For too long, the dispute over U.S. posture toward Somaliland has festered. The growing threat from China and uncertainty over Djibouti’s future now bring the question to a head.
by Michael Rubin
BERBERA, SOMALILAND—The storied Berbera International Airport is open and ready for operation. Prior to the 1960s, it was a major British station. In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union built the airfield while Somali dictator Siad Barre was still a Soviet client. The mudbrick shells of Soviet barracks still line the southern perimeter of the airport adjacent to its access road. The airfield complimented the nearby port which the Soviets upgraded beginning in 1962.
As a result of both Ethiopia’s 1975 revolution and the 1977-1978 Ogaden War, Ethiopia and Somalia switched Cold War patrons. Berbera’s airfield became an American asset, while the Soviets took over American facilities in Ethiopia.
While policymakers lamented the loss of Ethiopia, they embraced Berbera. Between 1980 and 1991, NASA rented space at the Berbera airfield—at the time, the second-largest airstrip in Africa—to enable its use as an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle at a cost of almost half a billion dollars over the period. U.S. aircraft carriers including the USS Nimitz called at the nearby port of Berbera. Barre, now a U.S. ally, drove Somalia to ruin. After launching an unsuccessful genocide against the Isaaq clan predominating in the north, Somaliland—where Berbera is located—reasserted its independence.
The end of the Cold War condemned Somaliland to obscurity, at least from Washington’s perspective. President Bill Clinton embraced a peace dividend as the threat from Russia receded and as any threat from China remained off the radar. After the Black Hawk Down episode in Mogadishu, Clinton wanted to put the Horn of Africa in his rearview mirror.
That changed after the September 11, 2001, attacks and President George W. Bush’s pursuit of a “global war on terrorism” thrust East Africa back into the spotlight. The Pentagon created the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and leased space at Camp Lemonnier, a French military base in Djibouti. Over subsequent years, the U.S. presence in Djibouti grew; it now numbers around 4,000 servicemen and contractors. Its mission has also grown. Not only has the CJTF-HOA helped coordinate U.S. counterterror and Special Operations Force campaigns across Africa but it has also been crucial to American operations around Yemen.
Yet, as its importance has grown, the U.S. presence in Djibouti has become tenuous. Years of debt trap diplomacy mean China largely owns Djibouti. Beijing could, with a simple phone call, compel President Ismail Omar Guelleh to curtail American operations if not expel the American presence entirely. Even absent that scenario, warning lights flash. The new Chinese military base in Djibouti has targeted American pilots with blinding lasers. The Pentagon’s status of forces agreement with Djibouti puts American flights utilizing the joint civilian-military airport under the authority of Djiboutian air traffic control. This, in turn, has led to several near misses, especially during khat chewing time. That the French, Japanese, and Italian militaries also use the facilities complicates issues further, as does the proliferation of drones.
It is for this reason that the Pentagon increasingly seeks to return to Berbera. In August 2021, while not publicly reported, a U.S. military assessment team quietly traveled to Berbera to survey both the new airport and the port. According to locals in Berbera who met the delegation, they appeared nervous the first day. This was understandable: Diplomatically, the United States considers Somaliland to be part of Somalia, even though the former is among the safest places in Africa and the latter among the world’s most dangerous countries. By the second day, however, they were walking around unarmed and relaxed.
Suffice to say, the assessment went well: Djibouti’s runway is just 10,335 feet; Berbera’s is 13,580 feet. Djibouti is congested; Berbera is not. Djibouti insists on Djiboutian air control; Somaliland will negotiate. The newly-expanded Port of Berbera connects to the airport without having to pass outside controlled areas. The United Arab Emirates, which briefly considered operating a military base at Berbera, built new infrastructure. Importantly, the Chinese lack a presence in Somaliland and along its 500-mile coastline on the Gulf of Aden.
Not only the Pentagon wants to engage in Somaliland; the intelligence community also wants to as well. Somali society is extremely complex; it is hard to gather intelligence from outside. A more permanent U.S. presence, akin to what the United Kingdom maintains, would help the United States track terrorists, intercept weapons shipments, and stop terrorists before they act. It would put U.S. stations closer to the subjects of concern without exposing them to Chinese interference.
The State Department, however, is not interested in Defense Department and intelligence community concerns. Since the Obama administration, Foggy Bottom’s policy has been to ignore Somaliland in order to force it back into its unhappy union with Somalia. Three former assistant secretaries of state for African Affairs now admit that policy is wrong. Yet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has kept policy on auto-drive.
The job of the national security advisor is to coordinate administration policy and resolve disputes and questions that percolate up through the interagency process. Berbera is now a big one. For too long, the dispute over U.S. posture toward Somaliland has festered. The growing threat from China and uncertainty over Djibouti’s future now bring the question to a head. If Jake Sullivan fails to force a policy decision, the window of opportunity might close: China might make its own move on Somaliland in order to deny the United States any logistical hub in the region. So too might other countries. Sullivan must call a principal’s committee meeting now. President Joe Biden’s legacy in Africa depends on the result.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed U.S. Navy and Marine units. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.