Dehai News A View from the CT Foxhole: Donald Yamamoto, United States Ambassador to Somalia

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Date: Thursday, 30 April 2020


Ambassador Donald Yamamoto is the U.S. Ambassador to Somalia. Before this posting, he most recently served as Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs. Previously, he also served as Senior Vice President at the National Defense University and in senior positions in Afghanistan. Over the course of his Foreign Service career, he served multiple tours in Africa, including as United States Ambassador to both Ethiopia and Djibouti, and Head of Mission in Somalia, Eritrea, and Guinea. Mr. Yamamoto earned an A.B. and M.A. from Columbia University and an M.S. from the National War College. Among his awards are the Robert Frasure Memorial Award, a Presidential Distinguished Honor Award, a Presidential Distinguished Service Award, and a Secretary of State Distinguished Honor Award. Mr. Yamamoto speaks Japanese, Chinese, and French.

Editor’s note: This interview, which has been edited by CTC Sentinel, was conducted in front of cadets on February 18, 2020, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. While the primary discussion was between Ambassador Yamamoto and Dr. Warner, West Point cadets also asked Ambassador Yamamoto questions. 

CTC: You told us earlier today that you hold the distinguished title of being the longest-serving foreign service officer in the State Department. What stands out, really from an outsider’s perspective, is the profound degree of experience you have on the African continent. How did that come about, and what have been the issues you have worked on? 

Yamamoto: I started off as a Middle East expert, and then because I was able to speak some Asian languages, the Asia Bureau recruited me to serve as Ambassador Michael Mansfield’s chief of staff because of his desire to have a Japanese speaker. I had great experiences working with great ambassadors: Michael Mansfield, who [was] the longest-serving Senate Majority leader, and of course later on with Vice President [Walter] Mondale when he was ambassador to Tokyo. And then in China, as the human rights officer with James Lilley, who was the station chief for President Bush 41 when he was the head of the mission. 

Going to Africa probably offers an opportunity that you don’t have in other embassies. We have over 270 embassies, diplomatic missions, and consulates worldwide. As a young officer, you’re assigned sometimes to a big embassy, and your job has a very focused scope. But [with] Africa, we have limited human resources, and we expect everyone to assume multiple roles in a significant and dynamic manner.

And in that context, right now particularly in the service because we had not hired for so long, we have a lot of people retiring. And so the corps is really young. Maybe 65 percent to 70 percent have less than 10 years of service, and most of them have less than five years of service. So it’s a very, very young service, and we expect them to do a lot of work. In Somalia, I include my staff, which is not very many, when we go meet the president [of Somalia], the prime minister, local leaders, they’re there in the meetings with me. When we’re talking to [U.S. AFRICOM Commander] General [Stephen] Townsend, I’ll have a couple of young officers there with me to understand what the military’s doing. And then we have our daily and weekly meetings with the most senior officials in Somalia but also with our U.S. military personnel at the different commands. And our staff is right there. So it’s an opportunity that you do not see in very many embassies in the world. It’s a very unusual operation.

The State Department and the military are very similar in one regard. You have combatant commanders, regional combatant commanders [in the U.S. military]. Same thing at the State Department; we have regional assistant secretaries. So I did two stints as Acting [Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs], and it’s like the combatant commanders. You really have a lot of authority and say over your personnel, your budgeting. And Africa is probably the newest of the regional bureaus. We have about 1,500 or so officers and then 3,200 interagency staff and about 14,000 local staff and a number of dependents working in our embassies focused on Africa. 

What we did, evolutionary-wise [as concerns U.S. policy in Africa] was how to help transition Africa from colonial to post-colonial to development, to a model were countries move toward self-reliance. For instance, we had [former U.S. Ambassador Ryan] Crocker and the others who were looking at this transition in South Africa. The second major issue for U.S.-Africa policy was how to forgive debt. And so simultaneously, we have to help countries transition from post-colonial to development to self-reliance by forgiving debt, we thought we could get countries back on their feet and become stable.

A third sector that U.S. policy has focused on is democracy and governance issues. We had very few countries which were democratically elected at this moment in time. You’ve got to use that term very loosely because [democracy] is still an evolving process. But now we have probably two dozen African countries that are democratically elected, again, with varying levels of freedom and fairness in their elections. 

