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Somalia back on U.S. top agenda

Paul Crompton

Published: Updated:

Recent attacks by Islamist al-Shabaab militants may have placed Somalia back in the spotlight for U.S. authorities who are seeking to gain a diplomatic foothold in the fragmented country.

On Saturday, a U.N. special representative warned that the Al-Qaeda-linked group “is an organization that has a regional agenda,” that has the “capability and intent” to spread their attacks beyond their homeland of Somalia, Agence France-Presse reported.

For the last three years, analysts and U.S. policymakers have noted the Horn of Africa’s growing importance to U.S. interests – with its concern over violent extremist activities from groups such as al-Shabaab being a key priority.

And in the neighboring Al-Qaeda stronghold of Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, the Obama administration has been able to contain jihadist activities, and which it has long bombarded with drone strikes, and around a dozen reported cruise missile attacks.

Although Obama’s cautious tactics of indirect involvement in Yemen have not been decisive, the U.S. has “exercised considerable influence there,” a former Pentagon adviser said recently, according to the Seattle Times.

However, its activity in Somalia – long seen as a hotbed of lawlessness, militancy, and even “a synonym for chaos,” according to senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman – has been more limited since it recalled its ambassador and closed its embassy there amid the collapse of Siad Barre’s military regime 23 years ago.

After Barre’s reign – and the seemingly endless unrest and civil war that followed – the U.S. seemed to leave Somalia out in the cold, failing to recognize any of the 14 previous shaky governments that followed.

But earlier this month, Sherman, the under-secretary of state for political affairs, announced that the U.S. would reappoint an ambassador to Somalia, saying it came from America’s “deepening relationship with the country and our faith that better times are ahead.”

And appointing an ambassador – and eventually building a bricks-and-mortar embassy – would easily enable on-the-ground spying to take place, as the U.S. is known to do in its other diplomatic outposts.

According to Ken Menkhaus, a Somali expert and professor at North Carolina-based Davidson College, future plans for an embassy in Somalia are “purely aspirational at this point,” but that U.S. officials were intending to situate the outpost within the Mogadishu International Airport complex, heavily guarded by African Union and United Nations peacekeeping forces, nestled in between other embassies and diplomatic offices.

However, J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank which has hosted powerful figures including NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the now-Secretary of State John Kerry, told Al Arabiya News that he believes that the United States should not get further involved with Somalia’s weak federal government.

Despite the weight of U.S. recognition, which it received in 2013, Somalia’s government is “not a government in any common-sense definition of one,” according to the foreign affairs expert.

“In the less than two years of its existence, the Federal Republic of Somalia has gone through two prime ministers and countless cabinet reshuffles. Given the relatively brief tenures which they can expect to hold, senior government officials largely view their appointments as opportunities for self-enrichment and other corruption before they are forced to move on,” he said.

Further malfeasance by the government includes its compromises with warlords to claim more territory, abuses of power and silencing of critics, he added.

In a further twist, U.S. recognition of the government appears to contradict their stance of deeming al-Shabaab a terrorist group.

In February 2014, the Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea reported to the Sanctions Committee of the United Nations Security Council that “systematic abuses” by the regime allowed weapons intended to strength government forces to be diverted instead to warlords and al-Shabaab militants.

“The evidence assembled by U.N. experts pointed to key advisors of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as being involved in the actual planning of weapons deliveries to militants,” said Pham.

“All of this begs the question of why we would even recognize, much less appoint an ambassador, to such a regime. Is the administration simply ignorant of widely reported facts?” he added.

Currently, the United States maintains relations with Somalia through a diplomat based in the capital of Kenya, who intermittently travels to Mogadishu, while the future ambassador would not yet take up an office in Somalia, a state department official said earlier this month.

Therefore, the lack of any physical immediate diplomatic presence could mean that U.S. overtures toward Somalia are insincere, according to Pham.

“It is a legitimate question whether the appointment of an ambassador to Mogadishu is not just another empty gesture covering for the current administration’s lack of a real – and realistic – foreign policy,” he said.