The re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, is welcome news to many who have worked on U.S. policy issues in the Horn of Africa for decades. It represents not just a positive step in strengthening bilateral relations, but also a victory over those who would prioritize risk-aversion ahead of the actual work of diplomacy, which requires presence, relationships, and a multilayered understanding of the political and social dynamics that shape decision-making for partners on the ground. Achieving thoughtful policy goals in a climate as fractured and fragile as Somalia’s is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. Trying to do it from afar is nearly impossible.
But this good news comes at a difficult time. Somalia’s slow and unsteady recovery from total collapse has long been threatened by al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that still controls significant territory and has the capacity to strike targets in the capital and throughout much of the country, most recently a military base where the U.S. military trains Somali forces. These days, progress in Somalia is also threatened by external powers exporting their rivalries to the Horn. The rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council has found expression in Somalia, where the United Arab Emirates has aggressively courted Somaliland and semi-autonomous Puntland, while Qatar and Turkey are important supporters of President Farmajo’s Somali Federal Government. Rather than uniting Somalis in cooperatively resisting al-Shabaab and building enduring arrangements to provide security and opportunity to the population, this dynamic risks shifting focus to core-periphery tensions that need not be sources of instability for the Somali people.
Any country seeking to influence events in Somalia would do well to pay close attention to important lessons from history. The proxy conflict in the Horn during the Cold War empowered corrupt and abusive leaders, led to tremendous human loss and suffering in the region, distorted institutions, poisoned regional relationships, and spawned new threats still bedeviling the United States and others. The unintended consequences of using the region as a venue to outflank a rival are not to be lightly dismissed.