By Michael A. Marra and Brett D. Weigle.
October 3, 2023, marked the somber 30th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia – another tragic event in another “small war” waged far away from United States soil in a nation few American citizens could find on a map. On that fateful day, U.S. forces serving as part of the second United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II) incurred 17 killed and 85 wounded in action in addition to an estimated 1,500 Somali casualties.  What was meant to be a routine special operations raid to capture several warlord leaders resulted in a bloody all-day firefight that coined the phrase “Blackhawk down” for future difficult interventions. Ironically, this battle was the culmination of a years-long United Nations effort to rectify a complex catastrophe of environmental, political, and social upheaval in Somalia.
Beginning in early 1992, the first UN effort, UNOSOM I, was unable to suppress the warlords to deliver humanitarian aid. In April 1992, the UN Security Council created the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), led by the United States with the authority to “use all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia.”  UNITAF accomplished this mission by early 1993 and was replaced by UNOSOM II in May with a new mandate. The establishing UN Security Council resolution included language about the importance of “a comprehensive and effective programme for disarming Somali parties, including movements and factions.”  This additional mandate departed from the initial UNITAF task of feeding a starving population by providing security for food distribution; instead, this expanded mission led to the raids by special operations forces that culminated in the Battle of Mogadishu. The United Nations and the United States unwillingly were drawn into conflict. How can such good intentions go so horribly wrong?
Can we continue to learn from small wars that provide strategically painful lessons from long ago? With the U.S. military now primarily focused on large scale combat operations in Europe and the Pacific, do small wars like Somalia still matter?
We think so. If the global competition during the first Cold War should be judged by the number of proxy wars it promulgated, then we need to pay attention now – not after we are deeply embedded in another armed intervention. Thinking through the externalities of a coming second Cold War as China, Russia, and the United States compete for their interests will help us campaign in competition and avoid conflicts like UNOSOM II in the future.
Chinese and Russian influence have spread across the Maghreb, the Sahel, and other regions of Africa; for example, China builds infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative while the Wagner Group’s military involvement destabilizes Libya, Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan.  Seeing this, we understand the struggle for power and influence is an ongoing effort with no “end state,” only a “next state.” As coups and civil wars erupt along these fault lines in Africa, we will be tempted to intervene to preserve our investments and influence via diplomatic, development, and defense efforts. With U.S. military and civilian personnel currently stationed in several African fragile states, American policymakers and planners have a responsibility to continually assess our level of involvement and subsequent risk to U.S. personnel and national prestige.
The full history and internal political machinations of Somalia are well-documented elsewhere, and not the focus of this offering.  Rather, our argument concerns the strategic and operational aspects of the decisions to intervene and enforce a peace that was fiercely resisted by the very people the United States was trying to assist. We offer several reflections on lessons civilian and military leaders can learn from this small war for future interventions, since the application of military power to achieve national policies is a matter of supreme political judgement. Far different from other endeavors, failure in war has repercussions that reverberate through decades.
Somalia, like numerous hot spots around the world, is burdened by instability, environmental stress, and deep social fissures leading to violence for many decades. From the infamous Battle of Mogadishu thirty years ago to the present day, Somalia has ranked first or second since 2008 on the Fragile States Index published by the Fund for Peace.  In 2023 alone, the U.S. military flew at least 14 airstrikes in Somalia and one special operations mission that killed Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) leader Bilal al-Sudani, according to Jeff Schogol writing in Task and Purpose.  Despite billions of dollars of assistance invested for decades in Somalia, there is a frustrating paucity of progress. The United States alone provided $818 million in humanitarian and military aid in FY2020 and $792 million to date in 2023, according to the Department of State. 
These eight lessons from Somalia are as relevant now as they were three decades ago.
Strategy is more difficult than policy or tactics. This intervention in 1993 required an overall strategy, not just a contingency plan. The value of the U.S. national security interest was never clearly defined; was this something we were going to pay for, fight for, kill for, or die for? It clearly ranked as a peripheral national interest but at times the United States acted as though Somalia’s situation were a vital interest.  A lack of deep and broad thinking on the “next state” of Somalia after the initial intervention created a “mission creep” due to lack of vision regarding where the operation was going after initial successes in stopping the worst of the famine. While the crisis did need immediate attention to save lives, U.S. policymakers and planners must think through their strategy to ensure all elements of national power are engaged when mapping how we want to help a nation reach its desired future state. After the United States forces departed in 1994, Somalia has struggled to defeat various insurgent groups that threaten the functioning of a Somali central government. .
It is more difficult to make peace than it is to make war. Peacemaking, peace-enforcement, and peacekeeping between factions in the same nation is complex, costly, and often contested. Somalia is still in desperate need of a lasting peace so that the rebuilding of society can begin in earnest. There is still a level of unacceptable violence in Somalia that belies the efforts of peacemakers. As the United States engages in African places of unrest, we must admit we will eventually favor one side over another, creating the appearance of partisanship. In areas of fractured societies where multiple groups are contesting for power, the danger of siding with one may mean unifying the remainder against the intervening force – as we saw on the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.
“Resistance = Means × Will” is an enduring axiom. While irregular Somali warlord forces had little training, inadequate equipment, and no real communications gear, their will compensated for their lack of means by multiplying their power of resistance. They were a worthy adversary who inflicted deep costs on U.S. military forces on 3 October 1993. While “will” is extremely hard to measure from afar, it is easy to recognize, and these highly motivated Somali warlords and foot soldiers were a dangerous adversary.
