1992: Somalia Occupation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On December 4, 1992, U.S. president George Bush announced that U.S. forces would be sent to Somalia in order to provide security for the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance. This announcement followed months of civil war and famine in Somalia and many months of international debate about how best to deal with that country’s deteriorating situation. On December 3, 1992, the U.N. Security Council authorized a member state to intervene in Somalia, where anarchy reigned. The intervening power was authorized to use all necessary means to provide security for humanitarian relief. The Bush administration, which had been preparing for this eventuality, took formal steps to mount a peacekeeping operation, called Operation Restore Hope, under U.S. command. The first troops landed in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital and largest city, in the early morning hours of December 9. U.S. forces remained in Somalia until March 31, 1994, when President Bill Clinton formally called for the withdrawal of all but a handful of U.S. troops, in the face of ongoing civil strife and discord. Although the operation failed to produce a political resolution to the Somali civil war, it did restore considerable order to the Somali countryside and ended the famine.

On December 4, 1992, U.S. president George Bush announced that U.S. forces would be sent to Somalia in order to provide security for the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance. This announcement followed months of civil war and famine in Somalia and many months of international debate about how best to deal with that country’s deteriorating situation. On December 3, 1992, the U.N. Security Council authorized a member state to intervene in Somalia, where anarchy reigned. The intervening power was authorized to use all necessary means to provide security for humanitarian relief. The Bush administration, which had been preparing for this eventuality, took formal steps to mount a peacekeeping operation, called Operation Restore Hope, under U.S. command. The first troops landed in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital and largest city, in the early morning hours of December 9. U.S. forces remained in Somalia until March 31, 1994, when President Bill Clinton formally called for the withdrawal of all but a handful of U.S. troops, in the face of ongoing civil strife and discord. Although the operation failed to produce a political resolution to the Somali civil war, it did restore considerable order to the Somali countryside and ended the famine.

Somali Background

Although Somalia is a largely homogeneous country in terms of ethnicity, religion, and language, its people are divided into six major clans and numerous subclans. The majority of Somalis are fiercely independent nomads, with strong loyalty to the family and clan. Traditionally, clans and subclans have engaged in disputes over pasture and water resources, but significant interclan marriage has muted such conflict, as has the mediating authority of clan elders. This traditional capacity for conflict resolution was weakened during the 1980’s, as President Mahammad Siad Barré, who had seized power in a coup in 1969, nine years after Somalia’s independence, sought to manipulate the clan system to maintain his increasingly unpopular regime.

Siad Barré’s policies of reform in his early years were welcomed by most Somalis. After the failure of his attempt to capture the predominantly Somali-inhabited Ogaden region in Ethiopia, his regime gradually became more authoritarian and increasingly brutal. As opposition to Siad Barré grew, he responded by rewarding fellow Marehan clan members with positions of power. Other clans responded with determined resistance. The northwestern part of Somalia fell into open rebellion in May, 1988. Siad Barré responded ruthlessly with aerial bombings of Hargeisa, the regional capital, and hundreds of thousands of Isaq Somali took refuge in nearby Ethiopia.

During the period of the United Nations occupation, members of rival clans moved freely through the streets of Mogadishu carrying weapons as advanced as the hand-held rocket launcher seen here. The complicated rivalries among factions and generally undisciplined nature of the fighting made Somalia an exceptionally dangerous place for occupation forces. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The civil war in the north continued for three years, culminating in a declaration of independence on May 17, 1991, and the formation of Somaliland Republic. During the latter months of 1990, civil war had spread throughout southern Somalia. Awash in arms from years of military assistance during the Cold War, opposition groups flourished. Mahammad Farah Aideed’s well-armed Somali National Army (SNA) gradually gained the upper hand against Siad Barré’s forces, which had been reduced by defections to Marehan clan units. Aideed’s forces captured Mogadishu in late January, 1991, as Siad Barré fled from the capital city after plundering it and retreated into the southern countryside, where pitched battles were fought with Aideed’s forces in fertile agricultural areas, interrupting local farming and precipitating the famine.

