U.S. Marines Enter Somalia

Under the auspices of the United Nations, U.S. forces entered a nation in anarchy to secure humanitarian operations.

Summary of Event

President George H. W. Bush announced on December 4, 1992, that U.S. forces would be sent to Somalia 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 other nations could best address that country’s deteriorating situation. United Nations;peacekeeping
Somalia;U.S. intervention
[kw]U.S. Marines Enter Somalia (Dec. 9, 1992)
[kw]Marines Enter Somalia, U.S. (Dec. 9, 1992)
[kw]Somalia, U.S. Marines Enter (Dec. 9, 1992)
United Nations;peacekeeping
Somalia;U.S. intervention
[g]Africa;Dec. 9, 1992: U.S. Marines Enter Somalia[08450]
[g]Somalia;Dec. 9, 1992: U.S. Marines Enter Somalia[08450]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 9, 1992: U.S. Marines Enter Somalia[08450]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 9, 1992: U.S. Marines Enter Somalia[08450]
[c]United Nations;Dec. 9, 1992: U.S. Marines Enter Somalia[08450]
Aydid, Muhammad Farah
Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;Somalia military intervention
Boutros-Ghali, Boutros
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;Somalia troop withdrawal
Mahammad, Ali Mahdi
Oakley, Robert B.
Siad Barre, Muhammad

On December 3, 1992, the United Nations 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, Operation Restore Hope under U.S. command. The first troops landed in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital and largest city, in the early 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.

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 family and clan. Traditionally, Somali 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 Muhammad Siad Barre, 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.

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

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 late months of 1990, civil war had spread throughout southern Somalia. Awash in arms from years of military assistance received during the Cold War, opposition groups flourished. Muhammad Farah Aydid’s well-armed Somali National Army (SNA) gradually gained the upper hand against Siad Barre’s forces, which had been reduced by defections to Marehan clan units. Aydid’s forces captured Mogadishu in late January, 1991, as Siad Barre fled from the capital city after plundering it and retreated into the southern countryside, where his troops fought pitched battles with Aydid’s forces in fertile agricultural areas, interrupting local farming and precipitating famine.

If Siad Barre’s opposition had been united, Somalia might not have devolved into anarchy. However, disputes over who should govern the country developed immediately after Siad Barre’s flight, the principal contest being between Aydid 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 Aydid 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.

In February, 1992, a cease-fire was agreed upon and a special coordinator was appointed to reinitiate a U.N. presence. These efforts failed, however, and Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of the United Nations called for a more concerted international effort. The U.N. Security Council responded by creating the United Nations Operation in Somalia United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM, later known as UNOSOM I), which was directed by Mohamed Sahnoun. Sahnoun, Mohamed This ill-fated effort was underfunded and met with strong Somali resistance. The famine deepened during 1992, and relief supplies could not be delivered because of 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. Bush dispatched special envoy Robert B. Oakley to negotiate 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 famine-stricken 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.

Public support for Operation Restore Hope was strong among Americans in the beginning. Most U.S. citizens perceived the operation as being consistent with American humanitarian policies, even though the United States paid for three-fourths of the UNITAF expenses. The problems came after the United States handed over authority to a reconstituted UNOSOM, known as UNOSOM II. President Clinton, a newcomer to foreign policy, was eager to reduce the U.S. presence in the region and for the United Nations to take overall operational control. Oakley, the American special envoy, 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, Aydid’s forces became bolder in resistance to UNOSOM II. Aydid greatly resented 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 Aydid a criminal. U.N. forces began a cat-and-mouse effort to capture Aydid, 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 Aydid’s forces and suffered 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 political pressure, 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, a task that continued to elude almost all efforts by the badly divided political forces in the country.

Southern Somalia remained in a state of continual instability following the withdrawal of international forces despite several efforts to establish transitional governments. The Somaliland Republic, by contrast, proved to be an island of stability and increasingly of democratic politics; despite these remarkable successes, however, the international community stubbornly resisted recognizing that nation.

In northeastern Somalia, Puntland declared autonomy in 1998 from the conflict-ridden south, indicating that future reunification would depend on the restoration of order. Jubaland also proclaimed autonomy in 1998, although it was absorbed by Southwestern Somalia, which was proclaimed an autonomous state in 2002. This area’s leaders moved toward union with Somalia’s transitional government in 2005. United Nations;peacekeeping
Somalia;U.S. intervention

Further Reading

  • Clarke, Walter, and Jeffrey Herbst, eds. Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. Collection of essays by observers and, in some cases, participants in the U.S. intervention sheds light on various aspects of the actions taken in Somalia.
  • Ghalib, Jama Mohammed. The Cost of Dictatorship: The Somali Experience. New York: Lilian Barber, 1995. A fascinating autobiographical account of life under the Siad Barre regime.
  • Hirsch, John L., and Robert B. Oakley. Somalia and Operation Restore Hope: Reflections on Peacemaking and Peacekeeping. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute for Peace, 1995. An informative account of Operation Restore Hope by two men with practical experience.
  • Makinda, Samuel M. Seeking Peace from Chaos: Humanitarian Intervention in Somalia. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1993. A brief analysis of the Somalia civil war and the early phases of Operation Restore Hope.
  • Sahnoun, Mohamed. Somalia: The Missed Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute for Peace, 1994. A somewhat biased critique of the U.N. handling of the Somali humanitarian crisis, written by the U.N. diplomat responsible for implementation of UNOSOM I.
  • Samatar, Ahmed I., ed. The Somali Challenge: From Catastrophe to Renewal? Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1994. A collection of perceptive essays that assess why Somalia collapsed and how it might restore itself.

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