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When Interests Align: New Defense Bill Calls for Direct Security Cooperation Between the United States and Somaliland

As reported by Somaliland Chronicle over the weekend, the most high-profile American delegation in over a decade is currently in Hargeisa, capital of the strategically located Republic of Somaliland.  Somaliland – a politically isolated democracy in the Horn of Africa – last welcomed an American visit of this magnitude in February of 2008, when former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer paid a brief visit. Control of its extensive coastline along the Gulf of Aden has since increased in value, in an African continent quickly becoming a playground for Chinese influence. Somaliland’s location next to Djibouti, which currently houses both the U.S.’s Africa Command and China’s sole foreign military base, has propelled it to the forefront of American interests in the immediate region.

The United States has been weary of China’s presence in the Horn of Africa and interest in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and has tacitly supported Somaliland’s rejection of Chinese overtures and the establishment diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The current visit has left analysts and observers hastily studying America’s intentions in the unrecognized nation, which has historically positioned itself as a staunchly democratic ally in alignment with U.S. interests and values in the region. As first reported by Saxafi Media, this alignment recently bore fruit in Washington, where United States Senator James E. Risch from Idaho has proposed an important amendment in the latest National Defense Authorization Act, calling for direct defense and security cooperation between the United States and Somaliland.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which sets the policies for expenditure levels in defense and national security, was passed by the senate and sent to President Biden’s desk who is expected to sign the measure. The current budget of the NDAA is a whopping $768 billion, a small portion of which has been allocated to Section 1264, titled “A Feasibility Study on Security and Defense Partnership with Somaliland.”

The amendment instructs the Department of State (in collaboration with the Department of Defense) to seek and pursue synergies with Somaliland on issues pertaining to national security in order to counter growing Chinese influence in the region, and taps Somaliland to “serve as a maritime gateway in East Africa for the United States and its allies.”

In recognition of Somaliland’s stability and democratic credentials, the amendment also suggests Somaliland can act as a “democratic counterweight to destabilizing and anti-democratic forces in Somalia and the wider East Africa.” Somaliland finds itself betwixt Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia in a region where democratic values are scarce, and free and fair elections have become an anomaly if even held. Recent joint parliamentary and municipal elections held in Somaliland received international praise, as opposed to customary congratulatory messages accorded to winners in the democratic world, presumably because of the neighborhood they were held in.

While the amendment’s language still refers to Somaliland as a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, its addition to the National Defense Authorization Act may be the start of a sharp U.S. pivot to Somaliland, in view of the language used.

The amendment explicitly requires the Departments of State and Defense to treat cooperation and partnership with Somaliland as “separate and distinct from any security and defense partnership with the Federal Republic of Somalia,” and while the amendment later concludes with “nothing in this section… may be construed to convey United States recognition of Somaliland as an independent state;” this is a run of the mill clarification as the amendment only serves as a preamble to future discussions of that nature once the feasibility study has concluded.

The most recent American efforts to stabilize Somalia, through the training of its security forces to degrade Al-Shabaab, ended in the pull out of its troops from Somalia. Somalia has long benefited from U.S. stabilization efforts, but failed to deliver results which has frustrated many current and former American officials.

Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, who we reached out to for comment opined “Policy in Washington moves at a glacial pace but as momentum builds, it also become a freight train impossible to stop. The Risch provision might not make it into law this year, but the stigma is broken and the discussion in the Senate has been started. The question for Somaliland is not if there will be more official ties to the US but rather when and what shape. What Mogadishu doesn’t understand is that Somaliland is gaining not because of lobbying but rather because the merits of Somaliland and the facts of its case don’t need lobbyists who promise to trade influence for cash. Farmaajo can dump millions into lobbying, and it won’t make his tenure in Somalia look any less like a failure,” in relation to the amendment by Senator Risch and its implication for Somaliland.

Cameron Hudson, Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, who we also reached out to posited “Sen Risch’s amendment is a smart approach to advancing US interests in perhaps the most strategic and challenging region of the African continent.  I think its [sic] entirely fair and appropriate to recognize and engage with reliable and responsible partners to advance our interests regardless of their rank or status.  There is nothing new to that as we see our government engaging at sub-national, state and local levels across the continent.  Indeed, this should be done wherever it makes sense as part of a strategy to strengthen and recognize those places where governance is strong,” when asked for comment on Senator Risch’s amendment.

Mr. Hudson continued his remarks on the National Defense Authorization Act amendment with “that said, in the case of Somaliland, which has made very clear that its ultimate goal is diplomatic recognition and independence, I remain concerned that authorities there see partnership agreements like the one being proposed by Sen Risch as a means of doing an end-run around regional and continental organizations in Africa which have not advanced Somaliland’s independence aims.  I continue to believe that Washington should not be out ahead of the AU on the issue of independence and should be wary of being used by Hargeisa as leverage in its political negotiations in Addis,” echoing Jendayi Frazer’s position in 2008.

These views do little to clarify whether the NDAA amendment – which was passed with bipartisan support – is related to the current visit of Congressional staffers to Somaliland. The timing of the amendment and the delegation’s visit couldn’t be more opportune; however, Somaliland Chronicle was unable to confirm from government officials whether the two are related. An official who spoke on condition of anonymity called the visit a “fact-finding mission,” but declined to comment on whether defense and security were on the agenda.

Ultimately, Senator Risch’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act represents a monumental opportunity for Somaliland to work directly with the United States in defense and security matters, albeit with pre-conditions. These conditions include upholding the rule of law and civil-liberties in Somaliland, which the amendment instructs the Departments of State and Defense to assess. The amendment specifically makes whether “Somaliland’s security forces have been implicated in gross violations of human rights during the 3-year period immediately preceding the date of the enactment of this Act” a requisite.

Another important aspect of the Risch amendment to the NDAA, is that it forms an axis by closing the loop between Somaliland, Taiwan, the U.S. and its TAIPEI Act. The amendment encourages Taiwan and Somaliland to “bolster security and defense cooperation and capabilities,” providing new motivation to take bolder steps, and substantially upgrade existing cooperation from its current level.

The National Defense Authorization Act once signed by the President of the United States into law, will require the Secretary of State to submit a classified report to congress within 180 days. It removes decision making from the U.S. embassy in Somalia, who have traditionally favoured a one Somalia policy, and under whose watch Somalia has fallen under the Chinese sphere of influence.

What these developments mean for future U.S.-Somaliland relations remains uncertain, but it’s clear that the United States has found that exploring a partnership with Somaliland is in its national security interest. With their mutual interests in alignment, it appears Somaliland has managed to find an ally in the most powerful nation on earth.

Update: As of Friday December 17th, 2021 Senator Risch’s amendment did not make it to the final bill.

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