, Admiral Howe is effectively the UN Commander who said, "that means get Aidid," or is somebody else making that decision? Who makes the interpretation that,'get the people responsible for that...' then becomes, 'get Aidid.'

Well there was no mystery in Mogadishu who was behind the ambushes, and to carry out the resolution then, you have to go after the person who would have ordered that. Which would have been Aidid. The man in charge of the UN operation was Jonathan Howe. So he made that decision.

And at what point were the Rangers brought into the picture?

Well this happened of course after I had gone. But there was a desire to bring a supplementary force, which was better able to carry out clandestine operations -- which could find out some way or another to get Aidid, as you say. And the US Rangers seemed to be the right unit. Of course, here you get into an additional problem of command and control, in the sense that the Special Operations command, which was sort of across the street in Tampa, still has its main headquarters in Fort Bragg. So you had yet another channel being opened.

How did Aidid's forces get the idea of how to down the helicopters?

Well, we owned the air. This was our great advantage during the early months of the operation. And the only way that they were able to take away the air superiority that we had was to study the tactics of helicopters. Helicopters fly at night. They fly without lights, but after they've fired and set fires on the ground, the flames are reflected on the bottom of the helicopters.

So they got the idea that if we start firing -- I guess it was the RPGs or rocket propelled grenades which were the most popular form of fire power in Mogadishu in 1993 -- if you fire enough of those toward the helicopters you're gonna take one down and they did. And of course this was the technique that they used on the night of October 3 and 4 to attack the helicopters bringing in the initial force as well as the rescue forces that followed.

You said 'on the night' but the actual raid was daytime.

Well the raid began in daytime but the support to that operation continued during the night, so that anybody going into that fire zone during the night of October 3-4 was really in great danger.

Aidid effectively laid a double ambush for the Pakistanis back in June. In your judgement, did the Rangers actually stumble into what was in effect a pre-set ambush?

I don't think so. It illustrated that Aidid's people had reached a level of preparedness that they were able to respond quickly to an operation into the center of their neighborhood. [It was] I think based on the confidence that had been built up by their previous successes using the RPGs against helicopters.

They had succeeded in bringing down two of them.

That's right.

So in your interpretation, what happened was that there was a genuine intelligence tip, the Rangers moved on it, and Aidid' s militia were able to just mobilize fast.

Well I think that clearly there had been previous raids, the Rangers had been quite active and this was I guess a strategic objective they could have perhaps judged in advance that it would be a prospective target. But, given the secrecy of the operation I can't imagine that the Somalis would have been clever enough to have known about it and had been able to set themselves up, they obviously were able to respond quickly.

The target was Aidid wasn't it?

Well, of course, under the presidential order which has now been contended by a number of presidents, we don't target individuals. But I think implicitly you can imagine that, well, certainly the main target of any raid would have been to take Aidid alive, or whatever the occasion would have presented. But it was the view that Aidid was the leader and he was the prime target.

In reviewing the operation what's its effect on US policy? Has it been an inhibiting factor?

Oh, I think so. The ghosts of Somalia continued to haunt US policy. We have two presidential orders that deal with these matters, the first one was clearly written in the shadow of Somalia. More recently we're now working harder to be able to get our policies together, domestically, but I would say that in general we are still not at a point where we can respond in a proper fashion, covering the real scope of the peace operation.

In specific terms what international crises were affected by the Mogadishu effect?

Well, in 1994, clearly our lack of response in Rwanda was a fear of getting involved in something like a Somalia all over again. And we spent the summer of '94 quarrelling amongst ourselves as to redefining genocide. The Haitian operation, I think, utilized some good lessons from Somalia. There the relationships between the military and the non-governmental agencies went, I think, quite well. There was a genuine effort to move from the humanitarian to the rehabilitation. The Bosnian intervention is to me, as a student of peacekeeping, a bizarre one because there the Dayton Accords tried to make rigid separation between the humanitarian and the political and the military.

What are the lessons that people have drawn from this whole thing? They've drawn different lessons; some people say it's an example of mission creep...

