MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- When the last Americans evacuated Mogadishu 21 months ago, they left Ahmed Giumale Kaire behind.

The ambassador's secretary wept. The political officer wished him good luck. And as the helicopters lifted off from the embassy grounds to waiting U.S. ships offshore, they shouted their final goodbyes over the noise of the propellers.

Kaire, affectionately known as "Chickenman," was an embassy driver for 20 years. In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, 1991, he became one of 350 local embassy workers left standing in the dust when the United States decided to close its books on Somalia, a country once considered a pivotal pro-West ally in the "arc of instability" that stretches from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

If the consequences of more than a decade of U.S. involvement in Somalia could be told in human terms -- a period of intense engagement during the Cold War, followed by an abrupt exit -- then the story might find its climax on the darkened grounds of the sprawling embassy compound, when Kaire and hundreds of other Somali employees of the U.S. Embassy were left to fend for themselves in the chaos that ensued as the Somali government teetered in the face of insurgency. As a former U.S. ambassador to Somalia, T. Frank Crigler, put it, America "turned out the light, closed the door and forgot about the place."

Somalia, in effect, became one of the Cold War's orphans. The country fell through the cracks of Washington's shifting policy concerns. Embraced as a U.S. ally only after being abandoned by its Soviet mentors in the late-1970s, Somalia saw its support in Washington dwindle in the last days of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre's regime -- and vanish when the government fell three weeks after the embassy was evacuated.

"The reality is that nobody ever really cared about Somalia," said Michael Clough, who heads the World Policy Institute in New York and visited Somalia in the last days of the Siad Barre regime as a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "What they cared about was that little piece of real estate," he said, alluding to an airstrip at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. Once a Soviet air base, the facility was made available to the United States as a staging area for the then-emerging Rapid Deployment Force that president Jimmy Carter envisioned as a means to intervene in Middle East crises after the fall of Iran.

"The real turning point was 1989," Clough said. "There was just this realization that they didn't need Berbera anymore."

The United States "caused part of the problem," said Bob Koepp, the emergency coordinator for the Lutheran World Federation, which runs relief flights into Somalia. "After the Russians left, they were trying to buy old Siad Barre." The Somalis, he said, "have been left in the lurch -- and now everyone is saying, 'How did it happen?' "

"The way we sweep in and sweep out of Third World countries, it's like Hurricane Andrew," said Crigler, the former ambassador. "You take a pretty weak social structure, and subject it to those kinds of hurricane winds, and it's bound to damage that structure." Instead of an abrupt abandonment, he said, the United States could have preserved some of its prestige and influence by making periodic official visits there and expressing concern about the anarchy during 1991.

America's relationship with Somalia began early in 1977, the first year of Carter's presidency, when Siad Barre began probing the new administration's attitude toward Somalia's possible shift to the West. Siad Barre's Somalia had been a Soviet client, but that year Moscow began making overtures toward the new Marxist regime in Ethiopia, Somalia's historical rival and its adversary in a war over control of the Ogaden desert region that straddles their common border. By May of 1977, when Moscow signed an arms deal with Ethiopia, Siad Barre's efforts to woo Washington -- and his requests for arms and economic aid -- became "direct and urgent," in the words of former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance.

Vance, in his book "Hard Choices," describes how some hard-liners in the Carter administration saw in Somalia a chance to counter inroads being made in the Horn of Africa by Moscow and its Cuban surrogates, and to gain access to the former Soviet air base at Berbera. "Siad Barre was perfectly willing to treat the horn crisis as an East-West confrontation in order to gain American political and military support," Vance wrote. By March 1978, when Somalia completed its long-promised withdrawal from the Ogaden, the Carter administration began its first consultations with Congress on arms shipments to the Siad Barre regime.

Over the next decade, Siad Barre -- despite his widely documented record of human rights violations and harsh repression of internal dissent -- became one of Africa's largest recipients of U.S. aid. By 1988, Somalia, a tiny country with virtually no resources, received $884 million in U.S. assistance -- placing it behind only Sudan, Zaire and Kenya and just ahead of Liberia among top African aid recipients, according to the Agency for International Development (AID).

The U.S. largesse continued even though Somalia from 1980 to 1987 saw negative economic growth and in 1987 had the largest debt as a percentage of gross national product among other major African recipients of U.S. aid. The assistance also continued even as Somalia was being called "the black hole of international aid" by such international agencies as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some relief officials estimated that up to half or more of the international aid to Siad Barre's regime was stolen or misused.

