America’s Diplomatic Neglect Compounds Somalia Fighting: The fighting in Sool between Somalia, Al-Shabaab, and Dhulbahante militias on one hand and Somaliland on the other. A proactive US policy could help.
By Michael Rubin
Fighting continues in Las Anod, the administrative capital of Somaliland’s eastern Sool region. It is a colorful region where Somaliland citizens flocked to register to vote just two years ago, standing in line for the biometric iris scans that the unrecognized country uses to guarantee its election integrity. Brightly colored villas—many built by Somali Americans—shine in sharp contrast to the dusty, scrub, and mountainous landscape, like some small New Mexico town.
Today, the peaceful Las Anod I knew is gone. Instead, it is at the center of a clan war. The tragedy is that the fighting was neither inevitable nor random. Different forces outside Sool seek to drive the conflict for narrow geopolitical, political, or clan interests. In each case, a more proactive U.S. presence in Somaliland could have averted conflict.
The China Connection
First, there is China. In February 2020, Somaliland rebuffed the People’s Republic of China to establish relations with Taiwan. China’s ambassador to Somalia who, until that moment, largely ignored Somaliland, traveled to Hargeisa to seek to convince Somaliland President Muse Bihi to reverse his decision. Bihi rebuffed him.
By both history and culture, Somaliland hoped to orient itself to the West. The White House congratulated Taiwan for cementing its ties in eastern Africa. China fumed, all the more so after Somaliland discovered marketable quantities of oil. China has since doubled down on its influence in Somalia. Even as the State Department seeks to channel hundreds of millions of dollars through President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (HSM)’s government in Mogadishu, his diplomats vociferously supported Beijing against the backdrop of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
While there is no proof that Beijing is behind the current violence, there is much circumstantial evidence. Immediately prior to the unrest, a Somali who goes by the nickname “Ruush” (The Russian) and previously worked as an agent for Hess Oil in the region began meeting with the Chinese ambassador in Mogadishu. Around the same time, Abdullahi Haji Omar “Amey,” the former vice president of Puntland who since 2019 has served as Somali ambassador in Ethiopia, met with his Chinese counterpart. Amey admitted in a speech that he had planned the violence in Las Anod for four months.
Distracting from the Fight against Al-Shabaab
Somali politics also plays a role. While many in Washington support HSM both as a more capable leader than his predecessor Mohamed Farmajo and as an ally in the fight against al-Shabaab terrorism, HSM is not immune from the vortex of Somali politics.
Clan rivalries always overshadow Somali politics, but simply describing the conflict in Las Anod as a fight between the Isaaq clan and Dhulbahante clan family is superficial. The reality is this: After the fall of Cold War-era dictator Siyad Barre in 1991, his Darood clan lost power. Somalis saw Farmajo’s reign as the revival of the Darood.
Within the Darood, there has always been a strong irredentist sentiment. While Somalis, on one level, know this is impossible to achieve, Farmajo and those surrounding him deluded themselves into thinking they could eventually bring not only Somaliland, but also Ethiopia’s Ogaden, Djibouti, and northeastern Kenya into Somalia’s fold.
This was part of the logic of Farmajo embracing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s alliance with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Both Abiy and Isaias may have considered Somalia a junior partner, but Farmajo believed the tripartite alliance was merely another way to achieve the Darood dream of broad Somali influence.
While many in Washington were frustrated by Farmajo’s lackadaisical approach to fighting al-Shabaab, clan dynamics dominated his thinking. Keeping Al Shabaab potent was, for Farmajo, a mechanism to keep rival Hawiye and other non-Darood clans in check.
HSM’s rise to the presidency dashed Darood hopes as HSM comes from the Abgaal sub-clan of Hawiye. HSM’s push to defeat al-Shabaab in Hawiye and Dir clan areas empowers these clans to rebuild Somalia with a Somalia-first rather than irredentist agenda.
By sponsoring a fight in Sool, Farmajo and his backers hope to distract HSM from the fight against al-Shabaab and undercut his ability to lead a Somali recovery. That a man empowered and enriched by the State Department and American taxpayers now acts as al-Shabaab’s de facto enabler should be a scandal for both the State Department and Congress.
The Dhulbahante Will Never Have Their Own State
Not only is there no legitimate Puntland claim to Sool given that the international community recognized Somaliland’s borders decades before Puntland came into existence, but the notion that the Dhulbahante could have a viable state is a belief backed by geography and demography.
A Dhulbahante state would be dependent on Somaliland for trade and food. Dhulbahante leaders might incite violence, but they do their members a disservice by allowing them to become fodder for a fight instigated by outside forces for outside reasons.
Nor are Dhulbahante complaints about Isaaq domination valid: The Somaliland government regularly includes multiple Dhulbahante figures in senior government roles. Somaliland’s Parliamentary Speaker Abdirazak Khalif Ahmed, for example, is Dhulbahante, as is Suleiman Yusuf Ali, the minister of information and national guidance. Several deputy ministers and directors-general are Dhulbante and they have multiple members of parliament.
That Dhulbahante clan chief Garad Jama Garad Ali denied the presence of terrorists in the region as Al Shabaab attacked a Somaliland barracks, hemorrhages his credibility and raises questions about his own complicity with extremism. To enable Garad to establish any autonomous entity would be to create a terror safe haven, essentially a Somali equivalent of Pakistan’s ill-fated Malakand Accord.
The State Department Needs a New Policy
Against the backdrop of these dynamics, the United States has either been absent without leave or aloof. Donald Yamamoto, U.S. ambassador to Somalia from 2018 until 2021, worked to empower Farmajo irrespective of how the Darood politician sought to use American money both to empower Al Shabaab and destabilize Somalia’s neighbors.
Yamamoto’s successor Larry André, Jr., has been little better, doubling down on a Mogadishu-centric policy with a studied indifference, if not hostility, toward Somaliland which, alongside Djibouti, is the most stable region in the Horn of Africa and alone is the most democratic. This hostility—in defiance of Congress no less—signaled to China and Somali irredentists a greenlight to spark unrest in Sool in an effort to destabilize Somaliland.
A far better strategy would be for the State Department to open a consulate in Hargeisa. This would no more denote recognition of Somaliland independence than do the existing offices or consulates of Turkey, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Denmark, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, or the European Union.
Not only would this signal to China and irredentists in the Horn of Africa that the United States supports democracy and will never tolerate aggression against Somaliland, but it would also enable American diplomats to better understand clan dynamics in a volatile region. It is ironic that diplomats urge greater engagement with terrorist groups like Hezbollah in the name of understanding personalities and local intelligence, but refuse to apply the same logic to democracies.
Put another way, it is impossible for even the most skilled American diplomat to understand Somalia from within the boundaries of Mogadishu’s international airport where the U.S. maintains its embassy.
Nor should the State Department alone play a role. The National Defense Authorization Act calls for the Pentagon to explore a presence in Berbera, whose airport once served as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle and whose deep water port rivals Djibouti’s. It is time for André to stop foot-dragging on the process. America’s strategic interest should trump the ambassador’s concern that HSM, who exists on American cash even as he defers to the Chinese, might object.
Fighting in the Horn of Africa represents a failure of diplomacy and a human tragedy. It is not too late to smother its embers and reverse its impact, but it will take leadership in the State Department. No longer should Secretary of State Antony Blinken allow the Africa Bureau to run Somalia policy on autopilot.
About Michael Rubin
Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa
Bio & Experience
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.
- Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
- Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
- Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
- Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
- Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
- Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
- Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
- Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
- Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
- Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
- Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97
Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University
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