The question the State Department and the CIA should ask is how the U.S. embassies in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, as well as their respective chiefs of the station,
It has been 18 months since the Taliban rampaged across Afghanistan and seized Kabul.
While it is fair to blame both President Joe Biden for the decision to abandon the country and former President Donald Trump for crafting a deeply flawed peace process, Washington has yet to address a broader problem: Until the last minute, the intelligence community assessed the Afghan government could survive. However, their fall was less military than political.
For more than a year before Afghanistan’s final fall, the Taliban or their Pakistani paymasters had approached every district government to try to co-opt them and arrange their surrender as the United States conducted its withdrawal. Neither the CIA, Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, nor diplomats stuck behind the State Department’s fortified embassy in Kabul picked up on the chatter. Their intelligence failure completely blindsided Washington.
The same was true in the early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Locked behind Green Zone gates and blast walls, the State Department and then-White House aide Khalilzad refused to recognize that Iran was not abiding by the agreement they had negotiated prior to the war. By the time U.S. authorities recognized that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had infiltrated the country, the damage was done.
History now repeats in the Horn of Africa. Earlier this month, violence erupted in Sool, a district of Somaliland that abuts the Somali state of Puntland. The violence was not spontaneous: The Somali ambassador in Ethiopia bragged about planning it for more than four months. China apparently gave a green light, seeking to punish Somaliland for rebuffing it in favor of Taiwan. Under Presidents Barack Obama, Trump, and Biden, U.S. Special Forces and Navy SEALS trained Somali counterparts to fight the al-Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab militia. Somaliland now claims that they have captured some of these U.S.-trained Somali forces fighting alongside al Shabaab as well as police forces dispatched across the border from Ethiopia’s southern Ogaden region.
The question the State Department and the CIA should ask is how the U.S. embassies in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, as well as their respective chiefs of the station, managed to miss a major plot involving multiple political groups, militias, and even countries. In Afghanistan, a major problem was that U.S. personnel remained quarantined behind compound walls while both the Taliban and a hostile intelligence service in Pakistan roamed the country. In effect, the embassy operated blind even as it insisted it had forfeited no functional capacity.
The U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu has no such excuse. Somaliland, with the exception of Sool today, is safe. Diplomats from other countries roam the capital Hargeisa without security. However, not only did U.S. Ambassador Larry Andre Jr. refuse to visit Somaliland except when visiting delegations demanded an appearance, but he also did not allow more junior embassy staff or the U.S. defense attache to make the trip. Once again, petulant deference to Mogadishu’s sensitivities trumped effectiveness. The result: Allowing reactionary forces and terrorist groups to try to destabilize the most democratic and stable country in the Horn of Africa.
The State Department often says it needs more money to do its job. Perhaps that is true in some areas, but so long as its diplomats are unable to or refuse to leave their compounds, no amount of money will enable embassies to do their jobs. Hiding behind security or prioritizing the sensitivity of unelected leaders over counterterrorism and American national security is not the way to defend democracy or the liberal order. The CIA has less of an excuse. It has now made the same mistake three times at the cost of U.S. national security, thousands of lives, and freedom for millions more.
If there ever were a time for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns to ask tough questions of their subordinates, it would be now. If they will not do so, it is time for Congress to act.
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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- The World Can Learn From How Somaliland Overcame Militias
- Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn
- Somaliland Declaration On The Origin Of African Borders
- Masuuliyiinta Xidh-Xidhan Iyo Dareemada Dhagarta Xambaarsan Ee Laga Soo Werinayo Dhinaca Madaxtooyada
- Somaliland Is A Beacon Of Democracy In An Unstable Region