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Somalia Syndrome

Illustrations by Ash Ma ’25, a Graphic Design major at RISD

In 1993, the United States launched a series of raids on Mogadishu, Somalia so disastrous and publicly humiliating that they would redefine presidential decision-making for the next decade. Now, in the wake of America’s exit from Afghanistan, a similar peril looms if we fail to learn from our past.

The year is 1993. Ignited by the killings of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers, the raids on Mogadishu are the culmination of a months-long UN-backed manhunt for Somali warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid. As the international community prepares to intervene, they have no knowledge of the warlord’s recent alliance with a little-known Islamist group operating out of Sudan or the subsequent arms and training his soldiers have received from them. Often touted as the group’s major contribution, their coaching instructs the Somali militiamen on the use of rocket-propelled grenades—in particular, to “aim for the tail rotors of U.S. Black Hawks.”

On the afternoon of October 3, U.S. Army Rangers launch an assault on the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu in search of Aidid. When the dust settles, 18 US soldiers are dead, 73 are wounded, and two Black Hawk Helicopters lie in pieces on the streets of Mogadishu. Hours later, television screens across America show images of the carnage: American bodies stripped naked and dragged through the streets; one soldier held hostage and another beheaded. For a newly-elected Bill Clinton, the shift in public and congressional support is palpable, an assessment Gallup polls will later confirm. On October 7, Clinton issues a televised announcement of full withdrawal from Somalia, after which polls indicate that the mission’s 73 percent approval rating has fallen to an abysmal 21 percent.

This turn in public sentiment, coupled with pushback from US Congress, convinces Clinton to sign Presidential Decision Directive 25—overhauling US policy on multilateral intervention and sanctioning a new policy of partial isolationism. Clinton’s message is clear: unless a mission has full support from the public and Congress, a low risk of US casualties, and a clear exit timetable, foreign intervention will not be considered.

As one senior State Department official quipped during an off-the-record discussion, “it was almost as if the Hutus had read it.” As the directive is drafted, the stage is being set for a new civil conflict—this time in Rwanda. Disseminated by radio from the capital Kigali, Hutu nationalist propagandists incite ordinary citizens and militias alike to take up arms against one of the country’s ethnic-minorities: the Tutsi. UNAMIR—the UN peacekeeping mission established to assist in Rwanda a mere two days after the incident in Mogadishu—is not only critically understaffed, but lacks a mandate to collect weapons, protect civilians, or even assist with the repatriation of refugees. US reluctance to intervene drives the United Nations’ discussion on Rwanda, including a failed motion to terminate the mission altogether. In the words of a state department cable: “Rwanda may be the case the [National Security Council] is looking for to prove that the U.S. can say ‘No’ to a new peacekeeping operation.”

That week, the mission takes another blow as 10 Belgian peacekeepers are killed and their government issues a full withdrawal. In their address, the Belgians echo American sentiments after the fall of Somalia: the mission was “pointless within the terms of the present mandate” and exposed their soldiers to “unacceptable risks.” The genocide lasts three months: in the conflict, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans are killed and millions are displaced.

For the West, Mogadishu was a lesson in the perils of modern intervention. It showed how increased media coverage shrinks the margin of error, and how the real battle is fought for public opinion. For the terror group who sponsored the Somali militiamen, Mogadishu carried a different lesson entirely. Seeing the battle’s impact on US policy, the group gains confidence and notoriety, hones its mission, and directs its attention more fully towards the United States. The US withdrawal only serves to encourage their belief that America lacks the political determination to back up its outsized military might. The group’s leader, Osama Bin Laden, will go on to mastermind the deadliest terror attack the US has ever seen.

The year is 2021. The abundance of support the September 11 attacks conjured for the War in Afghanistan has long subsided, replaced with an ever-growing belief that the US invasion was a mistake. America’s military strength is not in question—it took the US a matter of months to capture Kabul and install a new leader back in 2001. What has changed is public support for the mission. After years of troop reductions, President Biden finally orders a full evacuation from Afghanistan in August of 2021. And as the aircraft take off over Kabul Airport, they leave the country under the same despotic leadership it knew before 2001.

What will the Taliban and other involved groups like ISIS-K learn? That winning victory over the United States is not about imposing costs on the military, but instead about swaying public opinion? Whose egos will be boosted? Whose strategies will change?Equally important—what will we learn? As anti-Afghan War sentiments have increased in the last 20 years, a broader movement of isolationism has gripped the United States. Emptied coffers, dead Americans, and a vastly exceeded exit timetable have impacted the public much in the way the failure in Somalia did. In December 2021, for the first time since 1952, as many as 40 percent of Americans said that the US should “mind its business” internationally. Even while examples of preventable genocides and under-resourced interventions scatter our history books, isolationism once again becomes an attractive policy position. Just as generals are prepared to fight their previous war and not their next, politicians are forced to engage with international crises in the shadow of their most recent failure. This overcorrection plagues American foreign policy. Because of Vietnam, we missed Cambodia. Because of Somalia, we missed Rwanda. What will we miss because of Afghanistan?