By the middle of the Reagan administration, however, U.S. policymakers appeared to grow tired of Siad Barre, his endless demands for more military hardware and his hollow promises of political reform. "Through the 1980s . . . you didn't ever get the sense of a great degree of engagement in Somalia," Clough said.

Siad Barre, however, continued to offer his country as a pawn in the East-West rivalry. Crigler, the U.S. ambassador in Mogadishu between 1987 and 1990, recalls the Somali leader coming to Washington on an official visit and boasting that he told President Reagan: "I bring you Somalia. Do with it what you will."

In 1987, the U.S. Congress slashed administration aid requests for Somalia to just $8.7 million from $47 million. But as late as 1990, even as the administration was losing interest in Siad Barre, then-Lt. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf of the U.S. Central Command argued before Congress that it was necessary to maintain the U.S. military relationship with Somalia to prevent Libya from gaining influence there and because U.S. aid "helps Somalia maintain its political and territorial integrity."

Some U.S. officials involved with Somalia during the period credit Washington with pushing for the kind of economic and political reforms that eventually forced the regime's collapse. By cutting military aid, "we took away one of {Siad Barre's} most important tools, his repressive abilities," Crigler said. "We did the same thing on the economic side. We pulled both those legs out from under him."

Other U.S. officials point out, accurately, that most of the guns on the streets of Somalia today are not U.S. M-16s, but AK-47 rifles manufactured in the former Soviet Bloc. U.S. military assistance, they say, was mostly in the form of communications equipment, military training and about 106 recoilless rifles.

However, critics of U.S. policy, such as Clough, say a clearer break with Siad Barre earlier in his rule might have hastened his fall and forestalled the chaos that eventually engulfed the country. For failing to do that, the critics say, the United States must bear at least some of the responsibility for the anarchy in Somalia that has prevailed for the last 21 months.

"I think if we had definitively broken with Siad at an earlier point in time, we could have had a version of what happened that was not nearly as tumultuous and violent," Clough said. "If we had pulled out earlier, there would have been more prospects for an orderly transition. We didn't pull out at the right time, and we did it in a way that exacerbated the problem."

As Somalia's humanitarian nightmare has unfolded, the Bush administration has responded with a major commitment of food and resources from AID. The U.S. military has airlifted thousands of tons of food to sites inside Somalia and into a Somali refugee camp in the northern Kenyan town of Wajir. In addition to the food already airlifted, the administration has pledged 145,000 tons for this fiscal year.

For the fiscal year that ended last month, AID contributed about $96 million to Somali relief efforts in the form of food, medical supplies, mine-clearing activities in the north of the country, and other assistance. U.S. officials say the amount is nearly twice what Washington has donated to relief efforts in the former Yugoslav republics.

On the political side, however, the United States has been content to stay on the sidelines, offering support for efforts by the United Nations and its special representative here, Mohamed Sahnoun. U.S. military planes airlifted to Mogadishu 500 Pakistani troops who are part of a U.N. peace-keeping force. During the airlift, the Pentagon moved four ships, carrying 2,100 Marines, off the coast of the capital to assist with communications and to provide search and rescue capabilities. The U.S. ships have since departed.

Many Somalis have said they would like to see the United States intervene in a larger way to help resolve the crisis, reclaim the high profile America once had here and use its still-formidable prestige among Somalis to bring warlords and clan leaders together. "America has to intervene seriously," said onetime lawyer Mohamed Shiekh Ali Jumale.

Kaire and many of the other former embassy employees left behind also are waiting for the Americans to come back. Some say they are owed money for long service; others hope to get their old jobs back once the United States reopens its embassy here.

Many, including Kaire, would like to emigrate to the United States but face formidable legal hurdles. A U.S. official familiar with their cases said they fall into a "Catch-22" of American immigration policy. They might qualify to go to the United States as refugees, but they would have to leave Somalia for one of the squalid refugee camps in Kenya and wait -- possibly for months or years -- to be interviewed by immigration officials. If they stay in Somalia, they can apply to travel to the United States as normal immigrants -- but there is no U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, and hence no place to apply.

"The Americans are not good people," complained onetime embassy travel assistant Aden Saman Ali. "People worked for them 20, 30 years, and they left them standing there on the ground."

Kaire is not so bitter. While he too said he was "astonished" when the U.S. helicopters took off without him, he said he is waiting for the day when Americans return to Somalia and he can begin driving for the embassy again.

But the driver they called "Chickenman" is realistic. "I'm Somali, but I know Americans," he said. "I don't think Americans will come back very quickly. They will wait until all the shooting has stopped."