Should the U.S. Help Break Up Somalia?

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Last month, the United States announced a new policy toward Somalia. In a September 24 press briefing in New York City, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said that the U.S. would "work to engage more actively with the governments of Puntland and Somaliland," two autonomous regions within Somalia. This ends the U.S. policy of relating exclusively to Somalia's transitional federal government (TFG), which can be described as the country's central government only if "central" is understood to mean controlling several blocks of the capital with the help of 7,000 foreign soldiers. The change was driven by escalating violence in Somalia's south from the al-Qaeda-aligned militant outfit al-Shabaab, the TFG's clear ineffectiveness, and the relative security that both Somaliland and Puntland have enjoyed. Though this new policy falls far short of recognizing Somaliland's long-sought independence, thus creating a new African state and fundamentally reshaping the Horn of Africa, some observers believe the U.S. should now give independence a closer look.

The U.S.'s hope is that by engaging Somaliland and Puntland, those regions will be better equipped to contain the spread of violence. Carson made this clear, saying that both regions are expected to "be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the South." He continued, "We hope to be able to have more American diplomats and aid workers going into those countries on an ad hoc basis to meet with government officials to see how we can help them improve their capacity to provide services."

Though Somaliland declared its independence on May 18, 1991, it is not internationally recognized; Puntland declared itself an autonomous state in 1998, but has not sought outright independence. Carson, by referencing these regions as countries, drew questions from reporters on whether the U.S. was contemplating diplomatic recognition of them as independent states. He replied that the U.S. "still recognized only a single Somali state." But Somaliland's representatives believe the U.S.'s policy shift does not go far enough.

I spoke with Saad Noor, the North American representative of the Republic of Somaliland, who believes that as long as its independence is not recognized Somaliland's relative stability will be in jeopardy. He noted that, at present, Somaliland cannot engage with international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, or even the Universal Postal Union. Noor also pointed to businesses' hesitancy to engage in the region because Somaliland's status as an unofficial country makes it difficult to insure their investments. Without recognition, Noor claimed, "our people's hopes and adherence to the state will erode day to day. If you cannot employ and educate the young men and young women, if you cannot build roads, if you cannot bring businesses that provide jobs, everything will be in a state of continuous deterioration."

Noor is also unhappy that the U.S. is explicitly linking its Somaliland and Puntland policies. "Puntland never left the union," he said. "Puntland still flies the flag of Somalia and uses the same currency. They say that they would like to have a federal republic of Somalia."

Most of the scholarship to date regarding Somaliland's independence supports U.S. recognition. Peter J. Schraeder made the case in a piece he wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Matt Bryden proclamed that Somaliland "looks like a state, smells like a state and tastes like a state." (Honestly, it makes more sense in context.) To be fair, ideas that are far from being implemented frequently have more public advocates than adversaries, and only garner more opposition once they look like they could become a reality.

Presented by

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden's Legacy, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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