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The Lost Lessons of “Black Hawk Down”

October 3, 2013

Today marks the 20th anniversary of The Battle of Mogadishu, the American operation in Somalia later immortalized by Mark Bowden’s seminal non-fiction book “Black Hawk Down” and dramatized in Ridley Scott’s exhilarating but slightly less non-fictional movie of the same name. On October 3, 1993, 160 U.S. Army Rangers and other special operations forces launched what was supposed to be a routine raid to capture two lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed. But when two MH-60L helicopters providing fire support were shot down, the operation became a desperate search and rescue mission in which U.S. forces were besieged overnight by thousands of heavily armed Somali militiamen. Fourteen hours after the operation’s start, eighteen Americans were dead, 84 were wounded, and one pilot was missing.

The incredible valor and drama of Task Force Ranger’s ordeal over those two days has, unfortunately, tended to draw attention away from the broader campaign to capture Aideed, whom U.S. and international forces had been hunting since the previous June, when Aideed’s Somali National Alliance ambushed and mutilated 24 Pakistani peacekeepers . This manhunt was part of a broader operation which – along with the “Black Hawk Down” battle itself – carries important tactical, operational, and strategic lessons. As debates rage about intervention in Syria and the renewed threat posed by Somali-based al-Shabaab, the 20th anniversary of the most dramatic U.S. military operation between Vietnam and  Afghanistan offers an important opportunity to revisit those lessons, which remain relevant two decades later.

Lesson One: Technology Does Not Guarantee Success

Task Force Ranger enjoyed access to the full range of U.S. intelligence capabilities and assets. The Centra Spike signals-intelligence team was pulled off the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in order to assist the search for Aideed. Theater and joint task force imagery assets included:

  • The Navy’s tactical airborne reconnaissance pod system slung under low-flying jet aircraft;
  • A specially modified Navy P3 Orion patrol plan;
  • A single-engine, super-quiet airplane with a real-time downlink to the Task Force headquarters;
  • The Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle with a downlink to the Joint Operations Center (JOC); and
  • The Night Hawk ground FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed sensor) system.

Yet these highly sophisticated technological assets were ultimately ineffective because they could not pick up the lower-level technology used by the Somalis. Aideed communicated with his militia with couriers and dated walkie-talkies too low-powered to be detected by America’s sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment. In other words, when combined with U.S. forces’ post-Desert Storm reliance on high-technology, Somalia’s complete and utter technological backwardness actually was an asset to Aideed.

Lesson Two: In Manhunts, the Decisive Terrain is the Human Terrain

Task Force Ranger’s commander, Major General William Garrison, believed the key to apprehending Aideed was actionable intelligence provided by human intelligence (HUMINT). The original plan had called for the CIA’s top Somali informant – a minor warlord loosely affiliated with Aideed – to present the warlord with an elegant hand-carved cane with a homing beacon embedded in the head. The plan seemed foolproof, until LTC Dave McKnight – commander of the 3/75th Ranger battalion and the task force’s intelligence chief – burst into Garrison’s headquarters at the Mogadishu airport on their first day and exclaimed: “Main source shot in the head. He’s not dead yet, but we’re fucked!” The top Somali CIA informant had apparently been mortally wounded in a game of Russian roulette. By the time Task Force Ranger arrived in Mogadishu in August 1993, the Intelligence Support Activity (Delta Force’s special intelligence cell) and the CIA had completely lost track of the warlord, who had not been seen for a whole month.

The Russian roulette incident, however, was the least of their troubles. Looking at the broader history of strategic manhunts from Geronimo to Osama bin Laden, the clearest dividing line between successful and failed campaigns is the human terrain over which the campaign is conducted. Human terrain determines the ability to obtain actionable intelligence on the target, either from the local population or from within the target’s network. Simply put, if the targeted individual is perceived as a hero or a “Robin Hood” figure, the protection offered by the local population will thwart almost any number of satellites or elite troops. Somalia’s social fabric of interwoven clans, tribes, and warlords proved a particularly formidable intelligence-gathering challenge. Somalia’s racial heterogeneity made it impossible for Task Force Ranger elements to freely collect HUMINT: using an agent outside his own clan territory rendered him suspect, and using an agent from within his own clan risked disinformation. As CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Hoar summarized the campaign: “[there was a] real problem with HUMINT. The people who provided information lacked credibility. . . . The possibility of getting predictive intelligence on Aideed was poor.”

