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The Battle of the Black Sea and Presidential Behavior

Today is the 19th anniversary of the Battle of the Black Sea, also known as The Day of the Rangers, Ma’alintii Rangers if you speak Somali, The Battle of Mogadishu and also by the name of the book and the movie, “Black Hawk Down.” The sub-title to Mark Bowden’s terrific chronicle is, “A Story of Modern Warfare.”

19 years ago in 1993, for fifteen hours, 99 Army Rangers and Delta Force operators fought for their lives in the center of the Somali capital of Mogadishu against Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s clan, the Habr Gidr, in the part of town that Aidid’s militia controlled was known as, “The Black Sea.”

Eighteen Americans were killed and several wounded during the battle. Somali casualties have been estimated between a few hundred and a few thousand, including innocent civilians.
One American pilot, CWO Michael Durant, was taken prisoner and released eleven days later. The cause of his release is a lesson to which every American President should pay close attention.

The Back Story - Short Version;
Following a coup de tat in 1969 Somalia became the Somali Democratic Republic. Meaning; Communist. It was ruled by a combination of dictators and military rulers until 1991 when, with the country and economy near total collapse, civil war broke out. Then it completely collapsed. Warlords and their clans became the new rulers in Somalia and the inevitable hardships and brutalities of anarchy found their way onto CNN which portrayed those starving in Somalia as representing the entire country, without any real explanation as to why.

President George H.W. Bush, in December of 1992 sent in the U.S. Marines to stabilize the country and get food flowing to the people. It was Operation Restore Hope. The Marines did the job, of course. Nobody wanted to mess with them. They turned the situation over to the blue helmeted U.N. troops of the United Nations in Somalia II and came home. You may remember the scene of President Draft Dodger leading some of the troops across the White House lawn in an awkward sort of victory parade in May of 1993.

The battle for control of the country then continued once the Marines had left and the feckless U.N. was in charge. At one point Aidid’s Habr Gidr Clan captured some Pakistani U.N. troops and skinned them alive as a message to the other peace keepers that there was no peace to keep. “Leave the food and leave the country,” was the message.

This outraged the U.N. and the Americans who planned a revenge strike. They received intel about a Habr Gidr clan meeting and blew the hell out of it with 17 Black Hawk and Cobra helicopters and TOW missiles killing dozens of clan members, none of whom had participated in the torture and killing of the Pakis.

In fact, the meeting was called to denounce the killing of the U.N. peacekeepers as a bad thing. The leaders of the Habr Gidr expected European and American aid money to start flowing in real soon and they wanted to siphon off most of it before it got to the people, you know the drill you’ve heard it before, and they were concerned that these gruesome killings of the U.N. soldiers might, you know, inhibit the flow of bucks into their yet to be opened Swiss bank accounts.

The attack on Habr Gidr Clan leaders made Aidid even more aggressive. He began using starvation as a weapon to subjugate and rule. And, once again, there were starving victims on CNN.

President Clinton decided to send in a small force to capture Aidid, and once they caught him, apparently the thinking was, everything would be OK in Somalia. He sent in U.S. Army Rangers, a squadron of Delta Force operators and the 160th SOAR, Special Operations Aviation Regiment (a helicopter unit created for special forces operations after the aborted Iranian hostage rescue ended in failure because many of their choppers didn’t make it to Desert One, or couldn’t make it out.)

When Aidid heard that their mission was to catch him, he took off and the Americans never got close to catching him. So, the plan became one of picking off Aidid’s lieutenants hoping to cripple the Habr Gidr that way. It wasn’t working, the Clinton Administration was getting impatient, the mid-term election cycle was about to begin in America, and pressure was put on the on scene commander, Gen. Garrison, to have a success.

Intel was received that two of Aidid’s top lieutenants were going to be at a meeting in the heart of Mogadishu, in the heart of Aidid controlled territory, a place called The Black Sea. The plan was to snatch them and anybody else of importance to the Habr Gidr.

U.S. Special Forces are the best trained and equipped night operators in the world. So, naturally, the assault was planned for broad daylight. Broad daylight, in the middle of enemy held territory, and a time of day, mid-afternoon, when many of the Clan’s young studs would be engaged in, let’s say, lowering their inhibitions, by chewing khat, a locally grown narcotic. What could possibly go wrong?

19 helicopters, 9 Humvees, 3 five ton trucks and 160 troops (including Rangers, Delta, Navy SEALS, Air Force Para-jumpers and Combat Controllers) went in at 3:42 PM. They expected to be on their way back to base by 4:15.

The assault plan was simple and it was well depicted in the movie. The helicopters converged on the target building, the Olympic Hotel. Delta teams jumped onto the roof and in 21minutes had a group of 20 prisoners. The Rangers secured the area for Delta and the Humvees and trucks rolled up on time to load up the prisoners and head back to base.

Then he wheels came off the wagon. One of the 5-ton trucks was hit with a Rocket Propelled Grenade. Three of nine of the support Humvees headed back to base with a wounded Ranger, reducing the force size. Then a Black Hawk Helicopter was shot down by Rocket Propelled Grenade. (A decade later we are told that Osama bin Laden was responsible for training for this unconventional use of an RPG.)

