WASHINGTON — Twenty years after the U.S. military's "Black Hawk Down" disaster, the Obama administration is slowly stepping up relations with Somalia even though security requires American officials to be sheltered behind blast walls and unable to see nearly any of the chaotic country.
The high caution in Somalia sharply displays the frustrating balance of fostering diplomacy in a country recovering from war while avoiding risks to American personnel after last September's killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at a diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Diplomats live in near lockdown conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, have limited ability to travel in Pakistan and Lebanon and are under tightly guarded protection in Jordan and Nigeria.
But several diplomats say they are frustrated with what one called "a huge Benghazi hangover" in U.S. foreign policy in general.
Nowhere are U.S. diplomats as constrained as in Somalia, which last week was ranked the world's worst failed state by the Fund for Peace. American diplomats gingerly began building ties with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud after his election last year, and President Barack Obama formally recognized the new government in Mogadishu in January.
It was the first time since 1991 that Washington has accepted the Somali government as legitimate.
"We're able to go in more often and for a longer duration than we ever have been able to in the last 20 years," Pamela Fierst, the State Department's senior official on Somali issues, said in a recent interview. "The U.S. government is in a period of great, cautious optimism on Somalia."
The State Department officials, most of whom are based in Nairobi, Kenya, fly to Mogadishu in U.N. planes and spend up to two weeks at a time at a heavily fortified compound at the capital's airport, where African Union troops and other international security personnel are based. Three U.S. officials familiar with the trips said the diplomats never leave the airport compound because of the risks, given the number of successful attacks in Mogadishu by local al-Qaida-linked militants known as al-Shabab.
Instead, Somali government officials come to the airport compound to meet with the American diplomats. One of the U.S. officials described the trips as useful but frustrating given the clampdown on their ability to see the country they are trying to help improve.
The U.N. also has offices inside the airport complex, not far from the embassy Britain opened in April. The U.S. diplomats also operate inside the base out of temporary metal containers that they live and work out of. Foreign intelligence officers who operate in the city, such as the CIA, also base themselves at the airport.
The official also said the U.S. is likely to have an increasingly bigger presence in Mogadishu over the next 12 months to 18 months, including longer trips in and more personnel on the ground. But there is no word on when a consulate or embassy might be opened. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue by name publicly.
Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Turkey and Britain have embassies in Mogadishu. The European Union also has an office there, and Western aid workers have traveled around the capital and elsewhere in Somalia numerous times over the past 18 months.
"It's important for us to have a presence, and we have to be able to follow the evolving needs of the most vulnerable to deliver our aid in the best way possible," said Mira Gratier, an EU aid worker who has been working off and on in Mogadishu since last fall, when "you could see a city coming back to life."
The EU office is located outside the airport compound and tries to assist Somalis who have been forced from their homes because of famine or violence. Gratier described Mogadishu's security as "extremely volatile" but said EU workers continually assess the situation "to know how we can operate safely and minimize the risks."
The State Department's security service has long been overly cautious about U.S. officials traveling in danger zones, spurring grumbling from diplomats in places such as Baghdad and Kabul. Officials say diplomatic security has gotten even tighter since the killings Sept. 11 in Benghazi, which not only left the ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead, but also touched off a U.S. political maelstrom over whether the Obama administration tried to cover up its response to the attack and whether the State Department has spent the necessary money — or whether Congress has appropriated enough money — to keep American diplomats safe.
Security has improved significantly in Mogadishu since 2007 when African Union troops began fighting back against al-Shabab. The extremist group has for decades terrorized the public and caused the rest of the world to shun most of Somalia but was largely routed from the seaside capital in late 2011.
But few deny the danger that Somalia continues to face. On Tuesday, a bomb exploded inside Mogadishu's largest market, wounding at least five soldiers aboard a military vehicle.
Last month, seven al-Shabab militants stormed the United Nations compound in Mogadishu, killing 13 inside before dying in the assault.
The U.N. had just expanded its presence inside the Somali capital as one of a handful of diplomatic missions that recently have been set up there, including Turkey and Britain.
The U.S. has had no embassy in Mogadishu since 1991 when Somalia's government collapsed after years of civil war. American troops were sent to Mogadishu the next year to help stave off the country's famine on a peacekeeping mission that lasted until their 1994 withdrawal — about five months after the humiliating "Black Hawk Down" debacle in late 1993, when Somali militiamen shot down two U.S. helicopters; 18 servicemen were killed in the crash and subsequent rescue attempt.
Since 2007, the U.S. has given $134 million to Somalia's security forces and another $450 million to African Union nations that have sent troops to Somalia. But officials say the Obama administration is interested in helping Somalia stabilize its government and economy more than just focusing on terror threats, and Mohamud's inauguration in September opened the door to the small but steady influx of American diplomats to Mogadishu.
In May, Obama called on Congress to boost funding to secure U.S. embassies. Noting that diplomats face "irreducible risks," particularly in the Mideast, Obama said he nonetheless believes "that any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers we face in the long run."
Sen. Chris Coons, chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations panel that oversees African issues, said American diplomats must be able to travel freely in the countries where they work to be successful.
But with Benghazi as a backdrop, Coons said, it's unlikely that will happen anytime soon.
Building diplomatic ties in Somalia and helping bring together rival clans "requires being able to travel widely out of Mogadishu," Coons said in an interview last month. "But in light of the tragedy in Benghazi, I think it's only prudent for State and the U.S. to proceed in a cautious and measured way."