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U.S. Influence in Africa Wanes Amid Somalia’s Crisis and Geopolitical Rivalry with China and Russia

As Somalia faces escalating security threats and the resurgence of the militant organization al-Shabaab, the United States is encountering significant obstacles in maintaining its strategic interests in the region.

General Michael E. Langley, who assumed command of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2021, expressed apprehension regarding Somalia’s ability to counter terrorism during his tenure. Langley’s appointment to AFRICOM coincided with Somalia’s battle against the al-Shabaab threat, marking a critical period for security efforts in the country.

Nearly a year ago, General Michael E. Langley voiced optimism about Somalia’s potential to confront the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. He highlighted the Somali government’s adoption of a comprehensive “whole government approach,” emphasizing efforts beyond kinetic action. However, recent testimony from General Langley suggests that this optimism may have been premature, as Somalia continues to grapple with the challenge posed by Al-Shabaab.

Despite substantial resources and ongoing support allocated to Somalia’s security sector, recent events underscore the failure of both the Somali government and its international allies, including the United States, to effectively address the country’s security challenges.

The latest posture statement from USAFRICOM, presented to the House Armed Services Committee on March 21, 2024, sheds light on the escalating security crisis in Somalia. General Langley highlighted the persistent threat posed by al-Shabaab, whose attacks continue to target civilians and government officials. Despite U.S. support and military assistance, Somalia’s security forces have struggled to contain the insurgency, raising questions about their capacity and effectiveness.

Furthermore, the emergence of military juntas in West Africa further complicates U.S. efforts to promote security and stability on the continent. While the United States aims to counter the influence of China and Russia in East Africa, internal instability and governance failures in key partner countries undermine these efforts.

During his testimony, General Langley expressed deep concern about the escalating competition between the United States and China in Africa. He highlighted China’s aggressive economic investments and strategic partnerships on the continent as a direct challenge to U.S. interests. Additionally, General Langley raised alarms about the potential Russian military base in Eritrea, emphasizing the growing influence of strategic competitors in Africa. These developments underscore the urgency for the United States to reassess its approach and strengthen its engagement to counter the expanding presence of China and Russia in Africa.

China has significantly expanded its presence in Somalia, securing extensive concessions such as exclusive fishing licenses for Somali waters. However, despite these economic engagements, China’s contribution to the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia is notably limited compared to other actors, particularly the United States, which has poured billions in humanitarian aid and has been actively involved in providing military support and assistance.

Moreover, recent events, such as the Al-Shabaab attack on a Mogadishu hotel and the civilian deaths resulting from a Turkish drone strike, highlight the complexities of Somalia’s security challenges and the risks associated with military interventions in densely populated areas.

The apparent inconsistency in U.S. policy towards the Somaliland-Ethiopian Memorandum of Understanding, highlighted by the State Department’s Africa Bureau’s opposition juxtaposed with support for Somalia’s objections, has raised doubts about the coherence of American strategic decisions in the region. This skepticism is exacerbated by the fact that Rep Ilhan Omar, who has been removed from her post in the Foreign Affairs Committee, still holds significant influence in shaping U.S. policy towards Somalia, as evidenced by her involvement in the U.S. Africa Policy Working Group meeting with the Assistant Secretary of State. Critics argue that this situation risks neglecting evolving geopolitical realities on the ground and jeopardizing U.S. interests in the region.

In late January, Representative Ilhan Omar claimed an unprecedented influence over U.S. policy regarding the Somaliland-Ethiopian Naval Base Agreement. Omar, facing increased scrutiny due to her recent removal from the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee, stirred further controversy by referring to Somalilanders as “Somali imposters” These blatantly racist remarks, delivered with fervent nationalism, have prompted concerns about her suitability in handling international matters.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and former United States Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region and Sahel, has warned of the consequences of Washington’s “One Somalia” policy. Pham’s analysis emphasizes the failure of the U.S. approach to Somalia and underscores the need for a nuanced understanding of the country’s complex dynamics. With militant groups like al-Shabaab gaining ground and military juntas rising in neighboring West Africa, Somalia’s crisis poses a significant challenge to U.S. interests in the region.

Furthermore, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Posture Statement for 2024, presented to the House Armed Services Committee, highlights the growing influence of China and Russia in East Africa. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia’s expanding military presence in the region present new challenges to U.S. dominance, complicating efforts to counter their influence effectively.

As Somalia’s security situation continues to deteriorate, experts call for a recalibration of U.S. policy towards the region, with a pivot towards recognizing the strategic importance of Somaliland. Without a comprehensive strategy addressing the root causes of insecurity and governance challenges, U.S. influence in East Africa is likely to further decline, leaving Somalia and the region vulnerable to exploitation by extremist groups and rival powers.

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