Why is it, under current State Department policy, the United States effectively embargos Somaliland? If the State Department remains blind to the broader picture, why should Congress not engage directly with Somaliland?

By Michael Rubin

The United States has poured billions of dollars into Somalia in recent years, not only for aid and development but also to support police and security forces.

U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, meanwhile, threatened to resign unless the U.S. Congress forgave $1 billion in Somali debt to the United States. How ironic, then, that on April 12, 2021, President Mohamed Farmajo (whose term technically expired in February and whose claim to a two-year extension many Somali leaders see as illegitimate) appointed police chief for Mogadishu who is best known in Somalia for robbing people at checkpoints, piracy, and working in the Al Qaeda-affiliate Al-Shabaab militia.


Such personnel choices are increasingly becoming the rule rather than the exception for Farmajo who earlier promoted Fahad Yasin to be his intelligence chief despite his documented ties to Al Shabaab and other designated terrorist groups. Meanwhile, after the State Department directed most of the billions of dollars through Farmajo in order to help him build his stature, Farmajo increasingly turns to China and Russia, perhaps because he knows they will not ask questions about his ambition to revert Somalia to a dictatorship, such as existed when his uncle Siyad Barre ran the country before 1991.

There is little bipartisan today in Washington, DC, but there is no reason U.S. policy toward the Horn of Africa cannot be. On April 13, 2021, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks and Rep. Michael McCaul, respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a joint statement. “We are deeply concerned by recent developments surrounding Somalia’s elections, particularly the legislation to extend President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s (Farmajo) mandate by two years. This action erodes the federalism process and undermines the pursuit of democracy and stability in Somalia,” they declared before calling for a re-evaluation of U.S. funding.

They are right, of course, but should go further and ask several more questions:

-How is it that the State Department centralized spending through Farmajo at the expense of more democratic regions of Somalia? Many Somalis saw this train wreck coming; why did the U.S. embassy not?

-During the Cold War, Siyad Barre famously switched patrons from the Soviet Union to the United States. Is Farmajo doing the opposite? Is China and perhaps Russia consolidating influence not only over Somalia but also over Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti?

-Meeks and McCaul omit that Somaliland which reasserted its independence 30 years ago, is holding multicandidate, one-man, one-vote elections in just over a month. Biometric iris scans secure the elections. Somaliland also remains pro-Western in orientation and has even established relations with Taiwan. Why is it, under current State Department policy, the United States effectively embargos Somaliland? If the State Department remains blind to the broader picture, why should Congress not engage directly with Somaliland?

Unfortunately, Farmajo’s self-coup did not emerge in a vacuum but is a long-time coming. It is time for a fundamental rethink of U.S. policy toward the Horn of Africa.

Michael RubinAbout Michael Rubin

Senior Fellow

Research Areas

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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