Well, I don't like mission creep as a term. It has crept in the back door of US military doctrine in the recent years and it means many things to many people. To me, mission creep means there are things out there we don't want to do. And if we have to do them, it's called mission creep. But it can mean we haven't trained to do these particular jobs. It can mean such things as, 'I'm tired and I want to go home,' which was, I think, how mission creep began to be understood in Somalia when I was there. It's an inexact term and I really dislike it.

British and French military officers in particular talk about 'the Mogadishu line.'

Well, of course, the person who made that expression famous was Sir Michael Rose when he was in command in Bosnia. I read that as meaning that he was trying to avoid becoming involved in the problems between groups in Bosnia. I think that he hued to the traditional notions of impartiality and neutrality which are explicit in the UN charter but I don't believe are applicable in situations like Bosnia, at least neutrality. I think we have to apply resolutions impartially, but you can't be neutral in the face of genocide and things like that.

The other criticism is that in effect the US became drawn into one side of a civil war. It ended up effectively fighting on behalf of one faction against another in Somalia.

Well, I'm not so sure that's the way it was. We got drawn into a conflict that the adversary himself had chosen. I don't think that you could say that we were fighting for any other particular clan... clearly, when we get drawn into a situation where we're fighting somebody else's war for them, as you could, say, in Somalia, that's a very bad thing. And clearly this is something that we must avoid... I believe that you must plan your operation in such a way, that you do not end up fighting somebody else's war.

But you don't think that happened in Somalia?

Well, we ended up in a war with someone who had killed members of the UN force. Other clans might have gained some benefits from this, but we were not certainly fighting for them.

In the end you judge this whole thing a success or a failure?

In my view Somalia was not a military failure, it was a well-run military operation, but which had no political focus. It was a failed political military operation.

Explain what you mean by that.

In a traditional warfare, you bring force against force. One side will win and one side will normally lose. If you get into a peace operation, it's a political military operation, it's a humanitarian battlefield where the real enemies are gonna be things like impure water, disease, fear, insecurity, displacement and all of that.

And that's the way these operations ought to be planned. In the case of Somalia, we didn't even focus on the immediate threats other than food. We certainly never focused on the longer-term political concerns of the country. After all, it began as a political problem, we became interested in it during the humanitarian period and we certainly were not focusing beyond that point.

You are someone who is still involved, in a sense, trying to draw the lessons from Somalia, you're actively involved in programs I think with the military and so on. In broad terms what are you trying to achieve?

Well, I've never been in the military. I've been very fortunate in my diplomatic career, to have had two assignments one to the Naval War College, one to the Army War College. On the basis of having been in Somalia where I was enormously frustrated, I decided in my retirement days that I would work with the military to bring more focus onto the political side of political military operations. I don't tell them how to fight their wars. But I do try to give them some tools so they can understand the political side.

Is it fair to say that maybe the very end of this century -- beginning of next -- it will be more like the end of the last century and we will be facing a multitude of small colonial actions rather than the big setpiece wars?

Well I hope they're not viewed as colonial actions. I know that people who lose out in these things tend to accuse the UN of being involved in recolonisation or whatever, but that's bunk. In my view, the world has to develop some doctrine for its own intervention. I think that the lack of rules is a real problem. We're still using the tools of the Cold War, which is based on a UN charter which was developed really to solve the problems of the 1920s-'30s, when it was state against state. We don't have any tools really available for conflicts within states.

To return to the question I asked you before, why is it America's problem? Why should America be involved?

America has to be involved. I don't think we have to be involved in every crisis, because complex emergencies are proliferating. During the Cold War period there were 3 or 4 a year -- complex humanitarian emergencies. We're now averaging 16 or 17 a year. We have to be able to respond when our consciences tell us we must. And often that conscience will be determined by the media, but we cannot look out at starving kids and old folks and women weeping over the bodies of their husbands and children without having some kind of a response. We are a world community. And the US is the principal player, certainly in terms of power extension. We have the capability; we can't stand by and let the world go down the drain.

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