Spinning Dunkirk: Mogadishu Post Card

The Pentagon quits Somalia.

The New Republic

By Michael Maren


Last Sunday, Col. Steven Rausch concluded his daily 5:00 p.m. briefing to the Mogadishu press corps with the following announcement: "We have two media opportunities for you tomorrow. At 3:00 p.m., rescue training at Victory Base and at 4:00 p.m. tank gunnery at range six. If anyone is interested in attending see Maj. Pullen after the briefing." The reporters in the room smirked at each other. This was starting to sound like day camp.

Though media opportunities were always a part of covering the war in Somalia, they've become daily fare since Rausch and his team arrived in Mogadishu on October 17. Rausch, middle-aged, soft-spoken and business-like, leads the thirty-six-member Pentagon Joint Information Bureau, or jib. Until the bureau's arrival, when the United States was still pretending its soldiers were just one part of the United Nations force, the military's p.r. was handled solo by Maj. David Stockwell, his American uniform disguised with a blue u.n. patch. In press briefings these days the jiblets, as they are known, outnumber reporters by as many as three to one. They tempt journalists with offers of helicopter rides over Mogadishu and trips to aircraft carriers, complete with air shows, baseball caps and shopping at the ship's p.x. This week reporters got to see soldiers practice rescue operations in abandoned buildings.

When some 400 vehicles, including Bradley assault vehicles and Abrams m1-a1 tanks, arrived at the port of Mogadishu in early November, it became another media opportunity. This one came with a Hollywood title--Task Force 164: Convoy to Victory Base. To cover the event, the jib offered two accommodation plans. Option 1: Ride with the convoy to Victory Base, your choice of Humvee, armed personnel carrier (apc) or truck. (Sorry, no tank rides.) Option 2: Catch the convoy en route past the airport and then board a helicopter, watch the spectacle from the sky and then be there to welcome the convoy to Victory Base. Every reporter was assigned a personal jiblet. I chose Option 1, and squeezed into an apc with my jiblet, a young woman sergeant who made me uncomfortable by insisting on calling me "sir."

Before we pulled out of the port I had the chance to talk to the soldiers, recently arrived from Fort Stewart, Georgia. When asked if they knew why they were in Somalia, each of them recited verbatim, from President Clinton's October 7 speech, the three goals of the mission. We're here to protect our troops and bases, keep roads and lines of communication open so relief food can flow and keep the pressure on the bad guys. All of the soldiers, it turned out, had received extensive instruction in dealing with the press. (The October issue of the Army's Soldiers magazine describes "media on the battlefield training": instructors, portraying journalists armed with notebooks and cameras, descend on the troops and start asking questions.) The way things have been planned in Somalia, the press will likely be the only resistance they have to face.

The convoy rolled down a just-completed road that took it to the airport, along the beach, around Mogadishu and out of town. The American firepower was kept as far away as possible from any confrontation with Somalis. From my apc in the middle of a huge convoy, it was apparent that the U.S. operation in Somalia no longer has anything at all to do with Somalia. It is now a show to prove that America did not back down after eighteen of its soldiers were killed on October 3. It is meant to demonstrate that when we leave in March, we will have, in President Clinton's words, done the job right. The jib's mission is to make sure the world gets the message--no matter what actually happens.

From the ground here in Mogadishu, Clinton's three goals make hardly any sense. First, there is little need to protect our troops. Since the administration called off the hunt for Mohamed Farah Aideed, American soldiers have rarely left the barracks, and Aideed isn't about to go in and get them. The Americans are, after all, leaving in four months. Second, the "lines of communication" and humanitarian relief routes are already open. To say they aren't is a transparent effort to re-spin the mission in the humanitarian terms so popular last year. The relief agencies I visited were getting their supplies; in four weeks of driving around Mogadishu I have yet to encounter a roadblock on a major route. Finally, the United States has deliberately taken the pressure off Aideed. A month ago, every ambush and shooting in Mogadishu was blamed on the warlord or his militia. Today, press officers take pains to describe the daily dose of mayhem as the doings of bandits. When a 22-year-old American u.n. worker was killed last week, and his vehicle stolen by known members of Aideed's militia, the u.n. announced that the gunmen were "freelancing." When I questioned an American officer about the absurdity of the three goals, he just grinned and said, "Exactly. The mission can't fail. We need to be able to claim one success before we leave on March 31."

Only the p.r. war is being fought with any enthusiasm. Against the growing impression that thousands of American soldiers were sent to Somalia on a face-saving mission, it was announced that the Americans would establish a "presence" on the streets. Exactly what that "presence" will consist of or when it will begin has never been made clear. At press briefings, when Rausch is asked about the presence, he says "soon" or "not yet." When Ambassador Robert Oakley was in Somalia in early November, he met with representatives of Aideed's Somali National Alliance and informed them that the U.S. troops wanted to venture outside their barracks. Later he reported that an agreement had been reached: American soldiers would be able to patrol the streets; Aideed's militia wouldn't shoot them.

In Mogadishu and around Somalia, people expect the civil war to start again when the Americans--along with the French, Belgians and Germans--head home. The remaining force, made up largely of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Malaysians, will be vulnerable--if they choose to stay. No one expects them to get involved if clan warfare starts up again. Even the u.n.'s own intelligence indicates that the March 31 withdrawal, actually scheduled to begin in mid-December, will be the beginning of a new disaster. A high-ranking U.S. military official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, summed it up: "Aideed will take it all."

As the u.n. watches and the United States poses, Somalia's warlords are preparing for round two. Warlord Mohammed Hersi Morgan, who made good use of the fixation with Aideed to rest and rearm his militia, is already reoccupying Kismayo, anticipating the December withdrawal of Belgian troops. The Belgians, who just want to go home, have decided not to resist. Last month, very quietly, Aideed's forces captured the town of Brava, an important port south of Mogadishu.

Meanwhile, the u.n. is running around setting up district and regional councils to participate in the transitional government that, under the u.n. plan, will take over when the foreigners leave. All over Somalia, however, people are complaining that the councils have been hurriedly assembled, serving only to meet the u.n.'s timetable, while ignoring Somalia's complex political problems. "Anyone who's worked for unosom and the police and others who have cooperated with unosom, are in danger when we leave," says the military official. "By going ahead and putting people on these district and regional councils, we're probably sentencing them to death."

By the time that happens, however, the United States soldiers will be gone. And, if Col. Rausch and his jiblets succeed, it won't matter. The national consciousness will have been spun: we left Somalia on our own terms, we met our goals, we did the job right.

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