It was only a matter of time, but China has now sparked its first African proxy war. The State Department’s kneejerk bothsidesism, if not deference to Mogadishu, however, puts the United States in the uncomfortable position of supporting Communist China as it seeks to destabilize, if not destroy, one of the most pro-Western and most democratic countries in the Horn of Africa.
Fighting continues in Somaliland’s Sool district. Americans may yawn and dismiss the fighting that began in late December as just another conflict in a dusty African corner. Such casual dismissal of Africa is not only wrong strategically (and a bit racist), but it also misreads the importance of the escalating fight.
Also self-defeating is the State Department’s boilerplate call “for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire in Las Anod … [amidst] the tragic loss of life and violence.” Such moral equivalence and bothsidesism is a poor look for the United States. After all, while the mix of Dhulbahante elders, Puntland forces, U.S.-trained Danab Brigade members, Liyu police from Ethiopia’s Somalia region, and al-Shabaab militants repeatedly reject ceasefires but use Somaliland’s unilateral ceasefires to rearm and regroup.
The reality is the Las Anod [Lascanood] fighting was not spontaneous but preplanned. There would be no fighting in Las Anod if Somaliland’s Western-leaning government had not rebuffed China and instead recognized Taiwan. After President Muse Bihi’s decision, China’s ambassador in Mogadishu tried to buy Bihi off, but he stood firm on principle. Too many African leaders sell their sovereignty or their people’s financial future for short-term, personal gains; Bihi, who trained as a pilot in the United States decades ago, wanted something better for Somaliland’s people.
Weeks before the current conflict, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia reportedly consulted with his Somali counterpart Abdullahi Haji Omar “Amey,” a former Puntland vice president. While Hassan Sheikh Mohamud continues to charm the State Department who see the English-speaking Somali statesman selected by a handful of preselected elites to be Somalia’s president, the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu ignores the role that Hodan Osman plays.
Hodan, a top international relations advisor to the Somali government, is the wife of Gamal Mohamed Hassan, the minister of planning during the administration of President Mohamed Farmajo, a leader who sought both to cultivate China and weaponized al-Shabaab. Hodan unabashedly embraces a Sino-Somali alliance. Somalis and Somalilanders both suggest she is the main conduit to China, especially as heavy weaponry not normally present in Las Anod floods into the city.
Both Gamal and Hodan are hostile to Somaliland and its sovereignty. Americans may culturally not understand the importance of clan dynamics in Somalia, but they are important in the local context. Gamal is from the Warsangeli sub-clan, was born in Dhahar in Somaliland’s Sanaag Region, while Hodan is a Dhulbahante. Both resent Somaliland sovereignty. Gamal precipitated the previous round of fighting in the Las Anod area when, in 2018, he visited Sanaag as a serving Somali minister without prior coordination. When I visited the region in 2020, tens of thousands of bullet casings still littered the ground from that fight.
Compounding the proxy war further is oil. Taiwan invests in oil exploration and was planning to start drilling in Somaliland, while China explored for oil just across the border in Ethiopia. Companies have already discovered marketable quantities of oil in the region, and so Beijing appears to be instigating a fight in Somaliland’s oil-rich region to kneecap its competition. Meanwhile, Dubai and the United Kingdom’s investment in Somaliland’s port of Berbera poses competition for China’s investment in Djibouti.
It was only a matter of time, but China has now sparked its first African proxy war. The State Department’s kneejerk bothsidesism, if not deference to Mogadishu, however, puts the United States in the uncomfortable position of supporting Communist China as it seeks to destabilize, if not destroy, one of the most pro-Western and most democratic countries in the Horn of Africa. The State Department’s country desks can be great at counting trees, but sometimes their bureaucratic compartmentalization leads them to be blind to the forest.
It is time for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to refine policy and explain the State Department’s kneejerk deference to China’s interests. If he is unwilling to do so, Congress must.
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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- Somaliland Declaration On The Origin Of African Borders