The enemy, regardless of size, gets a vote. Despite our highly motivated soldiers and aviators, exquisite plans, and special operations capabilities, the Somalis fought back hard. Irregular forces stymied our best efforts that day, and on other occasions before UNISOM II departed Somalia in 1994. The enemy always gets a vote, and when they are fighting at home, they have many advantages.
Friction during intervention is unavoidable. Going into complex catastrophes like Somalia requires adaptation because the myriad problems cannot all be anticipated. However, the United States must understand the strong African antipathy to unilateral Western interventions and must seek coalition partners with regional familiarity. Operating in a strong coalition, preferably with the full backing of the United Nations or African Union, is the right approach in Africa. As a corollary, coalition timelines must be more realistic – and that inevitably means longer. The United States must be careful to avoid unnecessary friction by the imposition of rigid timelines on a fluid environment. Speaking in terms of “years” instead of “months” is a smart way to telegraph U.S. commitment and ease friction.
Strategic history punishes good intentions. The turbulent and bloody history of Somalia was well known in 1993, yet the successful 1991 Persian Gulf War may have given false confidence to U.S. Central Command planners that UNITAF would also accomplish its mission according to plan. Having the best intentions for the entire Somali population was simply not enough to overcome the factions who did not appreciate the presence of foreign troops in their cities and villages.
Tragedy happens even in small wars. As the intervention bloomed into a shooting war, the number of civilian and military casualties soared. Firefights between UNISOM II soldiers and Somali fighters—or indiscriminate fires by warlords and rebels—inevitably caught civilians in crossfire. While American combatants survived most wounds during the Battle of Mogadishu, civilian casualties were not that fortunate. In recognition that this tragedy will most certainly recur, in 2022 the Department of Defense implemented its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. 
War is always a gamble – even a “small war.” We witnessed in Somalia a minor military operation that captured the headlines of every major newspaper and lead every television news program in the world. Suddenly, the risk of a small raid in a small war looked like a failed gamble by the United States in an intervention that seemed difficult to exit. A tactical operation was magnified into strategic consequences by flashing images and first-person descriptions delivered within hours of the event. Wars, even small ones, do not always go the way they are planned, and almost never adhere to sequential and compact timelines on PowerPoint slide shows.
In today’s increasingly fraught global security environment , we must acknowledge the hard lessons learned from past small wars like Somalia—lessons whose tuition was paid with blood and treasure. The nature of small wars will not change their root causes, and motivations of external actors to intervene will remain noble. However, the character of a U.S. response need not copy our experience in Somalia in 1992–1994.
Illustration credit: “On the Alert,” Jeffrey Manuszak, 1994, reference , p. 17.
 Richard W. Stewart, The United States Army in Somalia (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center for Military History, December 2002), 19,
 United Nations, Security Council Resolution 794 (1992), April 24, 1992, para. 3, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/794.
 United Nations, Security Council Resolution 814 (1993), March 26, 1993, para. 7, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/814.
 Alex Vines and Jon Wallace, “China-Africa relations,” Explainer, Chatham House, January 18, 2023, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/01/china-africa-relations; Joseph Siegle, “Inflection Point for Africa-Russia Relations after Prigozhin’s Death,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, September 6, 2023, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/inflection-point-for-africa-russia-relations-after-prigozhins-death/.
 For example, see “Somalia profile – Timeline,” BBC News, January 4, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14094632.
 Fund for Peace, “Fragile States Index,” accessed September 9, 2023, https://fragilestatesindex.org/country-data/.
 Jeff Schogol, “US airstrike in Somalia kills 13 al-Shabab fighters,” Africa News, Task and Purpose, August 28, 2023, https://taskandpurpose.com/news/us-airstrike-somalia-13-fighters-killed/; Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “US airstrikes in Somalia,” Long War Journal, accessed September 9, 2023, https://www.longwarjournal.org/us-airstrikes-in-the-long-war; Lloyd J. Austin III, “Statement on Somalia Operation,” press release, Department of Defense, January 26, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3279923/statement-by-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-on-somalia-operation/.
 Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Somalia (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, July 27, 2023), 2, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10155
 U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Strategy, Joint Doctrine Note 1-18 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 25, 2018), p. vii, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/jdn_jg/jdn1_18.pdf
 For example, see Adam Abdelmoula, “Somalia is on the path of recovery, but real challenges remain,” Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, United Nations Somalia, December 21, 2021, accessed October 28, 2023, https://somalia.un.org/en/166388-somalia-path-recovery-real-challenges-remain; Ken Menkhaus, “Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping,” International Security 31(3) (2007): 74–106, doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/isec.2007.31.3.74
 Lloyd J. Austin III, “Department of Defense Releases Memorandum on Improving Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response,” press release, Department of Defense, January 27, 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/2914764/department-of-defense-releases-memorandum-on-improving-civilian-harm-mitigation/
 National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021), https://www.dni.gov/index.php/gt2040-home.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
About the Authors
Professor Michael A. Marra, Colonel (retired), U.S. Air Force, is a veteran of conflicts in Central America, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, and served in major operations including Desert Shield/Storm/Calm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom as a commander, staff officer and aviator. He is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Army War College in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning and Operations.
Dr. Brett D. Weigle is a retired U.S. Army logistics Colonel. He worked in joint, multinational, and Army command and staff positions in the United States, Bahrain, Germany, Turkey (NATO), Spain (NATO), North Macedonia (NATO), and twice in Korea. He is a veteran of Operations RESTORE HOPE (UNITAF) in Somalia (1992–1993) and JOINT ENDEAVOR in Bosnia (1995–1996). He is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Army War College in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning and Operations.