Moreover, early U.S. conventional force operations often exacerbated the problem. On July 12, 10th Mountain Division forces attacked a meeting of Habr Gidr clan leaders, operating on the belief that Aideed would be present. Instead, they ended up killing numerous clan elders, mullahs, and intellectuals, many of whom had in fact opposed Aideed and counseled accommodation with UN forces. As U.S. forces withdrew, an enraged Somali mob beat to death four Western journalists who arrived at the scene to report on the attack. Any remaining Habr Gidr moderates quickly rallied behind Aideed, and the attack caused many non-Habr Gidr to sympathize and even ally with Aideed, further drying up the already sparse HUMINT.

Lesson Three: The Importance of Perseverance

Tactically and operationally, the Battle of Mogadishu was a victory for Task Force Ranger, which had raided into the heart of the adversary’s stronghold in broad daylight and seized 24 prisoners, including the two HVTs they were after. Although the cost was steep, the Somalis had fared much worse, suffering an estimated 500-1,000 fatalities. Many families aligned with Aideed had suffered casualties, and local spies reported some of Aideed’s strongest clan allies had fled Mogadishu fearing the seemingly inevitable American retribution. Others were sending peace feelers, offering to dump Aideed to avoid further bloodshed. Both General Garrison and UN envoy Jonathan Howe believed Aideed had been struck a mortal blow and pressed their respective superiors to finish the campaign.

But back home, the perception in Washington was shaped by the horrifying television images of dead and naked bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. President Clinton asked his staff, “How could this happen?” and many in Congress demanded an immediate withdrawal from Somalia. Ignoring Garrison and Howe’s recommendation, on October 7 Clinton threw in the towel and announced all U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Somalia by March 31, 1994. As UNOSOM II’s Deputy Commander, U.S. Army Major General Thomas Montgomery recalled, “We wound up . . . giving a victory to Aideed that Aideed did not win on the third day of October.” Or, to paraphrase George Orwell, the quickest way to end an operation other than war is to lose it.

Lesson Four: What Happens in Mogadishu Does Not Stay in Mogadishu

More significant than the failure to catch Aideed was Somalia’s effect on U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of the decade. A week after “The Battle of Mogadishu,” the USS Harlan County withdrew from the Haitian harbor of Port-au-Prince due to an orchestrated riot by fewer than 200 hundred lightly armed demonstrators. The Clinton administration later declined to intervene to prevent repeated atrocities in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda due to its experiences in Somalia. In a Pentagon study of why America did not seriously pursue Osama Bin Laden prior to 9/11, Professor Richard Schultz concluded: “The Mogadishu disaster spooked the Clinton administration as well as the brass.” After Mogadishu, one Pentagon officer explained, there was “reluctance to even discuss proactive measures associated with countering the terrorist threat through SOF operations.”

Worse, contrary to those who argue that there is no such thing as a “reputation effect” in international relations, amongst the documents captured in Afghanistan in 2001 was an al-Qa’ida correspondent’s “lessons learned” from Somalia, which noted:

There is an important observation that we must not ignore, which is that the Americans were not defeated militarily in Somlia. Effective human and economic losses were not inflicted on them. All that happened was that the Somali battle revealed many of their psychological, political, and perhaps military weakness. The Somali experience confirmed the spurious nature of American power and that it has not recovered from the Vietnam complex. It fears getting bogged down in a real war that would reveal its psychological collapse at the level of personnel and leadership. Since Vietnam America has been seeking easy battles that are completely guaranteed.

Thus, the precipitous withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and the perception of a continuing “Vietnam complex” may have emboldened bin Laden’s plans to concentrate attacks on U.S. targets. Although Americans have become more inured to SOF casualties since 9/11 (the death of dozens of Navy SEALs in Afghanistan in June 2005 and August 2011 helicopter shootdowns did not lead to calls for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan), the lesson that “small wars” have large second- and third-order effects will be increasingly relevant again post-Afghanistan.

