Why the War on Terrorism in the Horn of Africa Cannot Succeed
By: Berhe Habte-Giorgis
November 18, 2005

An article by Dr. Michael A. Weinstein in Power and Interest News Report (PINR), cross posted in Dehai, raises revealing ideas on the war on terrorism in the Horn of Africa. To summarize the article: the U.S. has singled out "Islamic extremism" as its enemy and the strategy of choice has shifted from "unilateral action" or going it alone, to "multi-lateral approach" or involving other countries. The Horn of Africa is identified as a possible refuge for Al Qaeda, after its defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (C.J.T.F.) is the command to conduct military operations jointly with the countries in the region, deliver "military-administered humanitarian aid", and conduct "public diplomacy". Ethiopia is considered a major ally in this endeavor.

The author states that the new approach has allowed Ethiopia to pursue its own predatory policies in the region with impunity. Therein lies the explanation for Washington's refusal to push Ethiopia to allow demarcation of the border, and to let Ethiopia have a free hand to intervene in Somalia's internal affairs. The author relates the build-up of troops on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia as a direct consequence of the faulty policy, and goes on to stress emphatically that the policy has failed to stop the spread of "Islamic extremism" and Al Qaeda in Somalia. In the end, Washington has "alienated Asmara and other Somali factions, and supported a regime in Addis Ababa that has become increasingly authoritarian as it contends with noncompliant opposition..." The rest is history.

One cannot brush aside such repeated mistakes in foreign policy and military strategy. It reflects flawed ways of thinking and paradigms, on top of lack of understanding of the history and situation in the area. Here are some of the flaws:

1. "Islamic extremism" can be fought militarily from outside. There are two types of terrorism: state sponsored and committed in other countries (external); "home grown" (internal). War against external terrorism, both against the sponsor countries and the terrorists can be effectively fought by governments from outside. However, internal terrorism, especially religious extremism, which relies on sentiments that reside in the minds and beliefs of people can be tackled internally by political, religious, and social action, by people and governments in those countries. A regional or global consortium of religious leaders and governments may be useful to develop a common approach and appeal to fight extremism in respective countries. Sheer military action from outside is bound to fail. If at all, it may produce the opposite result. As for Ethiopia, the country will be lucky if it succeeds in curbing the infiltration of "Islamic extremism" in its own country.

2. Use a neighboring country that is viewed as the eternal enemy of the Somali people in the fight against terrorism. Ethiopians and Somalis have age-old enmity. Putting the war on terrorism in the same bundle changes the perception of the people. The war is viewed as an extension of the fighting Somalia and Ethiopia waged over the Ogaden, and the essence of Greater Somalia. U.S. involvement in this situation creates the impression that the U.S. is assisting Ethiopia in destroying Somalia, the same way the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet block countries fought Somalia on the Ethiopian side in 1977. The issue unites "Islamic extremists" and nationalistic Somalis against the U.S. and Ethiopia. Embracing the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, was a kiss of death for U.S. anti-terrorism strategy in the region.

3. The assumption that size of a country translates into effective military power. Such wrong assumptions produce wrong results. Sheer size can be a problem rather than strength. Ethiopia is such a case. Even the massive arms shipments and direct involvement by the former U.S.S.R and its allies could not prop up the country in the 1980s.

4. The expectation that Ethiopia can serve a useful purpose as an ally in the war on terrorism in Somalia. As a country in the hinterland, Ethiopia cannot have a role in preventing infiltration of terrorists into Somalia from outside or to curb their activities inside the country. Preventing incursions by Al Qaeda from outside requires control of the coastline. Ethiopia does not have this capability. The attack on a cruise ship recently demonstrates that terrorists have freedom of movement on the sea and should be a warning of a possible catastrophic attack on civilian targets in the future. All Ethiopia can do is mount occasional raids into Somalia from across the border, thereby stiffening the resistance by the Somali people and increasing support for extremists. Going too deep inside Somalia will entail the raiders being cut off and destroyed. Complete occupation of Somalia is unthinkable, even militarily. Such attempt will be the death-knell for Ethiopia as a country. The Somalis are exceptionally good fighters, and Somalia is a member of the Arab League. A prudent policy by the U.S. would find ways of bringing the Somali people to its side. It has to use its allies in the region, such as Yemen, Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and Eritrea for advice and assistance. First order of priority should be to create a viable government. Then assist the new government to take care of the extremists. The Ethiopian regime's policy runs contrary to the interest of the U.S. Ethiopia's strategy is to prevent the creation of an independent and strong government. Instead, it wants to create a puppet government in Somalia and keep the country unstable, with the hope of weakening the guerilla war in the Ogaden, which has been going on for almost half a century.

To use the regime in Ethiopia as an ally is alienating Washington from the Ethiopian people, who were, until now, some of the most die-hard supporters of the U.S. Historically, there will be a price to be paid for this mistake. As Dr. Weinstein mentions in his article, and as events during the last ten days testify, the regime in Ethiopia is very unpopular in its own country. As far as the fight on terrorism in Somalia goes, to trust such a regime is tantamount to putting all eggs in one basket, and give them to a blind man, to carry them across a river.

The question that many people in the region ask is "why do military and political leaders of the most advanced country in the world make such obvious mistakes?" I only tell them the story of the dinosaur - the head is not always proportional to the size of the body.

The message for the "blame Eritrea first" Eritreans is, don't engage in self-flagellation. Failure by the U.N. and signatories of the Algiers Agreement to enforce the border demarcation is not due to what the Eritrean Government did or failed to do. Rather, it is due to a policy that favored Ethiopia in the war against terrorism in Somalia. Eritrea is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of international injustice. This is 1940s redux. The more things change, the more they remain the same.