Then the next phase [the fourth aspect of U.S.-Africa policy] is, of course, security and terrorism. After 9/11, there has been profound change in this area. You have not only the rise of Boko Haram and other terrorist groups within certain countries but also international groups affiliated with ISIS and al-Qa`ida, including, of course, al-Shabaab in Somalia. So those are some of the areas that we’re seeing trendlines [in].

United States Ambassador to Somalia Donald Yamamoto is pictured during his February 2020 interview with Dr. Jason Warner at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

CTC: As we’re at this 30,000-foot view of trying to understand what the U.S. government, the U.S. military, and the State Department are doing in Africa, one of the priorities the U.S. government outlined in the 2018 National Security Strategy is that it is, in fact, moving away from a focus on looking at particular terror groups as the primary threat to U.S. national security to a new focus, to some extent, on near-peer competitors or great power competition. In other words, we’re moving away from an era in which al-Qa`ida and transnational jihadi groups were looked at as the primary source of U.S. worry abroad, and increasingly, nation-state adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran are assuming that role. To the extent that that is the new outlook, how does the African continent figure into that? How do we think about the role of great-power competition or near-peer competition on the continent from your perspective?

Yamamoto: So the new terminology now is not “great powers” but “global powers” because the United States is the great power. Even despite this shift, we need to still focus on extremism because it is a problem. It remains a problem. It remains a problem not only from Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS West Africa across the trans-Sahel but also al-Shabaab. 

When it comes to our near-peer competitors such as China and Russia, one of the things they’re focused on is the resources that are coming from East Africa. Because if you look at the future, the biggest repository of rare earth minerals, heavy metals, is East Africa. That’s the future. All your cell phones, all your future high-tech weapons, all those materials can be found in Africa, and mainly East Africa. That’s why these U.S. competitors are there; that’s why we need to look at the continent. What do global competitors want in Africa? You think they care about Africa? Forget it. They do not care. What they want is resources. Why? Because resources are the key to their own economic development. 

I look at this issue particularly in the case of Somalia. Once you have a destabilized Somalia, you’re going to have a destabilized world because everything affects each other. And what we try to tell these global competitors is that it is in their national interest to ensure they don’t suck out all these resources, that it’s in their interest to work to develop this so that at least the Africans can benefit from these resources. And also from there, stabilize the countries, which means you have fewer problems—from exporting terrorism or being a base for terrorism, to migrant crises.

CTC: Looking at Somalia, how did al-Shabaab originate, and what threat does it pose to the country?

Yamamoto: Back in January 1991, in the height of civil war between the clans [in Somalia], the U.S. closed the mission, the embassy. When the people started to look at how to overcome civil war, they started to look towards Islamic-based groups. One of them was called the Islamic Courts Union. Back in the mid-2000s, Ethiopia launched its operations against the Islamic Courts Union, and the United States was closely aligned with Ethiopia as an important economic and security partner. Many assessed that this unleashed an even more powerful and more violent group, the al-Shabaab elements, the threat of which we’re still trying to address in Somalia today. A lot of them are Taliban trained. [Mukhtar] Robow, one of the founding members of al-Shabaab, was a prime example of an Afghan-trained militant with high levels of access, including having met directly with Usama bin Ladin.

Today, [al-Shabaab] controls a lot of the agricultural centers that we’re trying to release. They control the main taxation of the main road areas. They have about 10,000 fighters, but they also have about 2,000 to 3,000 hardcore ideologues. That’s really the passion that drives them. They’re violent, extraordinarily brutal. 

CTC: To what extent do those in the Somali government say, “Yes, it is in fact China or Russia or Iran that is our primary concern as opposed to al-Shabaab and its affiliations with al-Qa`ida”?

Yamamoto: To the Somalis, the biggest challenge and problem is not Russia and China because they have not made the impact into Somalia that they have in other countries. Right now, just on the China issue—because that’s become the flavor of the week—the $500 billion in total debt load in Africa, most of that is [held] by multilateral institutions (approximately 35 percent). China only has 20 percent, but it’s focused its attention on those countries with high rates of rare-earth minerals, metals, and of course port facilities. That’s about 18 countries. Somalia, on the other hand, only accounts for about $5 billion of debt, most of which is owed to the United States from the Somali Civil War period (1970-1990).

I think once we are on track to greater stability, which we are, in part because of the efforts of the United States, then I think you’re going to see a lot more activities by these three countries [China, Russia, and Iran]. But in the meantime, the United States is Somalia’s best partner. 

