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Briefing Room

Why the US Cares About Somalia



Geopolitical Futures — Something is quietly stirring in the Horn of Africa. Over the past month, the United States seems to have shown a renewed interest in Somalia and the security threats that emanate from it. On April 15, U.S. Africa Command confirmed that several dozen troops from the 101st Airborne Division would train and equip Somali forces to more effectively combat militant Islamist group al-Shabab.
Shortly thereafter, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving AFRICOM more autonomy in its missions against the group. Then, on May 5, Washington announced the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL outside the capital of Mogadishu – and, in doing so, acknowledged that the United States was participating in local military operations there. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is even slated to attend a conference in the United Kingdom on May 11 over the future of Somalia.

These events raise an obvious and important question: Why does Somalia warrant such a military commitment from the world’s only superpower?

The answer to that question, as is so often the case, starts with geography. Somalia’s northern coast borders the Gulf of Aden, which leads to Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow chokepoint through which all maritime traffic from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean must pass. Avoiding this strait would take all goods from the Persian Gulf – including oil – around the entire African continent to reach European and American markets. It is also a valuable staging ground for navies to project power on to the Arabian Peninsula.

For this reason, Washington’s interest in Somalia remained steadfast even after the Cold War ended. After civil war erupted in 1991, the United States, in a testament to Somalia’s geostrategic importance, participated heavily in the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. (Washington would later reduce its involvement after sustaining casualties in 1993.) Among the groups fighting for power were Islamist groups, one of which, the Islamic Courts Union, actually controlled southern Somalia in the 2000s.

An extremist wing of the Islamic Courts Union split from its parent group, donned the name al-Shabab, and continues to conduct terrorist attacks in the country. Al-Shabab also boasts ties with both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Formally, Somalia now has a central government, but it cannot control formally or informally such an untamed and fractured country, to which al-Shabab is a big contributor.

The United States, meanwhile, has been coming to terms with the costs of global hegemony. It has been trying to extricate itself from faraway military operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Horn of Africa is no different. Washington understands that it does not have the resources or political capital to fight every war in the world. But it still needs to be active in places like Somalia to protect its global interests. It has therefore pursued a strategy that involves a limited use of resources necessary to achieve an acceptable result as opposed to decisive, clear-cut victory.

Such is the case in Somalia. Over the past few years, Washington has selectively developed a military presence throughout the Horn of Africa that features drone technology, special operations forces and cooperation with other regional actors.
The East Africa Response Force, an outfit comprising members of the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy tasked with crisis response and personnel recovery, returned to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti (the largest U.S. base in Africa) in April 2014.

Plans are also underway to add new facilities to the U.S. special operations compound at Lemonnier. In addition, U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group were sent back to Africa in late 2015 after serving in Afghanistan. The U.S. government was also privy to the negotiations for DP World’s plans to develop Berbera port in Somaliland along the Gulf of Aden, as well as plans by the United Arab Emirates (a strong U.S. ally) to establish a military base near there.

Central to this strategy, however, is the inclusion of local forces to share security responsibilities. To that end, the United States has been delegating to regional leaders who have a more vested interest in stabilizing the internal conflicts and terrorist threats coming out of other countries. Given their shared border with Somalia, not to mention their comparatively mature militaries, Ethiopia and Kenya appear as the two most natural candidates.

Ethiopia, however, is undergoing a period of nationwide unrest and is not in a position to be a viable partner. The country recalled some of its troops from Somalia citing financial restrictions, but the more likely explanation is that more security forces were needed to help quell domestic political unrest.

Kenya appears to be more reliable. The country has a direct incentive to help, considering al-Shabab has conducted attacks on Kenyan soil. Recent U.S. gestures to help Kenya play its regional role include increased military training programs, inclusion in regional military drills, and the sale of 12 new U.S.-made light attack helicopters, 24 heavy machine gun pods and accompanying systems, 24 rocket pods and some 4,000 M151 high-explosive rockets. With so much time spent fighting insurgencies, moreover, the United States has a lot of experience it can impart to Kenya that it cannot get from other countries.

There may also be economic motivation to helping the United States. Kenya is an emerging East African economy, and its main strategy for increasing basic manufactured exports is to take advantage of the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives Kenya preferential trade status with the United States.

For this reason, in late April, the Kenyan government sent Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed to Washington to discuss security cooperation, economic agreements and investment opportunities with U.S. officials.

