The U.S. will begin "aggressive" engagement with the self-declared northern republics of Somaliland and Puntland, while continuing support of Somalia's weak central government, as part of an effort to prevent the spread of radical ideology espoused by the al-Shabab militia, said Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa.
Carson said the U.S. will also promote development in areas controlled by local clans in south-central Somalia that are not allied with either the government or al-Shabab.
The planned U.S. effort to build relations with Somaliland and Puntland, which have been largely peaceful while the rest of Somalia has descended into chaos with no functioning central government since 1991, marks an important shift in U.S. policy. Al-Shabab has emerged as a significant threat to regional and international security in recent years.
"We think that both of these parts of Somalia have been zones of relative political and civil stability and we think they will, in fact, be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the south," Carson said.
"In the past, we have not engaged these areas, political entities, aggressively," he said. "We will now start to do so."
Carson said the U.S. would not establish formal diplomatic relations with the two entities or recognize their independence, but would help their governments with agriculture, water, health and education projects. Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, will lead the effort and increase their informal visits to Somaliland and Puntland.
The aim is "to see how we can help them improve their capacity to provide services to their people," Carson said.
Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 and has remained relatively peaceful while southern Somalia has degenerated into anarchy. Somaliland has its own security and police forces, justice system and currency, but it is not recognized by any other nation. Puntland, also in the north, declared itself an autonomous state in 1998.
Carson said the U.S. also plans to provide more aid to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, which is under siege by al-Shabab and supported by an African Union military mission dominated by Ugandan troops.
He did not elaborate, but the U.S. has in the past supplied the African troops with weapons and other equipment and is providing training to Somali security forces.
To counter al-Shabab, Carson said, the U.S. would also look to support "local governments, clans and sub-clans" in south-central Somalia that do not back either the militia or the federal administration.
"We will look for opportunities to work with these groups to see if we can identify ways of supporting their development initiatives and activities," he said.
Al-Shabab aims to overthrow the internationally backed central government and impose a strict brand of Islam countrywide.
The group claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings that killed scores of civilians watching the World Cup finals in Uganda in July. Al-Shabab said it sought to avenge the deaths of civilians allegedly killed by shelling by African Union peacekeepers.