The other issue too is the [African] diaspora, which plays a significantly positive role not only in Somalia but across the continent. And the involvement of the Somali Diaspora in the U.S. is a benefit that you don’t see from these peer competitors because, for one, they don’t take in diaspora people, because they’re very homogenous and very closed societies. This gives the United States an advantage.

What are the priority issues for Somalis? It is Shabaab and security, but the challenge they face is more than Shabaab. For them, it’s about stability and building a future. If you ask a Somali, “What are the things you really want?” his answer will be, “We want to get jobs. We want to have stability.” If there’s 70 percent unemployment, a job is critical. The other desire is education. If you have a 65-percent illiteracy rate, education becomes an issue. Another priority is healthcare. If one out of every 10 of your children is going to die before the age of five, that’s a challenge. 

CTC: To the extent that the United States is involved in combating al-Shabaab, can you walk us through how the United States has thought about it as a challenge and some of the efforts that the United States has undertaken either alone or in concert with others to fight al-Shabaab?

Yamamoto: So why is the U.S. in Somalia in general? Somalia was dead last in foreign assistance for years after the U.S. left the country in 1991. Why is it now in the top five of aid recipients? It’s because the United States is making a concerted effort to have greater stability in Somalia because of the threat that would emanate if we didn’t. [Particularly to] our main, core embassies in the region—in Addis [Ababa], Ethiopia, and in Nairobi, Kenya—our largest missions in Africa, our most important, would face risks from an unstable Somalia, so we need to look at how we can stabilize Somalia. 

So what is the United States doing? We’re taking a different approach, as we came in last year, we went to the president [of Somalia] and said, “we’re not going to have just American troops out there every night. We want to see Somali troops.” And that’s why we’ve launched the first ever in Somalia joint military operation led by the Somali army and U.S.-trained Somali soldiers called Danab, which are specialized units. The United Nations, Great Britain, the European Union, the United States are the major supporters of sustaining this army against Shabaab. There has also been help from other countries—Turkey has trained troops, UAE, Qatar, and of course the Italians have done a great job. But again, it’s a long-range effort. It’s going to require generational change. My one caution is that Somalia must move to diversify its armed forces from a northern-based army and include more soldiers from clans and groups from the southern region of Somalia. There has to be more southern inclusion because Shabaab is based in the south.

Ambassador Yamamoto and Dr. Warner are pictured during their interview on February 18, 2020.

CTC: AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, has been one of the primary bulwarks against al-Shabaab over many years, but by the end of this month [February 2020], AMISOM is supposed to draw down its forces rather significantly by about 1,000 people,1 which has caused great concern. Could you speak a little bit about AMISOM and what the potential impact of this drawdown would be?

Yamamoto: After the Islamic Courts Union dominated Somalia, and the Ethiopians came in in 2006 and 2007, the issue became: how do you stabilize Somalia? The answer we came up with is we need to have the African Union as part of it. So we went to all the leaders in East Africa and said, “Let’s form a group.” The thinking was that this group would eventually be supported by the United Nations as well. But this gets to the heart of what the United States is doing in Africa. There has to be an African approach to these African challenges. And so when you look at peacekeeping operations in Africa just 20 years ago, they were undertaken predominantly by non-Africans. And so [in] an effort by the State Department, along with DoD, we’ve now trained in the last decade, under the ACOTA program, the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program, over 350,000 troops from 32 [African] countries. So instead of seeing 80 percent of peacekeepers from non-African countries, it’s now 80 percent of forces from Africa that are dealing with these issues. 

CTC [cadet question]: You started talking about the clan dimension of Somalia’s civil war. What are the United States, Somalia, and the African Union doing to try to overcome these differences between clans?

Yamamoto: [The main issue with clan politics is] that, simply by looking at someone, you don’t know which clan someone comes from. Until they start talking about which clan they’re from, it’s difficult to know.

That raises a challenge because what clan people belong to tends to determine who supports them, who gives them protection, and who gives help to their families. It becomes a support mechanism. To change this reliance on clan affiliation, what you want is generational change. Over 70 percent of Somalis are under 30, and they want change. And what overreliance on clan politics does is prevents change.

What the U.S. is doing to help overcome some of these challenges around clan dynamics is based on the notion that education is going to set people free. If you have 65-percent illiteracy rates, the clans will obviously dominate, because everyone depends on them. But, if you can use education to help citizens move beyond clan politics, then that’s going to help change that process. That change though is only going to come through generational change and cultural change. It’s going to take time. What you instead want to do is have a peaceful transition from a reliance on clan politics to a much more individual, dynamic approach based on giving people the freedom to choose and select their pathways in life rather than having elders selecting for them.

