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Iraq: the lesson from Somalia

About the author
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer.

The United States government bypassed the United Nations during the war in Iraq. Now, it is desperate to internationalise its military operation. Before the UN signs anything, its members should recall the UN/US military operation in Somalia in 1992-95.

Even if the US continues to operate in Iraq and retains the command and control of the proposed multinational forces, any troops sent to Iraq could hardly avoid being stigmatised as American allies by the Iraqi militias.

Moreover, against the background of relentless guerrilla attacks from the Iraqis, how would the US be able to create unity, confidence and strong coordination among troops from at least a dozen countries, with different background, training, religion, language, colour, behaviour, experience and objectives?

This is the first lesson of the US/UN military operation in Somalia between 1992-1995. There, troops from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nepal, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and other ‘third world’ nations became easy targets for the Somali militias. And Iraqis are better equipped than the Somalis were.

The Somali precedent

The Somali experience suggests that the Iraqi prospect would be even more catastrophic if Washington decided to leave Iraq once other countries had brought in troops. Before the US withdrawal in March 1994, there was little confrontation between the Somali militiamen and UN soldiers from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Australia and Botswana. Indeed, troops from Bangladesh and Norway were so friendly with the Somalis that each had lost only one soldier, in car accidents, during the whole, twenty-seven month operation.

When a German trooper shot and killed a Somali intruder trying to break into a fuel depot, the German government issued a full apology to the Somalis and announced that it was the first time that a German soldier has committed such killing since the formation of the West German Army in 1955.

But after the US withdrawal, the troops from the poorer countries had to face the entire burden of hostility left behind by the US. Having approved of decisions based on the interest of only one of its member states, the UN was left to suffer the consequences of those decisions. Should the UN approve the American proposal demanding an international force in Iraq, history could repeat itself in Iraq.

The legacy of “trigger-happy” US troops left the remaining United Nations Operation in Somalia (Unosom) troops vulnerable, both politically and militarily. UN troops could not even escort the food convoys they were sent to protect. Any attempts to make a new start by General Datook Abu Samah (the UN’s Malaysian military commander), and Victor Gbeho (the Ghanaian diplomat who was in charge of Unosom’s civilian wing) were overshadowed by the actions of their predecessors. Gbeho had to hire local militias to protect him while UN troops stayed behind sandbags.

Kofi Annan, then head of UN peacekeeping operations, had no choice but to declare the termination of the UN mission within a year. The last UN personnel left Somalia on 3 March 1995, almost a month before the planned date of withdrawal.

Yet even after that, the UN continued to find itself on the receiving end of the blame for whatever went wrong in Somalia. The then US president Bill Clinton and his ambassador to the UN, Madeline Albright, both accused the United Nations of carrying out what they called ‘senseless militarisation’ in Somalia.

Can multinational peacekeeping work?

The multinational forces in Somalia were riven with command problems. The commander of the US forces, General Thomas Montgomery, took his orders from the Pentagon. Troops from African and Asian countries (Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Nigeria, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Morocco) and others sometimes took their orders from General Montgomery and sometimes from the authorised UN commander, General Cevic Bir of Turkey. Meanwhile, Italy, one of Somalia’s former colonial powers, refused to let its own commander, General Bruno Loi, take orders from the US or the UN.

Montgomery and Bir had a close relationship; the former made all the key decisions. One of these was disastrous for the UN troops. On 5 June 1993, Montgomery ordered joint US-Pakistani troops to inspect a radio station suspected of being an arms store. The US troops stayed behind, leaving the Pakistanis to go inside. Assuming that the troops were taking control of the radio, the Somalis launched an attack, killing twenty-four Pakistanis. The American troops sustained no deaths, injuries or even damage to their vehicles.

General Loi was annoyed and questioned the purpose of the mission. Things deteriorated even further when three Italian soldiers were killed in July 1993, following a weapons search. Loi commented that the US helicopter gunship flying overhead during the confrontation with the Somalis provided no air support to his forces.

Loi retaliated two months later when seven of the pro-US Nigerian troops were killed by Somali militias. Journalists watched Italian soldiers relaxing on top of their Armoured Personnel Carriers while the Nigerians were dying less than a mile away. In the UN military’s afternoon briefing, the Nigerian contingent’s commander accused the Italians of failing to come to the assistance of his troops. Under pressure from the US, the UN asked Italy to send Loi home for not obeying orders. The Italian prime minister Carlo Ciampi not only refused but threatened to withdraw his troops unless the terms of the UN mission were clarified.

This squabbling continued when the US pulled out in March 1995, leaving Unosom in charge. A new military commander had to be brought in from Malaysia after the two biggest contributors, India and Pakistan, could not agree on who should be the commander.

Today, Italy is a key ally of the US operation in Iraq. But other countries are determined that US policy in Iraq should fail, and most of them are wavering about committing troops to Iraq. This time, the stakes are higher and the UN could not afford the kind of differences that took place in Somalia once troops were sent in.

Who controls, who pays?

The UN is in a “no-win” situation in relation to Iraq. Its headquarters there has been bombed, many of its personnel murdered, and most of its staff evacuated. The organisation is desperate not to have another clash with its biggest donor, the only superpower. On the other hand, it does not want to be burdened with the mistakes of the country which broke with the UN after failing to get the decision it wanted before the war.

But if the US manages to secure approval for any proposed resolution on multinational forces in Iraq, the UN will need to define its own clear role in such an operation. These forces must have a precise mandate in order to avoid being drawn into the quagmire that has enveloped the US troops.

They would also need to know who will pay for the operation in Iraq – the UN, the US or Iraqi oil?

In Somalia, US troops were independent from the UN command while also using the same budget as the UN. US helicopters were rented by the UN. Even the $1,250 per month salary of their troops was paid out of UN funds.

$2.5 billion was spent in Somalia, yet the mission ended without leaving behind a single building of US or UN design. Yet even this sum is tiny compared to what is needed in Iraq. This time, either the US will have to find its own way out of the mess, or the international community will have to get it right, under the banner of the UN. If the latter course is to work, the UN and its member states must look hard at the lessons of its own history.


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