The death of Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken and the wounding of two more U.S. troops in Somalia this month marked the first deadly engagement for American forces in the country since the Battle of Mogadishu of October 1993. The two events differ in notable respects, not least in their magnitude—the battle of October 3-4, 1993, resulted in 18 Americans killed and 79 wounded. But both operations reflect the adverse conditions that U.S. special-operations forces, and the United States more broadly, face in the world’s most dysfunctional states.
Back in the summer of 1993, warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid bedeviled an international coalition that was trying to restore order and build democracy in the midst of a vicious civil war in Somalia. A ruthless clan leader known for firing artillery into civilian neighborhoods and starving opposing clans into submission, Aidid had made himself the chief obstacle to the nation-building project. The Clinton administration had removed a large U.S. Marine force months earlier and transferred authority over the remaining international troops to the United Nations. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s UN ambassador, declared at the time, “[W]e will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.”
When the marines had occupied Mogadishu, their relentless patrolling of city streets had kept Aidid and other warlords in check. Once they left, the Asian, European, and African peacekeepers under UN command did not maintain such a visible presence. Sensing weakness, the clan militias began resisting foreign efforts to monitor their weapons caches and limit their activities.
In August 1993, the killing of four U.S. soldiers by a bomb traced to Aidid convinced Clinton that the status quo had become untenable. Clinton was unwilling to send additional conventional forces to Somalia, owing to reservations among congressmen in his own party, some of whom were already calling for the removal of all U.S. forces from a situation they were certain would devolve into another Vietnam. But Clinton was open to sending special-operations forces, since their units were smaller and designed to maintain a low profile. Some in the special-operations community argued that their units could oust Aidid, demonstrating their ability to achieve strategic results without the participation of conventional forces. Clinton decided to send the Army’s most elite unit, Delta Force, to Somalia, along with a Ranger company and a detachment from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.