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The Forgotten Lessons of Black Hawk Down

Twenty-five years ago this week, a Somali warlord named Mohammed Farah Aidid offered the American military a glimpse of its future. But neither policymakers back in Washington nor commanders in the field were attuned to what he had on offer.

A mission that had begun 10 months earlier to provide relief supplies to starving Somalis had evolved into a vastly more ambitious nation-building project. On the night of Oct. 3-4, 1993, an American military operation to capture Mr. Aidid ended in catastrophic failure, including 18 Americans dead. Soon afterward the entire mission collapsed, and the United States withdrew. Yet any lessons that might have been learned from this debacle stayed in Mogadishu, alongside the smoldering wreckage of the Black Hawk helicopter that Mr. Aidid’s fighters had shot down.

The United States did not go into Somalia expecting this kind of resistance. But Mr. Aidid took exception to the prospect of outsiders imposing a new political order on his country. From their sanctuaries in the crowded warrens of the Somali capital, his lightly armed but nimble militias ambushed and harassed American and coalition forces throughout the summer of 1993.

Casualties mounted. In response, President Bill Clinton ordered an elite commando task force to Mogadishu with the specific assignment of eliminating Mr. Aidid.

By most measures — training and discipline, firepower and mobility — Task Force Ranger had Mr. Aidid’s irregulars outclassed. His forces were technologically backward while the American troops had all the best gadgets that money could buy.

In the end, little of this mattered. Mr. Aidid himself proved both frustratingly elusive and far shrewder than the Americans expected. On six “snatch” attempts, the Rangers came up empty-handed. On the seventh, the enemy forces that the Americans disparaged as “skinnies” and “sammies” were waiting. In an instant, the hunters became the hunted.