Lesson Five: Sometimes the Least Bad Option is Good Enough

After the success of Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission, the UN expanded its mandate to include “the rehabilitation of the political institutions and economy of Somalia” even though Somalia had no history of representative government and its civil society had been destroyed by Siad Barre’s dictatorship – in other words, there were few institutions to rehabilitate. In retrospect, it would have been wiser to select an interim strongman and focus on creating Somalia’s political institutions over the long term.

There was somebody America could have theoretically backed in Somalia, but it was the man we wound up hunting. Mohammed Farah Aideed was Western-educated and had the most viable claim to post-Barre rule, having held senior positions in the government (when Barre was not throwing him in jail out of paranoia). He led the alliance that overthrew the dictator and retained the most powerful militia, had children living in the United States (including a son who deployed as a Marine reservist during Operation Restore Hope), and was sympathetic to U.S. strategic interests in the region. Aideed offered to help eliminate Somalia’s Islamist militias, who over the next decade-and-a-half would evolve into al-Shabaab. Was Aideed brutal in the internecine warfare within Somalia? Yes, but his brutality was not exceptional in Somali terms (a point thrown into sharp relief by al-Shabaab’s unmitigated barbarism during the recent Westgate Mall attack). Moreover, Aideed’s brutality only began with the civil war, which would have ended much more quickly and to the benefit of the Somalis if the United States had conditioned its support for him delivery of all food shipments, and made future economic aid contingent on human rights observance and gradual political liberalization. The first thing most doctoral candidates are told when they embark upon writing their dissertations is not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. This tenet applies as much to policymakers as it does to PhDs, and if it had been adhered to rather than the triumphal idealism of the post-Gulf War UN, both Somalia and the United States would likely have been better for it.

Twenty years after Task Force Ranger endured the abattoir on the streets of Mogadishu, we rightly celebrate the courage demonstrated by men like Medal of Honor recipients Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shugart, and we honor the sacrifice of the 18 servicemen who gave their lives on October 3 and 4, 1993. But it is also vital not to dismiss the Battle of Mogadishu, the broader manhunt for Mohammed Farah Aideed, or the Somalia intervention as an anomalous “small war” or peacekeeping operation without relevance for U.S. leaders today. The cost of not doing so can be high. Although on August 8, 1993, four American MPs were killed when their Humvee was destroyed by a remotely detonated antitank mine, little was done over the intervening decade to address the threat of IEDs that would later become ubiquitous in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing more than 1,700 Americans in Operation Iraqi Freedom alone.

The lessons of “Black Hawk Down” should teach U.S. policymakers and officers not to become over-reliant on technology as an operational panacea, to prepare the human terrain in advance of a decision to target an individual, and to make long-term investments in indigenous forces and HUMINT networks in strategically vital regions for when emergencies require intervention. The descent of Somalia into a cross between Hobbes’ state of nature and a Mad Max movie that allowed al-Shabaab to flourish should remind policymakers that, although tempting, cutting losses or avoiding costs in the short-term can be more expensive in the long-run. And finally, in a lesson perhaps applicable to Syria, Somalia suggests that sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils is the best policy option available, and that resolutely pursuing an imperfect solution is preferable to ambivalently waiting for the perfect solution to emerge organically.


Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department and National Security official and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden.


Correction: This article originally misidentified LTC Dave McKnight as Danny McKnight and described Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shugart as Medal of Honor winners rather than recipients.

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12 thoughts on “The Lost Lessons of “Black Hawk Down”

  1. A lot of good points in this post, but there’s a more fundamental lesson that isn’t mentioned: both the UN and the US made a huge mistake in focusing on Aideed instead of developing a real stabilization strategy and resourcing it properly. It’s not just about the problems in implementing a strategic manhunt; there shouldn’t have been one in the first place.

