After Nominating New Ambassador, Is the U.S. Really Deepening Ties in Somalia?

Flag-Pins-Somalia-USAU.S. President Barack Obama nominated career diplomat Katherine Dhanani as Ambassador to Somalia, eight months after Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman revealed the intent of the U.S. to do so at a USIP event in Washington, D.C.

The State Department hailed the nomination as a sign of “deepening ties” with the Horn of Africa country, amid ongoing speculation about the current status of U.S.-Somalia engagement.

The fact that it took eight months for the U.S. to nominate an ambassador — who must still go through a confirmation process — could have taken quite some time for numerous reasons. But, it is partly evidence of a post-Black Hawk Down approach that shifts between remote control and laissez-faire.

America on Remote Control in Somalia

Drones have been a consistent and often effective tool used to take senior al-Shabaab leaders off the battlefield. Operations from the skies in Somalia have been much more frequent and successful these days compared to ground raids by special forces (unless the targets are pirates.)

While drone strikes are “efficient wins,” the offensive that has stalled against al-Shabaab has allowed the group to recuperate and stage “retaliatory” attacks rather than become further embattled after losses of key leaders.

More importantly, long-term security gains can only be made through rebuilding Somalia’s fractured security apparatus.

On one hand, the U.S. has trained arguably Somalia’s most effective fighting units in the form of the army’s Alpha Group and the intelligence service’s Gaashaan, which comprise the country’s elite Special Forces.

On the other hand, there is much more significant work to be done in encouraging the Somalia National Army (SNA) and the disparate armed groups in the country to integrate and collaborate, rather than continue to engage in direct combat with each other.

The U.S. cannot force groups opposed to al-Shabaab to magically come together, but it has not appeared willing to put substantial resources on the ground that can expend the diplomatic capital necessary to make more progress.

Envoys from the UN, UK, European Union who travel frequently in Somalia have made their fare share of mistakes in probably the toughest diplomatic environment in the world.  But, having a broader presence on the ground (outside of the CIA in Mogadishu airport) is often the best way diplomacy can work.

Diplomatic Cables versus Remittance Lifelines 

It can be guaranteed that a majority of Somalis believe that it is more important for the U.S. to keep vital remittance networks open (which are swiftly closing) rather than to nominate an ambassador who will not even be based in Somalia.

The U.S. may not be perceived as taking a sympathetic approach on the Somali remittance issue because the Treasury department has not appeared to assuage banks — which are dropping remittance clients — that they are safe from liability if illicit networks happen to take advantage of the money transfer system.

For comparison, slightly more optimistic developments have taken pace in the UK after Barclays bank and remittance provider Dahabshiil reached an important agreement last year.

Though the UK and the World Bank have been struggling to create a “safe corridor” for money transfers to Somalia, it shows good faith efforts that the U.S. Treasury could benefit from offering in order to counter the perception that it is callous toward the impact that shrinking remittance lines will have in Somalia.


Categories: Int'l Community in Somalia

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