Just over a decade ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (HSM) at the State Department and formally recognized his government. HSM beamed. Somalia failed two decades previously amidst chaos and infighting. The United States had largely abandoned Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” incident early in her husband’s presidency. Recognition meant HSM, leader of a country Transparency International at the time deemed the world’s most corrupt, would be in line for billions of dollars in US assistance.
HSM was not the only beneficiary that day. From a political perspective, what drove Clinton’s embrace of the Somali government was a desire to show success. Partisans were blaming Clinton for the death of the US ambassador to Libya in Benghazi. Three years into her term, Clinton had traveled millions of miles but had little to show for it.
HSM promised democratic elections but, outside of the breakaway Somaliland region, Somalia failed to achieve them. HSM served until 2017, when Mohamad Farmaajo took over. Corruption, instability, terrorism, and disdain for the constitutional order marked Farmaajo’s term. When handpicked Somali elders selected HSM again in 2022, many Somalis and diplomats breathed a sigh of relief. Clinton alumni, most prominently National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, appear to look at HSM as a partner, if not as a legitimate democrat.
Fighting Erupts in Las Anod
Reality on the Horn of Africa, however, suggests President Biden’s team is getting played by its one-time ally.
While many European and African states maintain legations in both Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa, the State Department is blind. Not only does it only retain a presence in Mogadishu, but the embassy is actually housed inside the confines of the secured international airport.
In effect, American diplomats have no more sense of what is going on in Somalia than a transit passenger in Dulles Airport would understand about events in Iowa. The difference, however, is transit passengers understand their lack of visibility. The staff of the US Embassy in Mogadishu is unwilling to admit they are blind and dependent upon a small number of self-interested interlocutors.
A Poorly Crafted Weapons Embargo Discourages Peace
It is one thing to get the local situation wrong. That is almost inevitable whenever diplomats insulate themselves from the reality of the society to which the State Department assigns them. It is another to throw fuel on the fire of conflict with clumsy and counterproductive policies. Here, a fumbling approach to the Somalia arms embargo is at fault.
In 1992, the United Nations imposed a strict arms embargo on Somalia but as the international community worked to build a government, the Security Council amended the sanctions to limit them to non-state actors. Since HSM’s first term in office, the Security Council has exempted weapons deliveries “to deliveries of weapons, military equipment, assistance or training intended solely for the development of the Security Forces of the Federal Government of Somalia, and to provide security for the Somali people.” This waiver, renewed annually, may sound good in theory, but the murkiness of what constitutes “Security Forces” versus corollary militias poses a continuing problem. Under Farmaajo, for example, Somalia’s intelligence chief maintained close ties to Al-Shabaab, the local Al Qaeda affiliate, whom Farmaajo tried to leverage against his political enemies. US-provided weapons regularly found their way into terrorist hands.
Also contributing to the fighting is a broader conceptual mistake. To build Puntland and Federal Government of Somalia military capability without doing the same for Somaliland made conflict inevitable, as both Mogadishu and the Puntland government interpreted U.S. provision of weaponry as an implicit endorsement of their territorial ambitions.
Both these dynamics of a one-crafted arms embargo now make violence worse. Consider: As Somaliland says it has captured equipment and personnel affiliated with Puntland, the US-trained Somali Danab Brigade, and the broader Federal Government of Somalia, the US Embassy tweeted out photographs of its delivery of 61 tons of weaponry to Somalia. Every Somali and Somaliland official to whom I have spoken since interprets the arms delivery as a White House and Pentagon endorsement of the invasion by forces aligned with Somalia and Puntland of a region the State Department has recognized as belonging to Somaliland for more than 60 years.
Many Somalilanders believe the White House seeks to punish them for their democratic success and tilt toward Taiwan. Some opportunistic Somaliland politicians, meanwhile, use events to suggest a pivot to China.
Why a Somalia-Somaliland Union is Impossible
The State Department’s stated policy, at least until now, is that Mogadishu and Hargeisa should negotiate their relationship diplomatically rather than fight on the battlefield. Somaliland, which was briefly independent (and which the US recognized) in 1960 and reasserted its independence in 1991, rejects a merger with Somalia. Their brief union was not happy and ended with a genocide perpetrated by Cold War-era Somali dictator Siad Barre against Somaliland’s Isaaq clan.
The Cold War might be over but, practically speaking, union is not realistic given the complexities of land rights and different legal systems. There are no mortgages in the region, and so families purchase land and buildings up front. This makes them averse to switch from a democratic, stable legal regime to a corrupt, unstable one. The White House should understand this, for it is the same reason Taiwanese do not want to live under Beijing’s control.
The State Department’s policy in Somalia today is a disaster. It is undercutting the only democracy in the Horn of Africa, empowering Chinese interests, and creating a safe-haven for terror. All eyes might be on Ukraine, but in terms of empowering terror, Biden, Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear to be staking out a policy position second only to the abandonment of Afghanistan in terms of its empowerment of terror and its long-term damage to U.S. credibility.