Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Twenty years after the U.S. military's "Black Hawk Down"
disaster, the Obama administration is slowly stepping up relations with
Somalia even though security requires American officials to be sheltered
behind blast walls and unable to see nearly any of the chaotic country.
high caution in Somalia sharply displays the frustrating balance of
fostering diplomacy in a country recovering from war while avoiding
risks to American personnel after last September's killing of Ambassador
Chris Stevens and three other Americans at a diplomatic mission in
Benghazi, Libya. Diplomats live in near lockdown conditions in Iraq and
Afghanistan, have limited ability to travel in Pakistan and Lebanon, and
are under tightly guarded protection in Jordan and Nigeria.
But several diplomats say they are frustrated with what one called "a huge Benghazi hangover" in U.S. foreign policy in general.
are U.S. diplomats as constrained as in Somalia, which last week was
ranked the world's worst failed state by the Fund for Peace. American
diplomats gingerly began building ties with Somali President Hassan
Sheikh Mohamud after his election last year, and President Barack Obama
formally recognized the new government in Mogadishu in January.
It was the first time since 1991 that Washington has accepted the Somali government as legitimate.
able to go in more often and for a longer duration than we ever have
been able to in the last 20 years," Pamela Fierst, the State
Department's senior official on Somali issues, said in a recent
interview. "The U.S. government is in a period of great, cautious
optimism on Somalia."
The State Department officials, most of whom
are based in Nairobi, Kenya, fly to Mogadishu in U.N. planes and spend
up to two weeks at a time at a heavily fortified compound at the
capital's airport, where African Union troops and other international
security personnel are based. Three U.S. officials familiar with the
trips said the diplomats never leave the airport compound because of the
risks, given the number of successful attacks in Mogadishu by local
al-Qaida-linked militants known as al-Shabab.
government officials come to the airport compound to meet with the
American diplomats. One of the U.S. officials described the trips as
useful but frustrating given the clampdown on their ability to see the
country they are trying to help improve.
The U.N. also has offices
inside the airport complex, not far from the embassy Britain opened in
April. The U.S. diplomats also operate inside the base out of temporary
metal containers that they live and work out of. Foreign intelligence
officers who operate in the city, such as for the CIA, also base
themselves at the airport.
The official also said the U.S. is
likely to have an increasingly bigger presence in Mogadishu over the
next 12 months to 18 months, including longer trips in and more
personnel on the ground. But there is no word on when a consulate or
embassy might be opened. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of
anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue by name
Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Turkey and Britain have embassies
in Mogadishu. The European Union also has an office there, and Western
aid workers have traveled around the capital and elsewhere in Somalia
numerous times over the past 18 months.
"It's important for us to
have a presence, and we have to be able to follow the evolving needs of
the most vulnerable to deliver our aid in the best way possible," said
Mira Gratier, an EU aid worker who has been working off and on in
Mogadishu since last fall, when "you could see a city coming back to
The EU office is located outside the airport compound, and
tries to assist Somalis who have been forced from their homes because of
famine or violence. Gratier described Mogadishu's security as
"extremely volatile," but said EU workers continually assess the
situation "to know how we can operate safely and minimize the risks."
State Department's security service long has been overly cautious about
U.S. officials traveling in danger zones, spurring grumbling from
diplomats in places like Baghdad and Kabul. Officials say diplomatic
security has gotten even tighter since the killings last Sept. 11 in
Benghazi, which not only left the ambassador to Libya and three other
Americans dead, but also touched off a U.S. political maelstrom over
whether the Obama administration tried to cover up its response to the
attack and whether the State Department has spent the necessary money —
or whether Congress has appropriated enough money — to keep American
Security has improved significantly in Mogadishu since 2007
when African Union troops began fighting back against al-Shabab. The
extremist group has for decades terrorized the public and caused the
rest of the world to shun most of Somalia, but was largely routed from
the seaside capital in late 2011.
But few deny the danger that Somalia continues to face.
month, seven al-Shabab militants stormed the United Nations compound in
Mogadishu, killing 13 inside before dying in the assault. The U.N. had
just expanded its presence inside the Somali capital as one of a handful
of diplomatic missions that recently have been set up there, including
Turkey and Britain.
The U.S. has had no embassy in Mogadishu since
1991 when Somalia's government collapsed after years of civil war.
American troops were sent to Mogadishu the next year to help stave off
the country's famine on a peacekeeping mission that lasted until their
1994 withdrawal — about five months after the humiliating "Black Hawk
Down" debacle in late 1993, when Somali militiamen shot down two U.S.
helicopters; 18 servicemen were killed in the crash and subsequent
Since 2007, the U.S. has given $134 million to
Somalia's security forces and another $450 million to African Union
nations that have sent troops to Somalia. But officials say the Obama
administration is interested in helping Somalia stabilize its government
and economy more than just focusing on terror threats, and Mohamud's
inauguration in September opened the door to the small but steady influx
of American diplomats to Mogadishu.
In May, Obama called on
Congress to boost funding to secure U.S. embassies. Noting that
diplomats face "irreducible risks," particularly in the Mideast, Obama
said he nonetheless believes "that any retreat from challenging regions
will only increase the dangers we face in the long run."
Chris Coons, chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations panel that oversees
African issues, said American diplomats must be able to travel freely in
the countries where they work to be successful.
But with Benghazi as a backdrop, Coons said, it's unlikely that will happen anytime soon.
diplomatic ties in Somalia and helping bring together rival clans
"requires being able to travel widely out of Mogadishu," Coons said in
an interview last month. "But in light of the tragedy in Benghazi, I
think it's only prudent for State and the U.S. to proceed in a cautious
and measured way."
Associated Press writers Abdi Guled
in Mogadishu, Somalia, Jason Staziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, Sebastian Abbot
in Islamabad, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Michelle Faul in Johannesburg,
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Jamal Halaby in Amman,
Jordan, contributed to this report.