The Africa Command Prospect and the Partition of Somalia

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As the US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was recently visiting American forces in Djibouti, the Washington Post was reporting how the Pentagon has been spearheading a seemingly dicey initiative to pressure Washington into recognizing the secessionist northwestern region of Somalia known as “Somaliland” as an independent state.

In an article titled ‘U.S. Debating Shift of Support in Somali Conflict’ that appeared on December 4, 2007 issue, the Post highlights how some Pentagon officials are convinced it is time “to forge ties with Somaliland, as the U.S. military has with Kenya and other countries bordering Somalia.” The article quotes a senior defense official who asserts that "Somaliland is an entity that works." And another unnamed official who confirms the Pentagon’s view is that "Somaliland should be independent," and that the US should “build up the parts that are functional and box in Somalia’s unstable regions, particularly around Mogadishu.”

This initiative clearly contradicts the State Department’s wait-and-see approach to this diplomatically sensitive issue. And, handled haphazardly, this could set ablaze the volatile inter-tribal tensions looming in northern Somalia, and, according to the article, “set a precedent for other secession movements seeking to change colonial-era borders,” therefore, “opening a Pandora’s box in the region.

That said, it is worth noting that aside from the on again, off again, clan-driven skirmishes that make headlines every now and then, throughout the Somali civil war, the northwestern region has enjoyed relative peace and stability.

Naturally, this unprecedented aggressive approach by the Department of Defense raises questions worth pondering: When did the Pentagon become the engine propelling the US foreign policy? Why would the Pentagon care whether or not Somaliland becomes an independent state or not? And, more importantly, how prudent is it to take this kind of an approach?

In answering the first question, remember how the events of 9/11 have “changed the world” and how as a result the notoriously Islamophobic Neocons ascended to (absolute) power; remember that moment in history when in certain circles it was fashionable to declare diplomacy dead and to claim militarization of the American foreign policy is imperative to the survival of the nation. It is then when the rules of the game have profoundly changed. Today, while the icons of that political machine have disappeared for one reason or another, the policy imprint they left behind would probably take generations to undo.

Last summer, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, addressed an audience of several hundred, mostly Somali scholars, activists, students, and professionals at a Somali studies conference held in Columbus, Ohio. In her speech, Dr. Frazer said “we were against the Ethiopian invasion”. This, of course, contradicted what the Somali people and the world already knew- that in January 2007 Washington switched hats from a “tacit supporter” of Ethiopia’s aggression to an active partner in the illegal invasion. US Air Force AC-130 gunship has launched aerial attacks against "suspected Islamist terrorists" based in Somalia.

So, was Dr. Frazer not being entirely honest? Perhaps not, though her statement was cleverly inserted in a context which could only give the impression that Ethiopia has invaded Somalia in spite of Washington’s objections. After all her statement was consistent with the State Department’s position; alas, that was superseded by the hawkish wishes of the Pentagon. And this brings me to the latter of the two original questions. And the simple answer is the establishment of the Africa Command or AFRICOM as it is commonly known.

AFRICOM is a US command center completely devoted to Africa. The primary objective of the command center is to promote US national security by “working with African states and regional organizations to help strengthen stability and security…” and creating an environment in which sustainable economic growth is possible. The command center is supposed to focus on “war prevention rather than war-fighting”.

It is no secret that many in the Pentagon consider the Somali port city of Berbera as the ideal location for AFRICOM. However, considering the site-selection criteria jointly developed by the Pentagon and the State Department that include “political stability; security factors; access to regional and intercontinental transportation; availability of acceptable infrastructure; qualify of life; proximity to the African Union and regional organizations; proximity to U.S. government hubs; adequate Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA),” Somalia might not look as a prime candidate. However, detaching the secessionist northwestern region from the rest of chaotic Somalia gives a different picture. This explains why the Pentagon’s view is that "Somaliland should be independent."

The Pentagon is pressed against time. October 2008 is the deadline when AFRICOM is supposed to be fully operational. In the mean time, Somalia’s situation is worsening by the day. The situation there is now considered the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa. According to the UN, approximately one million civilians fleeing Mogadishu have become internally displaced persons (IDP) threatened by severe food shortage.

Oblivious to the scale of this humanitarian catastrophe and how their approach could potentially add another layer of complexity, the Pentagon is eager to accelerate the establishment of AFRICOM, especially now that China is making profound stride in Africa and the European Union is following suit. However, the real set back to Washington is its own self-defeating foreign policy that is treated as suspect everywhere.

According to Congressman Donald Payne, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Washington should expect “a lot of skepticism, because there has been so little attention given to Africa…All of a sudden to have a special military command, I think the typical person would wonder why now and really what is the end game?"

The neocons’ legacy, the DADD syndrome, or the Diplomatic Attention Deficit Disorder, is still propelling Washington’s foreign policy and continues to project America negatively throughout the world, especially in the Muslim world and Africa.

The US foreign policy regarding Somalia ought to focus on ending the Ethiopian occupation and therefore ending their widely condemned human rights abuses, as well as facilitating an all inclusive reconciliation conference before the 2009 general elections. This is congruent, at least in part, with a nine point recommendation articulated in a communiqué issued by the Somali Cause upon the conclusion of its two day conference on December 1, 2007.

Somali Cause is a nine member coalition, Eight US based organizations and one Canada based- the Somali Canadian Diaspora Alliance.

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