President Barack Obama will nominate an ambassador to Somalia for the first time in more than 20 years, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said at the U.S. Institute of Peace June 3, as she outlined an intensified push to improve security, governance and development in the African nation.


wendy sherman and johnnie carson

Cautioning that aid wouldn’t be open-ended and that the country has a long haul to overcome decades of clan warfare, famine, corruption and attacks by the militant group al-Shabab, Sherman nevertheless pledged stepped-up U.S. support. She said it was “a reflection of our deepening relationship with the country and of our faith that better times are ahead.”

The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador in Somalia since closing its mission on Jan. 5, 1991, after the country’s government collapsed amid civil war. Currently, U.S. Special Representative to Somalia James McAnulty and other American diplomats working on Somalia issues operate out of neighboring Kenya, traveling frequently to Somalia. The ambassador will be based there as well, Sherman said. She didn’t name a prospective nominee and, asked about a timeline for the appointment, said she could only say, “soon.”

Sherman’s address follows a May 28 foreign policy speech by Obama in which he charted an intent to work more closely with partner countries and regional organizations to enhance international security. He proposed a new “counterterrorism partnerships fund” of as much as $5 billion to train and support countries “on the front lines” of the fight against groups aligned with al-Qaida such as the Somali group al-Shabab. The fund will help sustain the internationally-backed African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Obama said.

The U.S. goal in Somalia is to enhance security that would, in turn, contribute to the country’s political and economic development. The U.S. recognized Somalia’s government in January 2013 for the first time since 1991, as it began to put new governing institutions in place.

Sherman noted that international aid providers in September pledged more than $2 billion for reconstruction. The U.S. also supported a United Nations Security Council resolution last year to enlarge AMISOM by more than 4,000 troops, allowing it to resume offensive operations with the Somali National Army. Since 2007, the U.S. has contributed more than $500 million in training, equipment and logistical support, Sherman said.

Despite wide support for AMISOM, Sherman said, “every stakeholder agrees that the mission cannot continue indefinitely.” Instead, the U.S. and other assistance providers want to help Somalia build a capable security force of its own that will operate under civilian control, fairly represent the population and respect human rights and international law. Somalia’s army recently approved a code of conduct that prohibits employing soldiers under the age of 18, and some 1,500 women are now members of the force, said Sherman, who serves as undersecretary for political affairs.

“As one element of our support, a small contingent of U.S. military personnel, including some special operations forces, have been present in parts of Somalia for several years,” Sherman said, acknowledging previously reported involvement. Their role of information-sharing and advising for AMISOM has been extended to work with the Somali army to coordinate with other international efforts.

As the Somali army and AMISOM have driven the decade-old al-Shabab movement out of its strongholds in the capital Mogadishu and in other towns, the militant group has sought to extend its reach beyond the country’s borders, as in the case of the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last year that killed 67 people.

The momentum in sidelining al-Shabab must be sustained, Sherman said. She cited the “daily headlines” about attacks such as one on Somalia’s parliament less than two weeks ago as evidence of the continuing “potent threat.”

“The aid we provide includes training support for the Somali Advanced Infantry Company, also known as Danab, the “lightning” force,” Sherman said. “This is a 150-person unit that we believe can become a source of future leadership for the entire army.” At the same time, Sherman said such cooperation will “not altogether eliminate the need for direct action to protect American lives.”

“From time to time, the U.S. military has conducted such action in Somalia against a limited number of targets who, based on information about their current and historical activities, have been determined to be part of al-Qaida,” Sherman said. “And in the future, we may take action against threats that pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. These strikes will be conducted under the highest operational standards, including the requirement of near certainty that civilians will not be injured or killed by our actions.”

Sherman also signaled that international aid for Somalia ultimately will have to end.

“Looking ahead, the pivotal test for Somalia will not be procuring more assistance from the world community or even defeating al-Shabab,” she said. “The truly defining test will be an internal one. Somalis have to decide whether they want to exist as disparate clans isolated from the world and in conflict with one another, or as a united country with all the attributes, benefits and responsibilities that such unity brings.”

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