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Two Perspectives on Interventions and Humanitarian Operations

Authored by David Tucker, Robert B. Oakley. Edited by Dr. Earl H. Tilford Jr.. | July 1997

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Conclusions and Lessons Learned.

The Clinton administration's idealistic commitment to a more aggressive use of the United Nations to rebuild failed states and to promote democratic values received the kind of rude jolt in Somalia in 1993 that the Reagan administration had received in Lebanon a decade earlier. UNITAF was a very successful operation, but this was lost from view in the public and political uproar over the later problems of UNOSOM II and the loss of U.S. lives.The U.N. Secretary General and other members of the Security Council also learned the hard way about the limitations of U.N. peacekeepers. Subsequent U.N. operations have been more modest and better planned and, since 1993, there has been a marked increase in the effectiveness of the U.N. Secretariat. Listed below are some summary lessons I believe can be learned from Somalia for peace operations generally.

Cooperation among political, military, and humanitarian functions worked reasonably well with UNITAF. The UNITAF-UNOSOM transition, however, failed, and the subsequent greatly expanded UNOSOM mission had an inadequate understanding of the local situation and insufficient resources. That created serious problems which eventually brought the entire Somalia operation into question.

An estimated 200,000 Somali lives were saved by rapid UNITAF action. Early distribution of tools, seeds, and other commodities restored farming and livestock to a satisfactory level. Subsequent harvests have been close to normal, and the occasional political clashes are far from the kind of intensive fighting that raged throughout Somalia in 1991 and 1992.

The CMOC/OFDA/NGO formal coordinating mechanisms proved effective, but much more liaison of an informal nature was also involved. This is essential. One also needs a formal, top-level strategy committee of military and civilian personnel to ensurebetter coordination and to see that humanitarian and political issues get adequate attention from military forces and vice versa.

Most of the mistakes made in Somalia by the United Nations and the United States were not evident in the subsequent deployment to Haiti. Among the positive results in Haiti was a smooth, well-planned transition between U.S. and U.N. authority. The advance team for the U.N. follow-on force was on the ground alongside the US-led multinational force months before the United Nations assumed command.

Modest U.S. participation with unique skills of psyops, civil affairs, special forces, engineers, intelligence, and C3I may be enough in some situations. Ground combat units are not always going to be needed. However, total absence of U.S. participation is an error which diminishes U.S. influence generally and hampers the potential effectiveness of any particular operation.

The United States should not run scared. The retreat of the Harlan County in Haiti and Washington's initial reluctance to commit ground forces to Bosnia made it look easy to intimidate the United States and put the nation in jeopardy of losing its mantle of global leadership. This can create situations where the United States has no choice but to act later and on a much larger scale, as was the case in Bosnia, and to do so, perhaps, under worse conditions.

In such future operations, the United States should:

  • Carefully assess the situation on the ground both at the beginning and throughout any peace operation.
  • Set realistic objectives consistent with the resources available and the degree and durability of support at home and abroad.
  • Explain to Congress and the public the nature, benefits, and likely cost of the pending operation in order to gain support and to sustain it over the long haul.
  • Ensure unity of command and cohesion of effort by all forces through continuous dialogue and liaison.
  • Combine political, military, and humanitarian operations.
  • Work hard on public information both inside the country (psyops) and with the American and foreign media.
  • Not get deeply involved in the internal political and
  • social problems of other countries.
  • Not, however, settle for partial solutions or the mere containment of a situation merely so an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal can be met, especially if a more effective long-term solution can be reached without provoking a backlash in the country being helped or at home.
  • Lastly, by gradually reducing the size and mission of international intervention, often the United States can realize a smooth termination.

Somalia was an unhappy experience, especially for a nation whose military forces had been so successful in Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM only 2 years before. Its lessons, like those drawn a quarter of a century ago from our ill-fated venture in Vietnam, must be taken judiciously. But history is the only reliable guide we have to the future, and for that reason I hope what is offered here may be of benefit.