  2. I take issue with “lesson” 1: over-reliance on technology. There is nothing about this situation that indicates the US was *too* reliant on technology. That argument would be better served with the example of what we did after the Africa embassy bombings when we *relied* upon Tomahawk missiles to strike Sudan and Afghanistan without putting any boots on the ground or implementing any other “lower tech” options.

    Here, the technology was a great asset in coordinating some efforts but stymied others. Trying to coordinate the movement of the “lost convoy” through radio relay was not a failure of relying too much on technoloyg, it was a failure in that technology was not in place when it should have been, specifically, the convoy should have had direct comms with the observers and not required a separate radio relay. Having “old school” maps would have been nearly useless given the urban decay and the active emplacement of obstacles throughout the city.

    The SIGINT capabilities of the US SOF elements did net some HVTs but it didn’t get all of them. But we didn’t just sit on the base waiting for our technology to work. Our guys were out there developing HUMINT networks, we had sniper/observer teams out there as well. We *used* technology and we also used lower tech capes. We were not “overly reliant on technology.”

  3. “…it would have been wiser to select an interim strongman and focus on creating Somalia’s political institutions over the long term.”

    Say something like Iran or Nicaragua? How did those play out over the long term?

    Perhaps the wisest course of action is not to believe the Wilsonian myth that we can dictate Western values and governance to anyone in the world just because we have the biggest military? But no one that matters in our current foreign policy establishment would dare utter such heresy.

  4. @ Calm – or one better would have been for the Ranger’s to be allowed their normal close air support (AC 130). The streets may not have permitted heavy armor (M1 Abrams is what I’m assuming you are suggesting).

  5. Another lesson, apparently “lost” in Mr Runkle’s account is the failure of Army leadership. By conducting repeated daylight raids, TF Ranger’s leaders allowed Aideed to learn and adapt. The TF did not do the same, only getting more bold and accepting more unwarranted risks.

    Aideed continually adjusted the use of his resources to deprive the Rangers of their unique advantages, while the Rangers slowly gave their advantages away. The Rangers sought high tempo raids to get in and out faster than the Somalis could react–the only way such a tiny force could exist in Somalia. Aideed found a way to eliminate that advantage and forced the US forces to fight at the same tempo as his own (by pinning a chopper and its crew to a fixed point, and exploiting the ranger creed to never leave a man behind). TF Ranger had to fight an impossible battle on Aideed’s chosen terrain and terms. That any of them got out alive is a tribute to clear headedness, training, a sense of self preservation, and superior technology.

    That they got into that situation is an indictment of their tactical and operational decision making. By repeating their tactics, the TF did not adapt, and its leaders were anesthetized to acceptance of greater levels of risk

  6. Saying that “Clinton threw in the towel” is a cheap shot.” Clinton managed a disaster not of his making as well as anyone could have done. For the first time in history a departing president, George H.W Bush–after he lost for reelection–had launched two wars without consultation of any sort in advance to his incoming replacement. [The other war was the endless war on Iraq–in the form of arbitrarily establishng two “no-fly” zones etc..etc. and depriving Iraqis of food for a generation.] The entire raid was an unmitigated disaster for everyone–and it is about time we recognized that. I served in two wars as a Marine Corps infantryman including Vietnam in 67-68 I know a disaster when I see one. The real importance of the disasterous Bush decision to attack Somalia is that Clinton was given an inheritance that no other president ever received. It was the kickoff of the endless presidential wars we are now fighting all across the world whenever the Commander in Chief thinks he needs a “war” to enhance his standing, like now. What we lacked in Mogandishu was a squad of experienced infantry.

  7. the mission was doomed from the start. when the planners of this raid requested light armour they were turned down by the clinton whitehouse. they believed that using tanks would somehow make the usa seem imperialistic in world opinion. if the troops had a few 130 spectors and light armour, as they requested, the results would have been different.

  8. This mission would have been completely different if the troops were properly equipped. I understand not wanting to use AC-130s…. but no Abrams, no Bradleys?? At least have them in support for when something like what happened happens. For those who say this was no place for armor… what did the Pakistanis roll in? M113s, a Vietnam era US APC and M48s. When you go to a fight you bring everything you can. Why the Pakastani’s had more armor than we did is just bizarre.