Ideally, the United States would like to see al-Shabab, and indeed all radical Islam, destroyed. But to achieve this requires the United States to use vast resources for results that are far from guaranteed. Instead, the United States will settle for keeping the world’s sea lanes off the Horn of Africa open and safe for passage.

This is the U.S. imperative in the region, and a containment approach to al-Shabab in Somalia achieves that goal, particularly since the group is relegated largely to the south, separated from the strategic north by vast deserts and poor transportation infrastructure. The United States will try to use its allies to help it keep al-Shabab there, a sufficient outcome for a country trying to strike a balance of power in virtually every corner of the world.

Briefing Room

Diplomatic leaks: UAE dissatisfied with Saudi policies



AL JAZEERA — Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) is working on breaking up Saudi Arabia, leaked documents obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar revealed.

Al Akhbar said that the leaked documents contained secret diplomatic briefings sent by UAE and Jordanian ambassadors in Beirut to their respective governments.

One of the documents, issued on September 20, 2017, disclosed the outcome of a meeting between Jordan’s ambassador to Lebanon Nabil Masarwa and his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdel-Al al-Qenaie.

“The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is working on breaking up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Jordanian envoy quoted the Kuwait ambassador as saying.

A second document, issued on September 28, 2017, reveals meeting minutes between the Jordanian ambassador and his UAE counterpart Hamad bin Saeed al-Shamsi.

The document said the Jordanian ambassador informed his government that UAE believes that “Saudi policies are failing both domestically and abroad, especially in Lebanon”.

“The UAE is dissatisfied with Saudi policies,” the Jordanian envoy said.

The Qatar vote
According to the leaks, UAE ambassador claims that Lebanon voted for Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in his bid to become head of UNESCO in October 2017.

“[Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri knew Lebanon was voting for Qatar,” the UAE ambassador said in a cable sent to his government on October 18, 2017.

In November last year, Hariri announced his shock resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh.

He later deferred his decision, blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for his initial resignation. He also said he feared an assassination attempt.

Officials in Lebanon alleged that Hariri was held hostage by Saudi authorities, an allegation Hariri denied in his first public statement following his resignation speech.

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Briefing Room

Somalia’s Puntland region asks UAE to stay as Gulf split deepens



BOSASO, Somalia (Reuters) – Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region urged the United Arab Emirates not to close its security operations in the country after a dispute with the central government, saying the Gulf power was a key ally in the fight against Islamist militants.

The dispute goes to the heart of an increasingly troubled relationship between Gulf states – divided by their own disputes – and fractured Somalia, whose coastline sits close to key shipping routes and across the water from Yemen.

Analysts have said the complex standoff risks exacerbating an already explosive security situation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where militant groups launch regular attacks.

The central Somali government said on Wednesday it was taking over a military training program run by the UAE.

Days later the UAE announced it was pulling out, accusing Mogadishu of seizing millions of dollars from a plane, money it said was meant to pay soldiers.

“We ask our UAE friends, not only to stay, but to redouble their efforts in helping Somalia stand on its feet,” said the office of the president of Puntland, a territory that sits on the tip of the Horn of Africa looking out over the Gulf of Aden.

Ending UAE support, “will only help our enemy, particularly Al Shabaab and ISIS (Islamic State),” it added late on Monday.


The UAE is one of a number of Gulf powers that have opened bases along the coast of the Horn of Africa and promised investment and donations as they compete for influence in the insecure but strategically important region.

That competition has been exacerbated by a diplomatic rift between Qatar and a bloc including the UAE. In turn, those splits have worsened divisions in Somalia.

Puntland, which has said it wants independence, has sought to woo the UAE which runs an anti-piracy training center there and is developing the main port. The central government in Mogadishu last year criticized Puntland for taking sides in the Gulf dispute. Qatar’s ally Turkey is one of Somalia’s biggest investors.

One Somali government official said last week Mogadishu had decided to take over the UAE operation because the Gulf state’s contract to run it had expired. Another official said the government was investigating the money taken from the plane.

The competition among Gulf states in Somalia has fueled accusations of foreign interference and resentment in many corners of Somali society.

The loss of the UAE program could have a destabilizing effect, said one security analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The value of the UAE trained forces was two-fold – they were relatively well trained but, most importantly, they were paid on time,” unlike other parts of the security forces, the analyst told Reuters.

Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991.

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Briefing Room

Puntland President calls UAE continue its mission in Somalia



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