To Understand Somaliland Conflict, Think Ukraine

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By Michael Rubi

As Ukraine prepared to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, President Joe Biden (finally) traveled to Kyiv to reaffirm American support. He explained he acted to “reaffirm our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” Biden was right. What happens to Ukraine matters beyond Ukraine.

While Biden does the right thing on Ukraine, he is inconsistent. Despite his rhetorical embrace of Africa, he is far more willing to ignore, forgive and forget African genocides than he has been Russia’s slaughter of Ukrainians.

He has also repeatedly thrown Somaliland under the bus. While Somaliland is the most democratic country in the Horn of Africa and one of only two African nations to choose Taiwan over China, Biden declined to invite Somaliland to either the Democracy Summit or the African Leaders Summit.

US adversaries took note. Both China and Russia saw Biden’s gratuitous humiliation of Saudi Arabia and concluded Riyadh was ripe for the picking. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Larry André, Jr., the US Ambassador to Somalia, undermined the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act’s embrace of Somaliland, Somali forces likely working with the foreknowledge of China, invaded eastern Somaliland. Call it what it is: China’s first proxy war in Africa.

Today, the Somali invasion of Somaliland is approaching its fifth month. While Biden’s response differs sharply, the outlines of the conflict differ little from Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

After hostilities began, Somalis denied any responsibility and argued the forces fighting in Las Anod were indigenous and seeking to protect the local population. This was akin to Russia’s original propaganda when, in 2014, men in black suits appeared to lead the Crimea invasion. Just as with the Russians in Crimea, the SSC militias say they want a referendum. But, like the Russian militiamen in Crimea, they want first to kill or drive out anyone who does not agree with them. The recent deaths of senior Puntland and Somali Special Force officers belie the notion that outside forces do not drive today’s fight. That the Pentagon trained these Danab special operators who now fight on behalf of Chinese interests is a scandal that Congress should investigate.

Too often, the State Department prefers to double down on pre-existing policies rather than acknowledge error. While the Biden team approaches the fighting between the Somaliland Army and militia forces in and around Las Anod with moral equivalency, the true outline of the conflict could not be clearer:

Somaliland, like Ukraine, is a democracy fighting to maintain its freedom from an irredentist neighbor. Just as Washington recognizes the established borders of Ukraine, so too does the United States recognize the century-old border between the former British Somaliland and the former Italian Somaliland, the latter of which exists today as Somalia proper. The argument by Somali officials that Las Anod and its environs should be its own separate state is analogous to Russia creating and propping up independent states in Donetsk and Luhansk.

What happens in Africa matters. Biden cites both principle and national security to reject Russia’s efforts to carve up Ukraine. He weakens the Western hand and gives hope to reactionary forces, however, when he ignores a similar attack on a democracy and a strategically important country in the Horn of Africa.