“Is State Department Stubbornness Undermining Sudan Evacuation?” Michael Rubin argues the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu and State Department’s Africa Bureau, led by Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee stubborn adherence to failed Somalia policy and ignoring the asset of Berbera airfield now undermines Sudan evacuation and puts Americans at risk)
By Michael Rubin
Sudan’s descent into civil war has been rapid. On April 15, 2023, fighting erupted between troops loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and those aligned with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, often called Hemetti, who commands the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. The fighting largely caught the State Department by surprise. Eyewitness accounts speak of significant destruction in and around Khartoum.
Noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs) are always difficult. Not only do diplomats and American government employees expect evacuation, but so too do businessmen, students, and perhaps thousands of local residents who hold birthright American citizenship even if they have never stepped foot in the United States.
In 2011, as concern about Lebanon’s stability escalated, the Pentagon estimated 60,000 individuals might qualify for evacuation. As Yemen descended into civil war, the number was 45,000.
Certainly, the numbers of Americans in Sudan are less, and even removing a handful under fire can be difficult. That said, after bungling the Afghanistan withdrawal, senior Biden administration officials in both the White House and Pentagon cannot claim inexperience. They should not make the same mistakes twice. Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what the State Department has done, in large part because of the stubbornness of the Somalia desk.
According to Politico, the French are evacuating American personnel to an airfield where French and other European aircraft are ferrying evacuees to Djibouti, a former French colony where the United States today leases a base and shares an airfield.
The irony is that just 150 miles away from Djibouti is Berbera, the commercial center of Somaliland. Its airstrip once used as an emergency landing site for NASA’s Space Shuttle program, is among the longest in Africa. While Djibouti is congested, the Berbera Airport, newly renovated by the United Arab Emirates, can accommodate dozens of flights each day.
The American military has surveyed the airport and flown various missions into it in the past. Berbera’s deep-water port is just a couple of miles away. Most importantly, Berbera is peaceful (my then-9-year-old daughter took a Christmas vacation there). The local government welcoming to Americans and Europeans. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) explicitly called for tighter US-Somaliland strategic relations.
The State Department lobbied furiously but unsuccessfully against the Somaliland provisions within the NDAA. Their logic was any ties to Somaliland could anger Somalia. While the United States recognized British Somaliland upon its 1960 independence, the country subsequently entered into a union with Italian Somaliland to form Somalia. In 1991, as Somalia descended into civil war, state failure, and starvation, Somaliland reasserted its independence and has been democratic, Western-oriented, and largely peaceful since.
While State Department officials regularly visited Somaliland in the 1990s and early 2000s, today they default to Somali irredentists that demand Somaliland’s isolation. The best analogy is that Mogadishu wants to treat Somaliland as China demands the world treat Taiwan. In both cases, Washington should side with the Western-oriented democracy.
Certainly, the State Department should not allow a state that receives billion-dollar subsidies but cannot even control its capital city to bully Washington. Even if the State Department is not any more prepared to recognize Somaliland’s independence than it is Taiwan’s, there is no reason why American diplomats cannot engage the region directly, the Horn of Africa’s equivalent of one country, two systems. After all, they once did.
In Afghanistan, the early forfeit of Bagram Air Base in favor of congested Kabul cost American lives. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s blindness if not hostility to Berbera suggests the State Department is making the same mistake twice. At the very least, Blinken complicates the evacuation due to an outdated policy that ceased to reflect ground reality more than 30 years ago.
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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