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PEACEKEEPING : Key Figures Argue Somalia's Lessons

March 17, 1995|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — Now that the United Nations has dismantled its troubled and lamented mission to Somalia, the key players are producing the first post-mortems.

In two of the most important, a pair of Americans disagree about what went wrong but agree that the United Nations must not abandon peacekeeping.

The Americans are Ambassador Robert B. Oakley, who served as the special envoy of Presidents George Bush and Clinton on two separate assignments to Somalia, and retired Rear Adm. Jonathan Howe, who served as the chief U.N. official in Somalia during some of its most controversial moments.

Oakley believes that the political inexperience of Howe and his staff led to the futile manhunt for warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid that ended in October, 1993, with the death of 18 American troops.

This is denied by Howe, who insists that the United Nations had to make Aidid accountable for his misdeeds. The deaths of the U.S. troops prompted Clinton to announce the eventual withdrawal of U.S. peacekeepers, a decision that crippled the mission and led to its demise earlier this month.

Oakley's views are set down in a book, "Somalia and Restore Hope," written with his deputy, John L. Hirsch, and scheduled for publication later this month. The publisher, the U.S. Institute of Peace, has made advance copies available.

The Washington Quarterly will publish Howe's assessment of the Somalia mission in its May issue. Howe discussed his views in a telephone interview with The Times.

To illustrate what they regard as the United Nations' lack of understanding of Somali politics and culture, Oakley and Hirsch say that soon after the United Nations took over from the American-led operation in May, 1993, Aidid and his followers concluded that the United Nations was biased against them. Aidid, according to Oakley and Hirsch, "believed that Howe had deliberately attempted to embarrass him and harm his political prospects by renouncing (U.N.) support for a Mogadishu peace conference that Aidid had convened in mid-May."

But Howe, defending his role in the U.N. withdrawal of support for Aidid's conference, said he did so only because Aidid "kept reneging on the agreements and changing the rules of the game."

Howe said the United Nations was trying to help Aidid and his opponents find some "common ground" in preparation for the conference.

Howe said the United Nations had started out trying not to play favorites in Somalia.

But, when Aidid's followers ambushed and killed 25 Pakistani peacekeepers, Howe said, "something had changed--Aidid had changed sides against us." The United Nations then mounted the manhunt for Aidid because "there needed to be accountability," Howe said.

Oakley and Hirsch criticize the Clinton Administration for failing to explain to Congress and the public that the peacekeepers in Somalia, unlike most peacekeepers, had the authority to use military power to enforce the peace.

"Thus it is unsurprising that the Oct. 3 events (when the U.S. troops were killed) generated an immediate political explosion, obliging Clinton to change Somalia policy rapidly and precipitating a general loss of support for peacekeeping," they say.

Oakley and Hirsch make a plea for backing up peacekeeping with heavy force.

"The will and ability to use overwhelming force to back a peacekeeping operation . . . offers the greatest possibility of successfully completing a peacekeeping mission and minimizing casualties on all sides," they write.

Oakley and Hirsch urge the U.S. government not to abandon an active role in peacekeeping.

"A policy of committing no U.S. ground units and almost no other operational personnel for potentially dangerous operations would be an abandonment of U.S. leadership generally and of its valuable peacekeeping role in particular," they say. "The United States does not have to bear the burden alone, but it must remain engaged."

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