SEATTLE — After nearly three decades of bedlam throughout the Horn of Africa, U.S. foreign policy in Somalia is now focusing on bolstering a nascent Somali government. The U.S. is seeking to empower Somali leader to secure their homeland, develop a sustainable economy and improve the general well-being of the Somali people.
Why should the U.S. care about Somalia? The U.S. holds an interest in helping African nations contribute to global economic and social prosperity. Buttressing Somali government legitimacy and capability strengthens regional alliances against the spread of extremism. It also energizes Somali officials to alleviate domestic hunger, improve access to healthcare and invest in long-term development.
The world first learned of Somalia during the famine and humanitarian crisis that immediately followed Somalia’s independence. The Clinton administration responded, along with the U.N., with the deployment of troops to the Horn of Africa. Their presence led to the infamous events Mark Bowden and Ridley Scott respectively portrayed in both book and film versions of “Black Hawk Down.”
Former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman described Somalia’s tumultuous entry into the 1990s, saying, “Almost overnight, the very word ‘Somalia’ became a synonym for chaos.”
Sherman described the uniqueness of U.S. foreign policy in Somalia, stating that “Africa defies generalization.” African nations represent polar ends of the modern world from the rich and economically prosperous to the indigent and undeveloped, and U.S. policy in Africa recognizes this diversity. Somali ranks on the poor end of the spectrum but not as far as many assume.
Most of what the international community knows about Somalia involves the depredations of Somali pirates and Al Shabaab’s acts of terrorism. Sony Pictures’ film “Captain Phillips”, starring Tom Hanks, for example, depicts a Somali pirate hijacking of a U.S. merchant vessel.
The U.S. has facilitated tremendous gains in Somalia, but the “climate of fear” often overshadows news of progress. So what has U.S. foreign policy in Somalia accomplished?
In 2011, the African Union and government forces liberated Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, which had previously been under Al Shabaab’s control. The election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud soon followed. Mohamoud’s government had the necessary financial support and corporeal oversight to make tremendous gains in national security, civil society and domestic prosperity.
According to the U.S. State Department, “supporting economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is a policy priority for the United States.” Instability and violence are currently keeping Somalia from benefiting from U.S. efforts like the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP), but the country is making substantial progress against the threat of terrorism.
Weakening terrorism and the presence of Al Shabaab in Somalia is a major challenge. In 2013, the U.N. Security Council decided to add 4,000 troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The troop increase enabled AMISOM and the Somali National Army to conduct offensive, rather than defensive, operations. U.S. sponsorship of AMISOM has strengthened regional capabilities and fostered unity against terrorism.
During a 2015 speech, U.S. president Barack Obama said that “with training and support, we’re helping African forces grow stronger.” The U.S. State Department committed $170 million to help recruit and train forces, including women, within the Somali National Army. The U.S. also contributes uniformed military to conduct training and direct action against Al-Shabaab.
Following the establishment of a new Somali provisional constitution and formal U.S. recognition, the Somali government continues to grow stronger. Many of the country’s two million expatriates and refugees are beginning to return, and a number of them are assuming Somali government posts.
“A signature effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders,” Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) offers Somali leaders opportunity, networks and education. U.S. investment in civic leaders fortifies the Somali government’s validity, “thus fueling growth domestically and easing political pressures in neighboring lands.”
International donors, including the U.S., pledged over $2 billion toward reconstruction aid in order to inspire a solvent Somali economy. Contributions through the United States’ Feed the Future Initiative address Somali hunger and food insecurity. Passing the Global Food Security Act of 2016 enabled the U.S. to pursue an outlined provision to evaluate Somali agricultural production.
Fueling Somalia’s economic development has not only directly expanded prosperity but has also encouraged latent potential. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has opened Sub-Saharan markets to the United States.
Despite dismal headlines shouting of piracy, famine, clan violence and terrorism, U.S foreign policy in Somalia continues to produce tangible progress toward eradicating terrorism and assuaging extreme poverty. And according to the current U.S. administration, “they [the Somalis]are the ones who have assumed the lead.”
– Tim Devine