President Bush left a confused situation. A mission undertaken with reasonable clarity had become vague and muddled. Many feared that the mission was creeping away from its initially limited aims to a full-up attempt at nation building in a collapsed state. His Democratic successor recognized the importance of the mission, but his priorities lay on domestic affairs. He did not want the conflict, however important or symbolic it might be, to overwhelm his ambitious program of reforms for the economy and health care. In the early days of his presidency, nevertheless, he and his principal advisers articulated an even grander vision for the mission than Bush had, following through on his campaign statement, “I have felt for a long time that we should do more. …”
When it became clear that the situation on the ground was deteriorating, however, the local military commander asked for reinforcements. President Clinton was reluctant to send them, and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin refused to provide Gen. Thomas Montgomery with the armored vehicles and air support he had requested. On Oct. 3, 1993, a team of Rangers and Special Forces troops were caught in an ambush in Mogadishu, Somalia. Without armor or adequate air support, they lost 18 dead and 77 wounded. The images of dead American soldiers being dragged through Somali streets continued to haunt the United States for more than a decade.
There are important differences between the current situation in Afghanistan and that in Somalia in 1993. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright embraced the concept of nation building and portrayed American efforts in Somalia as a model of the “assertive multilateralism” it advocated. President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on the other hand, have been more reserved about the wisdom or practicality of nation building in Afghanistan, working to confine rather than expand the U.S. mission there. And, so far, they have not yet refused a request from the commander in the theater for reinforcements.
Yet Somalia remains a cautionary tale. Its importance to American national security was relatively small. But the commitment of American honor and prestige to the effort increased that importance. The humiliating loss of 18 soldiers shook the prestige of the United States and emboldened our enemies, particularly al Qaeda, which continually refers to Mogadishu as evidence of America's weakness. And the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces following that disaster led to the complete collapse of Somalia, ongoing civil war in the Horn of Africa, and an expanding campaign of piracy in the region. It has also strengthened an al Qaeda affiliate preying on the corpse of the Somali state.
Even so, one might have argued in early 1993 that the benefits of succeeding in Somalia were not worth the likely costs. The Clinton administration effectively made that decision by placing an arbitrary limit, not based on military requirements, on the number and nature of the forces it would send. But that limit made no sense on the ground, with the result that an enemy the United States had disdained was able to inflict an extremely damaging and visible defeat on the U.S. military and derail U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Obama has said that he does not intend to withdraw from Afghanistan or abandon the counterinsurgency mission he announced on March 27. The White House debate appears to be focusing on an attempt to specify precisely what American objectives are in Afghanistan and avoid needless mission creep. But there is also much debate about whether or not to provide the theater commander with the resources he has requested, and which he needs to conduct any kind of counterinsurgency campaign. The example of Somalia can best inform this debate.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal's force recommendations are based on his assessment of the requirements to accomplish the mission the president gave him at an acceptable level of risk both to the mission and to the American soldiers he commands. Narrowing the mission, even if that were strategically sensible, does not necessarily reduce the requirements to ensure that the risk to U.S. soldiers remains acceptable. The U.S. Army has said that it can produce the forces McChrystal has requested.
Gates has withdrawn his concerns about expanding the U.S. footprint. There is no military reason not to give the theater commander the resources he requests. There is every reason, on the contrary, to do so, if only to avoid the risk of endangering American soldiers and increasing the possibility of another “Black Hawk Down.”
Fred Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.