I received a lot of my formal education during my 24-year Army career. However, the best lessons weren’t taught in classrooms. They began 20 years ago this month in Somalia.
Establishing the colonial borders of what we today call Somalia resulted in many enclaves of ethnic Somalis being isolated within the borders of neighboring countries. This is a continuing source of tension due to Somali nationalistic desires to reintegrate their displaced kinsmen.
In January 1991, Muhammad Siad Barre, Somalia’s then president and dictator, fled the capital city of Mogadishu following a violent coup. Even with Barre ousted, rebel leaders were unable to form a government, and war erupted between rival clans. The fighting continues today.
The war quickly destroyed the country’s limited economic infrastructure, displaced thousands of people and caused widespread famine. The warring factions controlled food supplies, using food as a weapon to impose their will and placing more than 1 million Somalis at risk of starvation.
Heavy rains in the summer of 1992 caused extensive flooding, isolating many villages and worsening the famine. This led President George H.W. Bush to decide the United States must act to end the humanitarian catastrophe. The U.N. followed Bush’s lead. My division, the 10th Mountain, deployed to Mogadishu that December.
A few days after the division began arriving, a separate task force was formed and sent some 300 miles south to seize the city of Kismayo and open its port to international ships carrying food and other humanitarian supplies. I was assigned to Task Force Kismayo, thus beginning my education in Somalia. Here are four essential lessons I learned that remain relevant today:
-- The world-altering collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caught the U.S. intelligence community off guard. The civil war in Somalia, which continues today, began that same year.
The November 1992 order for the 10th Mountain Division to prepare to deploy to Somalia also came as a surprise. We had just returned from three months of rigorous Hurricane Andrew relief operations in south Florida.
The 9/11 attacks that precipitated the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq likewise came as a bolt from the blue.
The United States is frequently taken by surprise. We continually prepare to fight the last war or crisis. Defeated presidential contender Mitt Romney wanted to buy more F-22 fighter aircraft. The problem-plagued airplanes cost about $500 million apiece. Designed to defeat Soviet Union airpower, the F-22 has never flown in combat. Why buy more?
-- America sent troops to Somalia largely because of CNN videos showing starving children. We weren’t prepared for Somalia. We didn’t understand the environment, history, culture or people. Worst of all, we didn’t understand the politics underpinning the conflict. This led to terrible military and political blunders.
Following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, driven largely by a perceived need to quickly do something, anything, in retaliation. We invaded before fully understanding the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaida. We didn’t understand the people or their culture. More than a decade later, we still struggle with these problems.
War should always be the last resort. Deciding to wage war must be done cautiously and deliberately, using the constitutional framework developed by the founders. Today’s constant state of warfare is debilitating to America’s society, economy and international alliances.
-- Few Americans understand clan warfare or inter-ethnic clashes such as devastated Rwanda and Yugoslavia. In the Somali culture, a person outside of one’s clan is of no more value than a dog. Survival of one’s clan trumps everything. Hate between rival clans runs deep and spans generations.
In such cultures, killing comes easily. Few Americans can grasp this until they’ve seen it in person. It is arrogant to believe we can impose our national will and values on such societies, yet we keep trying. Afghanistan, where we’ve been at war for over a decade, has at least 14 significant ethnic groups. Some of these are clan-based.
The U.S. State Department’s strategy for Afghanistan abounds with terms like “democratic reforms” and “democratically elected,” demonstrating that we still understand very little about Afghan society and culture. America can’t fix Afghanistan.
-- Even in the direst situations, life goes on. In Somalia and later in the former Yugoslavia, two regions totally devastated by war, I observed people struggling to get on with their lives amid total chaos. Children were educated, couples married, babies were born and many people died.
Life goes on because we all share the same basic needs and desires. Everyone wants adequate food, clothing, shelter and security for their loved ones. Where these are lacking, good people will resort to doing bad things to survive. Americans need to understand this.
During these tough economic times, it is imperative that prosperous Americans endeavor to help those in need. Work at this and we’ll all be better off. God bless us in the coming new year.
Zachary Hubbard is a freelance writer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.