Somalia has long been seen as one of the world's least stable and most violent places, made infamous in the popular movie Black Hawk Down about a 1993 US special forces mission where 18 Army Rangers were killed in one day in clan fighting in Mogadishu.
With no ambassador, the US approach to Somalia since then has been one of containment, says Abdi Aynte, head of the Heritage Institute, a Somali think tank.
With the appointment of an ambassador – "soon," according to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman – the US seems ready to shift to engagement, Mr. Aynte says. The decision is seen as a sign of confidence that Somalia is finally stabilizing after more than two decades of internal conflict.
It is “a reflection both of our deepening relationship with the country and of our faith that better times are ahead,” Ms. Sherman said at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
Having an official diplomatic mission dedicated to one of the world’s least stable countries, a crucible for Islamic terrorism across East Africa, allows the US greater influence on regional security policies. Years of “poor analysis and poor intelligence” had “partially paralyzed” US engagement with Somalia, says Aynte.
“Beyond the symbolism of the most powerful country in the world saying it is again ready to work with the Somali government, it will boost other actors like civil society, who will now be able directly to engage with the US.”
James Bishop, Washington’s last man in Mogadishu, left barely three months into the job in 1991. The embassy was hurriedly shuttered after Somalia’s president was overthrown and warring clans began a civil war.
Since then, US presence has been almost entirely military: first with Operation Restore Hope beginning in 1992, which ended with the Black Hawk Down debacle in 1993, and then with a series of black ops and Special Forces strikes against suspected Al Qaeda cells.
With the larger civil war over, however, Washington officially recognized the new Somali government in January 2013. At the time, attacks by Al Shabab, Somalia’s Al Qaeda-allied militant group, appeared to be dropping off.
That lull is over. The militants, still in control in most of southern and central Somalia, recently ramped up their war on Mogadishu with car bombs and suicide attacks, most recently on the parliament on May 24.
Last summer the international medical NGO Doctors Without Borders announced it was leaving leave Somalia, citing terror, kidnapping, and unhelpful local administrators.
The new US ambassador will live in Nairobi, capital of neighboring Kenya, but travel regularly to Somalia, Sherman said. Plans to reopen an embassy in Mogadishu are not yet approved.
"I would hope that in years ahead...that we will see a full presence both in Somalia and by the Somalis here in Washington," she said. "It'll take some time, but we take this in a step-by-step approach."