The assault force with their prisoners, are dispatched to the crash site to rescue the crew. The ground vehicles take off, leaving some of the Rangers who are guarding the target building behind. The convoy gets lost, streets are blocked with burning rubbish, communications are confused and they are being shot at from every door and window on the street.

Then, a second Black Hawk is hit with an RPG and goes down not too far from the first. By the end of the mission three more Black Hawks will have been severely damaged by ground fire.

The convoy is so badly shot up, with so many wounded, they abandon the attempt to get to either crash site and return to base. Troops on the ground converge on the first downed chopper, two Delta operators make it to the second.

The story is filled with exciting and terrifying and heroic action.

At the first crash site ground troops arrived to see that one of the choppers, a two seat “Little Bird” with a big plexi-glass bubble, had landed in an alley. The tips of the spinning rotor blades where inches from the walls and as one Little Bird pilot struggled with a wounded crewman from the downed Black Hawk, the other was holding the collective (the stick) back with one hand and firing an MP-5 machine pistol out the side with the other. They loaded the wounded crewman onboard and flew out.

There was so much going on with so many American soldiers and Somali militia men that even director Ridley Scott couldn’t get it all packed into a two and a half hour movie.

The next morning a rescue convoy of tanks, APCs and Pakistani, Malaysian and U.S. troops blasted their way to the surrounded Rangers and D-boys and rescued them.

The plan of the Habr Gidr was to kill Rangers. It was presumed if the number killed was high enough the Americans would leave. The way to kill the Rangers was to make them stand and fight. The way to do that was to shoot down a helicopter and kill the rescuers.

Eighteen Americans were killed over the 15 hour battle, one more a few days later. They never got Aidid. A guy a few people had heard of at the time, Osama bin Laden, and other Muslim jihadis felt that if you could make the Americans feel enough pain, they would leave.

And the Americans left. The Battle of the Black Sea was the last attempt to capture Aidid.

This episode of American intervention has many lessons.

Lesson Number One; When you send in the troops, send as many as will be needed to get the job done. No more, “Doing it on the cheap.” When on scene commanders request equipment, give it to them. The U.S. commanders in Somalia had requested four M-1 Abrams tanks, fourteen Bradley Fighting Vehicles, artillery and C-130 gunships. All were denied by the Clinton Administration.

Lesson Number Two; Actions speak louder than words. Regardless of rhetoric, America’s enemies watch what we do. When America shows weakness it encourages our enemies. After the organization Islamic Jihad blew up the Beirut Marine Barracks killing 241 American servicemen in 1983, the troops were pulled out.

Similarly, the American retreat from Somalia convinced many that if you can make Americans bleed, they will leave.

Lesson Number Three; Demonstrating overwhelming strength begets cooperation. And this example is also part of the Somali story.

Cause of Durant’s Release
After the rescue, the Habr Gidr still held Black Hawk pilot CWO Michael Durant prisoner. Robert Oakley, former ambassador to Somalia was drafted by the Clinton Administration to return to Mogadishu and negotiate Durant’s release. Oakley told the Clan that Task Force Ranger’s mission to capture Aidid was over and the Americans would be leaving. He also told them that President Clinton wanted Durant released immediately, a notion that flabbergasted the Somalis because nothing was offered in exchange for Durant. None of the Clan members who had been captured by the Americans, no money, nothing was offered for Durant’s release. That wasn’t the way it worked in Somalia, Oakley was informed.

Then Oakley delivered a message that he first described as, “…not a threat.”

From Black Hawk Down:

“I have no plan for this, and will do everything I can to prevent it, but what will happen if a few weeks go by and Mr. Durant is not released? Not only will you lose any credit you may get now, but we will decide that we have to rescue him. I guarantee you we are not going to pay or trade for him in any way, shape or form…So what we’ll decide is we have to rescue him, and whether we have the right place or the wrong place, there’s going to be a fight with your people. The minute the guns start again, all restraint on the U.S. side goes. Just look at the stuff coming in here now. And aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships…the works. Once the fighting starts, all this pent-up anger is going to be released. This whole part of the city will be destroyed, men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything…That would really be tragic for all of us, but that’s what will happen.”

Clan members informed Aidid, still in hiding, and Durant was handed over immediately.

Whether or not the Somalis were sophisticated enough to know that Bill Clinton was willing use overwhelming force to avoid having his own “hostage crisis” or for whatever reason, they responded to the threat of overwhelming power and cooperated.

Ironically, had the Clinton Administration initially approved the use of the weapons they were willing to use to free Durant, perhaps the outcome in Somalia would have been different. Certainly it would have improved their chances.

And that is the lesson to remember on this 19th anniversary of the Battle of the Black Sea. Of all the things that are universally understood in every corner of the world, Power is best understood and most convincingly used.

That is a message that American leaders, including this and future Presidents, need to learn and learn well. The world gets more dangerous every day. And, bowing to foreign leaders and not using our power communicates weakness to our enemies, which in most cases is all the encouragement they need.

Best regards to members of Task Force Ranger. And, thank you for your service.

***

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.-- Winston Churchill

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