Somalia: Erratic U.S. Policy Failure Doesn’t Get Noticed. But a U.S. Diplomat Struggling With an End-of-Career Crisis Might


Churchill is believed to have once said that “diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” If that is true, then can we assume that Washington’s man in East Africa has lost his edge? Or perhaps just his mind.

There is a fable of a senior foreign office official from London in colonial times visiting a ‘District Officer’ in East Africa. They both venture out into the dessert in a Land Rover and the official asks his khaki clad DO three questions.

“What is the name of the tribe in this area?”
“What language do they speak?”
And “where is drinking water here?”

To all three questions the younger man shrugged his shoulders and looked bewildered. The senior official stopped the vehicle and threw him out on the spot, shouting as he drove off “by the time you get back, I imagine you will know the answers”.

Washington might consider sending such an official to East Africa to take a ride with their recalcitrant if not bewildered U.S. ambassador there, who is starting to get noticed in DC for going rogue on U.S.-Somalia policy.

Donald Yamamoto has been portrayed in a recent article by The National Interest as a veritable fool, meddling in the geopolitics of the Horn Of Africa and in so doing, creating a real problem for the Trump administration.

Being called a “colonial governor” with his delusional views about both his own role in policy forming and his hands-on approach to actually state-building, Yamamoto threatens to tear to shreds Mike Pompeo’s plans in the region to stabilize Somalia.

Yamamoto’s recent moves to rope in the Ethiopian Prime minister to pull off what would have been a crowning moment at the end of an unremarkable diplomatic career – unifying Somalia with its former neighbour Somaliland – has backfired quite badly and put this region once again under the spotlight of the Washington circus and the media pack which feeds on its entrails.

And that’s possibly a very dangerous thing and could explain why the Pentagon and the State Department are currently carrying out the most illogical, banal and entirely spurious campaign of air strikes in Somalia – which more often than not kill herdsmen, villagers and farmers and almost nearly always miss Al Shabab extremists. Are the American pilots who operate the drones just not very good shots? What are we missing?

The last time America was in international news for all the wrong reasons in Somalia was in 1993 when TIME magazine had on its cover a Pulitzer winning photo of the body of a U.S. serviceman being dragged by rope through the streets of Mogadishu following the fiasco of Black Hawk Down.

It was that one single incident which forged U.S. foreign policy for years to come by Bill Clinton, dogged by his own trysts and the media attention they drew, and Somalia and Rwanda. In the former, the U.S. blithely ploughed in with eyes shut; in the latter, it stood on the touchline and watched a genocide unfold.

But you need to go back two years earlier when arguably one of the most brutal regimes, under the leadership of Siad Barre, collapsed and immediately provided the opportunity for the former British colony of Somaliland to break away from the south (Somalia – a former Italian colony).

The convoy of high-end four-wheel-drives carrying Barre’s family which raced across the Somali dessert to make it to the Kenyan border had barely made it to Nairobi before Somaliland wasted no time in snatching back to its former independence, which is gained from the British in 1960.

The alliance with the South as one communist republic was always a difficult one, particularly when the full extent of Barre’s brutality became known in the 1980s.

Today, Somaliland is the winner and takes full pride in that decision to break away as it’s much calmer, more stable than Somalia, which is a country strangled by Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda inspired extremist organisation which took root after the 9-11 attacks in New York – which has made it one of the most poorest and corrupt countries on the planet.

The reasons and rational for uniting again are unclear, although there is some truth to shared idea on both sides that a bigger united Somalia would be less vulnerable to regional foes.

But there is a more positive feeling on the Somali side than Somaliland for this to happen, if both the U.S. bombing campaign in Somalia – supposedly against Al Shabab terrorists – can be halted and the group itself can be reined in.

The U.S. ambassador is thought to be naive by many politicos in Mogadishu though. The idea that unification will bring stability is folly and such rank stupidity reminds older journalists from Black Hawk Down days of U.S. generals and their master plan of offering a reward of 25,000 USD for information leading to the capture of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who Wikipedia describes simply as a ‘warlord’.

Stability in Somalia has to be real and not just some spurious act of political gestures. Governance is a pretentious word banded about by scholars and western educated consultants in Mogadishu as their distance from reality is only trumped by the U.S. ambassador’s.

Unfortunately, going rogue doesn’t just throw a spanner in the works of the Pentagon, the State Department or even the Oval Office (assuming this last epicentre of ignorance can even find Mogadishu on a map of East Africa), but it also has consequences on the ground on the countries that the U.S. is supposedly trying to help.

The U.S. ambassador isn’t simply naive in his over simplified, cartoon snapshot take on what is an incredibly nuanced, if not complicated situation in both Somalia and Somaliland, but his own decisions there in Mogadishu have come with a hefty price.

A billion dollars of cash was unwisely spent on greasing palms and building relations, but according to the National Interest, has actually pushed key figures away from the proximity of Washington and what it has to offer, straight into the hands of the Chinese. Pushing for Mogadishu to have the central power of Somalia’s airspace also has led to illegal arms shipments coming, whereas before they were hindered. The same control for the skies has irked Somaliland and created new tensions with the North. But it’s the decision to insist that all U.S. and international aid money is centralised in one location – Mogadishu – which is his gravest error of judgment, which justifies the National Interest’s barb of “naive”.

Since that move, terrorism has actually increased as Al Shabab’s tentacles permeate deep into government departments, the police, military and some say even as high as Presidential offices. What on earth was this old African hand thinking when he put all the aid money in one basket? Such madness though is easily forgotten in a country which breaks all records at being a failed state even to this day. The U.S. drone strikes now may well be a counter reaction from the Trump administration or the Pentagon who don’t wish to see unity in Somalia but prefer to see division and chaos. Indeed, local hacks even go as far as to say that his mentality also prevails with the UAE which much it seems prefers the ‘divide and rule’ model to the ‘peace and unity’ one. Even if we indulge ourselves that the chaos of Somaliland can be resolved by the recumbent values of the West or misguided buffoons whom it employs as its ambassadors, the bigger question about unity is where do the Gulf States who invest in Somalia stand if such an exercise can be pulled off?

And are the airstrikes by the U.S. there to propel the ambassador’s preposterous blueprint, or to defy it? There’s a lot of confusion, lies and misinformation to digest.

Just this year alone, some 41 airstrikes have been carried out with horrific fatalities amongst ordinary people – locals say as much as 300, although the official figure from U.S. military sources claim just a small handful.

Indeed, the sheer level of America’s meddling and colossal bungling in Somalia led to Hollywood films like Black Hawk Down. Yet now a U.S. ambassador’s foibles and insecurities appear to be writing a new Hollywood script.

Expect a visit from a General in the Pentagon who takes Yamamoto out in to the desert in a four wheel drive any day soon. And those three questions. Someone needs to be told to go to hell.

By Martin Jay


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