If Siad Barré’s opposition had been united, Somalia might not have devolved into anarchy. However, disputes over who should govern the country developed immediately after Siad Barré’s flight, the principal contest being between Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mahammad, a Mogadishu businessman. Both men were members of the Hawiye clan of the United Somali Congress (USC), but they hailed from different subclans. Ali Mahdi Mahammad had considerable political support, especially among his Agbal subclan, but Aideed had a more effective fighting force. In late 1991, the two sides clashed for several months in the streets of Mogadishu. International relief organizations of the United Nations withdrew from the country because of the complete lack of security, leaving only the International Committee of the Red Cross and some private agencies to cope with the growing famine. Regional diplomatic efforts failed. By February, 1992, a cease-fire was agreed upon and a special coordinator was appointed to reinitiate a U.N. presence. These efforts failed, and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for a more concerted international effort.

United Nations Intervention

The U.N. Security Council responded by creating the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I), under the direction of Mohamed Sahnoun. This ill-fated effort was underfunded and met with strong Somali resistance. The famine deepened during 1992, and relief supplies could not be delivered, owing to the ongoing civil war. Boutros-Ghali and Sahnoun clashed over how the United Nations should respond, and the latter resigned in September, just before a planned national reconciliation conference.

Matters deteriorated further as death rates from starvation and disease skyrocketed. Facing this grim humanitarian situation, the Bush administration, in its waning months in office, offered to deploy U.S. troops to provide security for relief supplies. Special envoy Robert Oakley was dispatched by Bush to negotiate a smooth entry for U.S. forces with Somali factional leaders, and U.S. forces, designated the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), were on the ground by December 9, 1992, with assistance from military units of Canada, France, Italy, Belgium, and Morocco. The troops initially received a hero’s welcome from the Somali people and cautious acquiescence from the Somali factions. Within a month, Mogadishu and key regional cities had been secured, relief supplies were reaching faminestricken areas, and the emergency situation had been greatly stabilized– but the political situation remained tenuous. Diplomatic efforts to restore the local elders’ influence, to establish an interim police force, and quietly to impound the large caches of weapons were initiated.

Initially, public support in the United States for Operation Restore Hope was strong. Most U.S. citizens perceived the operation as being consistent with U.S. humanitarian policies, even though the United States paid for three quarters of the UNITAF expenses. The problems came after the United States handed over authority to a reconstituted UNOSOM II. President Clinton, a newcomer to foreign policy, was eager to reduce the U.S. presence in the region and for the U.N. to take overall operational control. Robert Oakley finished his assignment in March, 1993. Later in the same month, UNITAF functions were transferred formally to UNOSOM II, and the U.S. marines began to withdraw from Somalia, leaving a much smaller U.S. contingent of four thousand to join UNOSOM II.

With the United Nations taking a more direct role, Aideed’s forces became bolder in resistance to UNOSOM II. Aideed greatly resented U.N. secretary general Boutros-Ghali and took an early opportunity to challenge him. SNA forces attacked a Pakistani patrol in early June, 1993, killing many. Boutros-Ghali called the action a war crime and Aideed a criminal. U.N. forces began a cat-and-mouse effort to capture Aideed, and UNOSOM II became increasingly unpopular among Somalis.

In early October, 1993, U.S. units of UNOSOM II engaged in a running gun battle with Aideed forces, suffering more than ninety casualties, including eighteen dead. This event stirred outrage in the United States and sparked calls for complete U.S. withdrawal. Bowing to the political pressures, the Clinton administration agreed to withdraw all U.S. forces by March 31, 1994. The vast majority of U.S. forces were withdrawn from Somalia by the summer of 1994, although several thousand U.S. troops were deployed in 1995 to provide security for the complete withdrawal of U.N. forces, leaving Somalis to work out a political solution for themselves.

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