On May 12, 2022, General Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), visited Hargeisa and Berbera. The visit demonstrated that the momentum demonstrated by last year’s Congressional staff delegation and this spring’s visit by President Muse Bihi’s visit to Washington is real. However, a subsequent AFRICOM readout from the trip marred an otherwise historic visit as it emphasized the State Department’s “one Somalia” policy and suggested AFRICOM considered Somaliland little different than Somalia’s other member states. It was tone-deaf and insulting.
Somalilanders reacted in outrage on social media. On twitter and other platforms, some even called into question the wisdom of pursuing a tighter relationship with the United States. The AFRICOM statement will not be the only speedbump as stronger bilateral relations develop.
Somaliland has not been alone in its effort to change decades of U.S. policy that underappreciates overwhelming local sentiment antipathetic to the US- or internationally-recognized suzerain.
Consider: the last time mainland China controlled Taiwan was in 1895, decades prior to the independence of almost every colonial territory in Africa or Asia. As part of his effort to peel the People’s Republic of China away from any alliance with the Soviet Union, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed to end U.S. recognition of Taiwan in favor of Communist China. Taiwanese were furious. The United States—and much of the world—betrayed them. They stomached the insults to their sovereignty, however, and sought to mitigate them as they worked to ensure their long-term security and autonomy. They cultivated Congress to ensure that they remained militarily able to resist any Chinese efforts to take their territory by force. Even today, Taiwan’s strong relationships with Congress act as a brake on any shortsighted White House or State Department effort to treat the freedom and liberty of 24 million Taiwanese as a diplomatic chit to trade away on the naïve belief that Beijing keeps its promises. Still, Taiwan puts up with the frequent indignity. On April 21, 2022, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo referred to the island as “Chinese Taipei,” a formula as grating to the Taiwanese as the AFRICOM release’s “Hargeisa, Somalia” was to Somalilanders. Her statement was gratuitous and reflected more her staffers’ ignorance than a change in U.S. policy. A subsequent Commerce Secretary statement corrected the error and referred to Taiwan by its true name. AFRICOM, too, subsequently signaled it understood its previous error when it issued a subsequent statement that discussed Somaliland without reference to Somalia.
Perhaps the biggest insult to the Taiwanese, however, is the international community’s insistence that it not use its flag or anthem in the Olympics, and instead march under the name Chinese Taipei. Again, Taiwanese swallow their pride: The symbolism of often outperforming Communist China at the same games makes it worth it.
Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy for three decades and have, at times flirted with independence. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan formed in 1992, against the backdrop of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s miscalculation that, should he withdraw all services from northern Iraq, the Kurds would have no choice but to return to his control or starve. When, just over a decade later U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, policymakers feared that the Kurds would use the opportunity to fracture the country. As policymakers grew sensitive to the symbolism of Kurdish independence, the Kurdish flag became the focal point of disputes. U.S. policymakers insisted that the Iraqi flag fly in any meeting that diplomats or military officials had with their Iraqi Kurdish counterpoints. Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, both resisted and tested American commitment to the “one Iraq” policy, repeatedly seeking to fly only the Kurdish flag. Tension escalated and financial hardball ensued, but eventually Barzani caved, at least for a time. In many meetings, Iraqi Kurdish officials stand before both flags.
As American relations develop with Somaliland, the flag issue will likely be the next bone of diplomatic contention. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken knows little about the Horn of Africa; he instead relies on the advice of long-time State Department specialists shaped more in the mold of retired Ambassador Donald Yamamoto. Most US policymakers have little idea that Somaliland has governed itself longer than its failed union with the rest of Somalia or that the Somaliland Shilling rests on a more stable base than its Somali counterpart does. Just as these staffers shaped press releases accompanying Bihi’s visit to Washington and the first AFRICOM statement following Townsend’s visit, so too will they begin to insist that the Somalia flag fly during all future meetings to reinforce U.S. policy, however outdated it may be.
Here, Somalilanders will face a choice: Whether to derail relationships over the issue, a reaction which Somalia’s lobbyists within the State Department seek, or to prioritize the real over the symbolic as Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan do. Just as Iraqi Kurds fly their flag alongside the Iraqi flags which sometimes flies below it, so too could Somalilanders fly their flag highest in official meetings, with the flags of not only Somalia but also Djibouti and Ethiopia in the background to symbolize Somaliland’s equality to other states in the region. This would fulfill the looming U.S. demand without accomplishing its desired implication of Hargeisa’s subordination to Mogadishu.
Hopefully, Somalilanders will temper idealism with realism as they chart a path to the finish line. The choice, however, is Somaliland’s. Taiwan is de facto independent, with its own flag, embassies, and democracy. Iraqi Kurdistan remains autonomous, a right now enshrined in Iraq’s constitution. Somalilanders may be quick to react to sleights real and imagined on social media, or they can single-mindedly seek to build a relationship so multifaceted that no politician in Mogadishu or diplomat whose understanding of the region ends with dictator Siad Barre can possibly unravel it.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute