Somaliland: Key to Winning America’s Longest War

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HARGEISA, SOMALILAND—On February 7, 2019, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. airstrikes alone would not defeat al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group with deep roots in Somalia. Instead, he said, local forces need to “step up.” He is right, so it is especially unfortunate that when local forces step up to rebuff al-Shabaab, AFRICOM ignores them.

Consider Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia which borders Djibouti and controls 460-miles of coastland along the Gulf of Aden. While Somalia descended into chaos in 1991, the northern clans in Somaliland restored peace throughout the region which accounts for about 30 percent of Somalia’s territory. That peace has not come cheap: While the region has very few natural resources—livestock is its major export—it continues to spend one-third of its $350 million budget on security and defense. Recruits to its 15,000-man army or small coast guardmust purchase their own weapons. Such figures—almost entirely generated locally through customs and taxation—are a pittance compared to the foreign and military aid offered Somalia. In addition, the U.S. spends $70 million annually to rent facilities in Camp Lemonnier, the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and is spending many times that amount to upgrade its facilities.

Somaliland’s security priorities correspond with those of the United States: It seeks to deny its territory to Al-Shabaab and other terrorist groups and, to date, have been successful, despite the hostility of terrain along their border with Somalia. Sweden recently donatedthree boats for Somaliland coast guard, which they now use to patrol the coast to deter weapons smuggling from Yemen. Local officials brag there has not been a single instance of piracy launched from Somaliland’s territory, even though Puntland, the Somali region adjacent to Somaliland, became its epicenter.

While both Somaliland political and military authorities told me over the course of a week’s visit that they would welcome any U.S. assistance, their top priority is merely a liaison to help coordinate anti-Shabaab, anti-weapons smuggling, and anti-piracy efforts.

U.S. policy, however, has been to shun Somaliland to augment the fiction of Somali unity. “The U.S. response to the challenges in Somalia has been to work with the Federal Government and the Federal Member state administrations, in coordination with the African Union, the United Nations, and other partners working toward a common goal: to support Somali-led efforts to stabilize and rebuild their country along democratic and federal lines,” a November 2017 AFRICOM public affairs article states. The problem is that while Somaliland is a federal Somali state, in theory, it is not one in practice. Authorities in Mogadishu appointed a parliament in 2012, seven years after Somaliland elected theirs. Those appointed to represent Somaliland do not live in the region, nor do they have popular legitimacy or the ability to influence events on the ground.

The State Department and UN defer to the African Union which is loath to draw new borders in Africa. That diplomatic debate might be valid (though Somalilanders note their borders are well defined by treaties dating back more than a century when the British established a protectorate and confirmed in 1960 when more than 30 countries recognized Somaliland’s independence), but there is no reason why that debate must come at the expense of vital U.S. national interests. TurkeyEthiopiaDjibouti, and Kenya maintain consulates in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. Denmark has an office, and Kenya will soon open theirs. The Spanish navy has conducted exercises with Somaliland’s coast guard, and the United Arab Emirates has leased a base in Berbera, where U.S. forces once operated during the Cold War. None of these countries nor the African Union interpret their involvement as undermining broader diplomatic policies or bestowing formal recognition of its independence.

Nor is the U.S. refusal to liaise with Somaliland consistent with other corollary trouble spots. The United States no longer recognizes Taiwan, but it maintains ties to the strategic island through the American Institute in Taiwan.  Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the CIA and U.S. Special Forces established links to Iraqi Kurds, even though Washington did not formally recognize their government. Both the CIA and U.S. military also have trained and conducted liaison functions with Palestinian security services despite the lack of formal recognition of Palestinian statehood. Most recently, U.S. forces partnered with Syrian Kurds to combat a common enemy.

Arguably, Somalia—rather than Afghanistan—is America’s longest war. While National Security Advisor John Bolton on December 13, 2018 said that “countering the threat from Radical Islamic Terrorism and violent conflict” remains a vital pillar of the Trump administration’s Africa policy, the failure even to coordinate with those controlling key territory most successful again Al-Shaabab, pirates, and weapons smugglers suggests that, while the Pentagon is willing to spend money, AFRICOM is not prepared to win.


Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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