Hung up on the Horn of Africa

With the exception of countries the United States has wrecked through wars — Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — the area where we have done the most damage in recent years probably is the Horn of Africa. The Horn of Africa is generally defined to include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, the “horn” part referring to the fact that the African coastline in the northeast takes that shape. Looking at the region strategically, Sudan belongs to the Horn as well.

I take full responsibility for my own part in what has occurred in the Horn, having served as U.S. ambassador and special envoy to Somalia during the relatively ruinous years of 1994 and 1995, but there is a fundamental problem for the United States in devising policy toward the area: The people there have an unfortunate, pronounced predisposition to settle problems among themselves by warfare and violence.

They are fractious and heavily armed. If they ever lack arms, they do not hesitate to sell whatever they have to sell to get them — including their allegiances or humanitarian food deliveries from abroad intended for their hungry populations. The regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a sometime-favorite of American leaders, provided the most recent example.

The people of the Horn are also enterprising in getting assistance, including military assistance, from American administrations. It took the Ethiopians and some of the Somalis no time to figure out that America’s hot button since 9/11 has been “Islamic terrorism.” Suggesting that one’s enemy was infected by — or even in touch with — al-Qaida or some other radical Islamic group was enough not only to get U.S. military aid, but even to get the Americans to attack the enemy in question. That particular vulnerability on America’s part has become even more severe in recent years as the U.S. military has come to play a large role in determining and carrying out U.S. policy in the Horn. Part of this phenomenon is an accident of history.

For many years the United States had no military command dedicated to Africa. When I was deputy commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in 1993-1994 I wrote a monograph in which I noted that there were military commands for Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia but none for Africa. This, I argued, was to slight Africa: It showed a lack of respect that there was no military-to-military contact and none of the ample Department of Defense resources flowing to Africa. The Pentagon, certainly not because of my advocacy, created an African Command in 2008. Because none of the African countries where AFRICOM might have liked to have been located wanted its headquarters, AFRICOM continues to be based in Germany. Its one base in Africa is in Djibouti, in the Horn.

In late 2006, claiming radical Islamic activity in Somalia, Ethiopia, backed by U.S. arms, aircraft, intelligence and possibly special operations forces, invaded Somalia. The Somalis hate the Ethiopians a lot, dating in part from the 1970s when the United States supported the Ethiopians against them, then switched sides and supported the Somalis in a Cold War-era regional war. Eventually the Somalis “convinced” the Ethiopians to go home in 2009.

The bad part for the Somalis came in the fact that the only stable government it’s had since its armies forced dictator Mohamed Siad-Barre out in 1991 was an Islamic Courts regime that was in power in Mogadishu for the six months preceding the Ethiopian invasion. This government was relatively moderate in Islamic terms. (When I was in Somalia in the 1990s, Somalis in general were moderate Sunni Muslims. The women did not go veiled, wore bright colors and played public roles in society.)

By the time the Ethiopians had been driven out, the Islamic Courts had morphed into the more radical and religiously rigid al-Shabab. In the meantime, the world had organized a Somali “transitional” government in Kenya — after years of arm-twisting and bribes — that was installed in Mogadishu under foreign, African Union protection. The members of this “government,” busily fighting among themselves, are now cornered in a few square blocks in Mogadishu, and the African Union troops, from Uganda and Burundi, are cursing the day they got dragged into the intra-Somali conflict.

My guess is that pretty soon al-Shabab will overrun the transitional government enclave, forcing the flight of the fickle government forces and obliging the AU to leave. I fervently hope the Americans at the base in neighboring Djibouti do not intervene to help the government hold on against the al-Shabab forces. But I don’t rule that out. In the meantime, elsewhere in the Horn, Ethiopia and Eritrea, both with undemocratic, heavy-handed governments, continue to quarrel with each other as they have since Eritrea’s breakaway from Ethiopia in 1993. Djibouti hangs on — a tiny, reasonably democratic state of 850,000 living like a chihuahua sleeping among pit bulls.

Sudan is what needs to be watched now. The basic problem there is that an agreement brokered in 2005, including by the United States, provides for the people in the south to vote on independence in 2011. The South undoubtedly will choose independence. But the current government is based in the north, in Khartoum, and most of the country’s oil wealth is located in the south — a recipe for conflict. The Obama administration is having internal policy differences over what U.S. policy toward Sudan should be.

I would suggest that Sudan’s fate is, almost entirely, none of America’s business. Last of all should U.S. military resources based in Djibouti come into play in seeking to determine one outcome or another in Sudan. Just because you think you can do something doesn’t mean you should, particularly in the Horn of Africa.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (, 412 263-1976)

Read more: Hung Up On Horn of Africa – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



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