WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama cleared the way Monday for the U.S. to arm and train Somali forces, taking a step toward normal relations with the East African nation as it works to build confidence in its newly recognized government.
In a memo to Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama said he has determined that supplying defense equipment and services "will strengthen the security of the United States and promote world peace." The move doesn't immediately provide new assistance to Somalia, but allows Kerry to consider taking that step in the future.
Somalia is trying to preserve fragile progress toward establishing its first functional government after two decades of chaos. The U.S. formally recognized the African nation's new government in January -- the first time the U.S. had recognized a Somali government since 1991, when warlords overthrew longtime dictator Siad Barre and then turned on one another.
"The United States is committed to being a long-term partner in assisting the defense forces in Somalia defense to become a professional military force," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
A relative peace has returned to Somalia's war-battered capital of Mogadishu since African Union forces ousted al-Shabab -- a militant group loosely associated with al-Qaida -- from the city over 18 months ago. But al-Shabab rebels are not yet defeated, and the U.S. remains concerned about the threat the group could pose to the region's stability. The U.S. designated al-Shabab a terrorist group in 2008.
Obama's decision was not tied to any new threat assessment in Somalia, said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to discuss security assessments publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The move follows a decision by the U.N. Security Council, after an appeal from Somali officials, to partially suspend the arms embargo on Somalia for 12 months. The council preserved a ban on exports of a list of heavy military hardware, including surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided weapons and night-vision weapons.
The U.S. government has provided funds and training to African Union forces fighting al-Shabab in Somalia, and has also provided more than $133 million to Somalia since 2007 in security sector assistance, intended to help the country build up and professionalize its security forces. Obama's memorandum on Friday opens the door for military-to-military relations, allowing the U.S. to provide equipment, training and other assistance directly to Somalia's government and military.