Houthi attacks on shipping continue. While Secretary of Defense Lloyd
Austin announced a multilateral effort to patrol the passage with warships, this is dangerous and unsustainable virtue signaling. Perhaps President Joe Biden believes this akin to the Obama-era anti-piracy mission just 400 miles away, but that was in open water far from shore. The U.S. Navy was seldom under threat from land-based missiles, drones, or the type of suicide speedboat that struck the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen a quarter century ago.
A better analogy would be to the Reagan-era mission to protect reflagged tankers transiting under fire from Iran in the Persian Gulf. In that operation, American ships faced constant air and sea threats. Even that was easier. The Bab el-Mandeb is twice as narrow at the Strait of Hormuz; indeed, the Missouri River is at places wider than the waterway now under threat. In the 1980s, Iran took advantage of that narrowness to mine shipping channels; it is only a matter of time until the Houthis do likewise. Iranian harassment of shipping ended only when the United States responded militarily.
Not only is the U.S. Navy vulnerable so close to shore, but sustainment is difficult. Ships spend as much time in port for maintenance as they do at sea. This is why less than one-third of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers are now at sea. Replenishment at sea is also difficult near Yemen, as supply ships to provide jet fuel, ammunition, and food would be even more vulnerable to Houthi attack. Congestion and the Chinese presence in Djibouti limit that port’s utility.
Perhaps it is now Somaliland’s moment. The self-governing region consisting of the northern third of Somalia is a perfect, elegant solution. Briefly independent in 1960, the U.S. recognized it. Its subsequent marriage to Somalia failed, but it divorced before Somalia could drag it into state failure.
While Somalis turned to warlordism, piracy, and incubated terrorism, Somaliland turned to business and technology. Businesses flocked to the region. Coca-Cola moved a bottling plant there. Somaliland hosts two multibillion-dollar cellphone and mobile money companies whose control rooms look like NASA mission control. Berbera, which once hosted a space shuttle emergency landing strip that today is a modern airport, also boasts a deep-water port run by Dubai World. Both airfield and port meet or exceed the standards of airfields used by U.S. forces in Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, or Niger.
Somaliland has long sought international recognition. It has governed itself longer than it was part of Somalia. Generations have grown up as Somalilanders only, accustomed to democracy and free markets. The country tilts westward, hosting European and east African diplomats. In 2020, it became only the second African country to rebuff China and establish ties with Taiwan.
As commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend visited both Berbera and Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa. So too has the intelligence community, which sees Somaliland as a stable base from which to monitor Yemeni weapons smugglers and al Shabaab terrorists. Only the State Department refuses, as Secretary Antony Blinken frets about angering Somali politicians who side with China anyway.
Earlier this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shook the region. In exchange for a lease that will enable Ethiopia to build a port and operate its own navy, Ethiopia agreed to recognize Somaliland’s independence. Many other countries have said they will not be the first to recognize Somaliland, but they will not be third either. Expect a cascade of recognition.
The U.S. should recognize Somaliland within minutes of Ethiopia. If the Pentagon stations helicopters and Bell Boeing V-22 Ospreys at Berbera, it can secure freedom of navigation more quickly and at lower cost. Aircraft react faster and patrol more widely. An aircraft carrier might carry 5,000 men; an Osprey can operate with four. In short, a Berbera-based air patrol would be a permanent solution rather than one that runs an overstretched Navy into the ground.
It is time for the White House to set the State Department straight. Somaliland is the solution, not the problem.
Michael Rubin is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.