Twenty Years Ago Today: Operation Quickdraw

US Marines boarding a transport plane to leave Mogadishu. Twenty years ago today, the United States rolled out of Mogadishu in a planned withdrawal that they termed 'Operation Quickdraw', presumably because that sounds so much better than a retreat. And yet a retreat it was (albeit a well-organised and orderly one), for the US was leaving without having achieved its aims, which were to assist the UN mission in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the Somali Civil War.

Not that you'd know that if you asked Major-General Thomas Montgomery, the commander of the US forces, who claimed that the operation had been a success. "We are very proud of what we have done," he said. "We know there are hundreds of thousands of Somalis alive because of what we did." He was referring to the relief work that the US had conducted, which had been the original purpose of the mission. But that had little to do with why they were leaving. Their departure had more to do with the thirty Americans and hundreds (possibly thousands) of Somalis who had died in battle. Most of these casualties happened during the First Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when an operation to capture one of the faction leaders, Mohamed Farah Aidid, went disastrously wrong. You've probably seen the movie.

For the US, this must have been tremendously frustrating - despite all the equipment and incredibly well trained people at their disposal, they still couldn't eliminate Aidid, who was one of the main stumbling blocks to getting a peace settlement between the warring factions. And he wasn't exactly a military genius. He was a petty warlord running a militia. No, forget frustrating - this was embarrassing. Possibly even mortifying.

So the US pulled out, leaving the UN mission's other contributor nations to keep on trying for another year before they finally gave up and pulled the plug on the operation, leaving Somalia to its fate.

The Americans had decided that peacekeeping was not worth the lives it would cost them, and subsequent forays into this kind of work largely happened at a safe distance, using air strikes (in Bosnia and Kosovo, for example). When the US next launched major combat operations on the ground, it would be as part of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - the kind of thing that most military forces are far better suited for. The kind of thing they believed would result in a swift, simple victory. The kind of thing that peacekeeping could never give them.

If there's a moral to this story that military planners and politicians really ought to pay attention to, it's this: there is no such thing as a swift, simple victory. And if you think there is, then you're probably the reason why there isn't.