Mission Creep

Black Hawk Down

Mission creep is the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes. It is usually considered undesirable due to the dangerous path of each success breeding more ambitious attempts, stopping only when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs.

The term was originally applied exclusively to military operations, but has recently been applied to many different fields. It first appeared in 1993, in a ‘Washington Post’ article concerning the UN peacekeeping mission during the Somali Civil War.

Begun in late 1992 as a U.S. humanitarian relief operation in the final months of the George H. W. Bush administration, the Somali intervention was converted to a U.N. operation on June 4, 1993. While the initial Bush administration justification for entering Somalia focused on ‘humanitarian assistance,’ realities on the ground helped drive ever growing requirements. In late 1993, Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s clan forces killed 23 Pakistani peacekeepers who were part of the UNISOM II mission. This battle led to a U.N. Security Council decision seeking to capture those responsible.

Along with growing objectives seeking longer term stability (rather than short-term humanitarian assistance), the search for Aidid fostered a more confrontational environment through summer 1993. In October 1993, 18 American soldiers died in the Battle of Mogadishu (which would be depicted in the the 2001 film ‘Black Hawk Down’). This incident led to a much more defensive U.S. and U.N. presence in Somalia. U.S. forces withdrew in early 1994 and all U.N. forces were withdrawn at late February, early March 1995 via Operation United Shield.

The phrase was also used to describe a multi-state intervention in the 2011 Libyan Civil War. A ‘Reuters’ article wrote that Britain’s vision of a no-fly zone over the country would be ‘likely to experience ‘mission creep’ and move closer to U.S. thinking on the need to target (Libyan leader) Gaddafi’s defenses.’ With the campaign in its second week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate hearing that ‘I am preoccupied with avoiding mission creep and avoiding having an open-ended, very large-scale American commitment in this respect.’ A joint article written by the leaders of the United Kingdom, United States and France that appeared on April 14, 2011, stated that Gaddafi ‘must go, and for good.’ Some British MPs warned that this statement represented mission creep, as it exceeded the parameters of UN Resolution 1973, which stressed humanitarian objectives and did not include regime change as a stated goal.

Although the term mission creep is a 1990s invention, examples can be observed throughout military history. For instance, many of the wars of Louis XIV’s France began with small limited goals, but quickly escalated to much larger affairs. Another early example of mission creep is the Korean War. It began as an attempt to save South Korea from invasion by the North, but after that initial success expanded to an attempt to reunite the peninsula, a goal that eventually proved unattainable. That attempt resulted in a long and costly retreat through North Korea after the intervention of the Chinese. NBC reporter David Gregory has cited the Vietnam War as an important example of mission creep, defining it as ‘the idea of, you know, gradually surging up forces, having nation-building goals, and running into challenges all along the way.’

Another example of a non-military use of the term mission creep is in connection with fusion centers, information sharing hubs, created as a counterterrorism measure in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001 via the Department of Homeland Security. Fusion centers were intended to facilitate the collaboration and sharing of information across various levels of government and private sector entities connected with Americas’s critical infrastructures. There are currently, as of 2011, 72 fusion centers in the United States. They have been criticized for sharing information on crimes other than terrorism – potentially violating the civil rights of American citizens – which has been described as mission creep. Additionally, within the last decade U.S. police forces (and SWAT teams in particular), have become increasingly militarized and expanded in focus in a manner described by The Economist as mission creep.

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