CTC: When we look at the fight against al-Shabaab, while there are glimmers of hope, in general, there is still a tremendous amount of progress that needs to be made. And so, one of the perennial questions is why, after years of battling al-Shabaab, can’t we get it right? What are some of the core facets that keep us from getting rid of al-Shabaab?

Yamamoto: It goes back to the heart of “what is the national strategy?” It’s stabilization. It’s putting Somalia on a trajectory that’s going to benefit the people. Shabaab is only emblematic or endemic of the broader challenges that face Somalia. So if you eliminate the Shabaab without addressing the fundamental problems that gave rise [to it], then you’re going to have another problem. Just as the Islamic Courts Union gave into Shabaab, Shabaab could potentially give rise to an even more violent organization and group. And that’s the challenge we’re trying to face. How do you do long-term and definite stabilization to the country that will bring peace to not only Somalia but to the rest of the region? That really is the fundamental question that the U.S. and the international community is trying to answer. And so that’s what we’re trying to do, through development and through really a political change of re-transforming clan-ism to a much more comprehensive, dynamic, modern type of society.

CTC: One of the other suggestions that is increasingly percolating in international policy circles is, particularly in light of recent negotiations with the Taliban, that there might be space for a negotiated settlement with al-Shabaab. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what the likelihood of that might be, if it could succeed, or even if it’s politically feasible.

Yamamoto: The question is: is there any basis for negotiations? There are some countries that think that negotiations could put an end [to the] conflict [in Somalia]. From my experience, negotiations are great, but it has to be in the context of members of the group being willing to negotiate. In the specific case of Somalia, if you have got 2,000 to 3,000 hardcore fighters in Shabaab who are not going to negotiate, then that’s a problem. So how do you bring them to the table? We’re looking at Afghanistan right now and the agreement with the Taliban. Is that model a basis for other areas of conflict? Or are we looking at delaying a problem as we did in Vietnam and eventually allowing the party we’re negotiating with to take over? Every scenario—Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Somalia–has to be looked at individually. I think right now in Somalia, it’s too early to say, “we need to negotiate.” I think ultimately negotiation, be it with Shabaab or groups or organizations, is a challenge. It’s something the people of Somalia need to address. It’s not a U.S. call. It’s going to be a Somalia call. And we really have to understand it’s their battle, it’s their war, it’s their conflict. It affects us and we’re going to play a role in it, but ultimately, it’s going to be the Somalis to decide if they want to negotiate or not.

CTC: What is your perception of the role of women as both the perpetrators of violence as well as bulwarks against violence being perpetrated by al-Shabaab?

Yamamoto: You know, that’s a very good question because the answer is that we don’t have all the data and the details. Women play a strong role in African culture, and in families in general, and in Somalia in particular. And so if you have women groups who are on the cusp of supporting change and leading that change despite the threats that they face by Shabaab, that’s something that’s natural. But then you see women that are part of Shabaab, like for instance, the recent suicide bombing against the mayor of Mogadishu by a female adviser, a woman that we knew about being an important influencer for the rights of women and the disabled.a And here, she takes out the mayor and the [municipal] cabinet. How is it that she became such a true believer in the fight? That’s a threat that we need to look at, societal and culturally. And the Somalis need to answer that question themselves.

They said that so long as Shabaab continues their in-roads into destroying Somali culture, which is a very family-oriented fabric and what Shabaab wants to do is destroy that fabric and control and dominate, if that continues—Shabaab domination—you’re going to see a further degradation of cultural and societal norms. That’s the challenge I think for the Somali people but also probably for all of us in the future in fighting extremism.     CTC

Substantive Notes

Editor’s note: On July 24, 2019, an attack by a female suicide bomber at the headquarters of the mayor of Mogadishu resulted in the deaths of eight people, including the mayor Abdirahman Omar Osman, who later died of his injuries. Voice of America reported that “the female bomber was blind and had been working for the mayor as the special needs coordinator since May, 2018.” Harun Maruf, “Mogadishu Mayor Targeted by Female Bomber, Voice of America, August 9, 2019.

[1] “AMISOM, Somali security forces and international partners discuss drawdown and future operations,” AMISOM, February 4, 2020.


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