Secretary of State Clinton met Thursday with Somali President Sharif Sheik Ahmed, expressing support for his embattled Transitional Federal Government, the TFG.
The TFG is fighting Islamist militias, who control more of the country than the government does. The ongoing conflict has created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters with hundreds of thousands of people displaced and millions in need of food aid and other assistance.
David Shinn, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and a former ambassador to Ethiopia, considers the meeting significant.
"It's the highest level meeting that any American official has ever given to President Ahmed. So that's important. It clearly underscores the interest that the United States has in reaching some sort of satisfactory resolution to the conflict in Somalia," he says.
He says the amount of US moral and material support for the TFG "is greater than on any previous occasion in recent years."
Expand and extend
Mrs. Clinton Thursday pledged that the US would "expand and extend" its support.
Shinn says, "Expand could simply mean increasing the amounts of…humanitarian assistance, or even semi-development aid…. That's been going on for many years, including under the Bush Administration. And it's been significant."
It may also mean greater support for the African Union, which has peacekeepers in Somalia.
"The new part of the equation or relatively new part is the military assistance that was announced more than a month ago, which my understanding is, contrary to the press reports…amounted to about $5 million and 80 tons of largely ammunition and small arms," he says.
Media reports often put the figures at $10 million and 40 tons in supplies.
He says it appears the ammunition and small arms were passed through the AU forces to TFG security forces.
"It may mean an increase in that military assistance. Although she clearly did not specify that and there are no details as to whether there will be any increase," he says.
Shinn also says the US is involved in the training of TFG security forces in Djibouti, something other countries and the UN have been doing in regards to police training.
Pentagon vs. State Department?
During the previous Bush administration, critics said the State Department had been weakened in favor of the Pentagon. In other words, that the Bush administration preferred a military approach to Somalia rather than a diplomatic one. Critics also said ,as a result, the new Obama administration is forced to rely more heavily on the military option.
"I'm not sure I accept that. I'm not sure I accept the criticism for either the Bush or the Obama administrations. There are significant limits to what you can do in Somalia," he says.
Shinn had been critical of US aerial attacks in Somalia against suspected terrorist sites. He says they created a major backlash among the Somali people. So far, there have not been similar attacks under President Obama.
"On the other hand the Obama administration has started providing military assistance, which was not being done during the Bush administration, which would suggest a strong Pentagon role," he says.
But, he adds, "If that's what is required to keep the Transitional Federal Government up and functioning, then I think it's hard to criticize it."
Warning to Eritrea
Secretary Clinton also warned Eritrea not to support Somali extremists, saying it could face penalties. It's a warning that also was made by the Bush administration.
Shinn says this could mean seeking UN sanctions, rather than putting Eritrea on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"No one has really tipped their hand as to which direction this might go,' he says.