US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced a new venue for her superficial and destructive stewardship of US foreign policy during her lightning visit to the Horn of Africa last Wednesday.
The Horn of Africa is a dangerous and strategically vital place. Small wars, which rage continuously, can easily escalate into big wars. Local conflicts have regional and global aspects. All of the conflicts in this tinderbox, which controls shipping lanes from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea, can potentially give rise to regional, and indeed global conflagrations between competing regional actors and global powers.
Located in and around the Horn of Africa are the states of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya. Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year civil war, is a major source of regional conflict. Eritrea has a nagging border dispute with Ethiopia which could easily ignite. The two countries fought a bloody border war from 1998-2000 over control of the town of Badme. Although a UN mandated body determined in 2002 that the disputed town belonged to Eritrea, Ethiopia has rejected the finding and so the conflict festers.
Eritrea also fights a proxy war against Ethiopia in Somalia and in Ethiopia's rebellious Ogaden region. In Somalia, Eritrea is the primary sponsor of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic Courts Union which took control of Somalia in June, 2006. In November 2006, the ICU government declared jihad against Ethiopia and Kenya. Backed by the US, Ethiopia invaded Somalia last December to restore the recognized Transitional Federal Government to power which the ICU had deposed.
Although the Ethiopian army successfully ousted the ICU from power in less than a week, backed by massive military and financial assistance from Eritrea, as well as Egypt and Libya, the ICU has waged a brutal insurgency against the TFG and the Ethiopian military for the past year.
The senior ICU leadership, including Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed have received safe haven in Eritrea. In September, the exiled ICU leadership held a nine-day conference in the Eritrean capital of Asmara where they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia headed by Ahmed.
Eritrean President-for-life Isaias Afwerki declared his country's support for the insurgents stating, "The Eritrean people's support to the Somali people is consistent and historical, as well as a legal and moral obligation."
Although touted in the West as a moderate, Ahmed has openly supported jihad and terrorism against Ethiopia, Kenya and the West. Aweys, for his part, is wanted by the FBI in connection with his role in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Then there is Eritrea's support for the Ogaden separatists in Ethiopia. The Ogaden rebels are Somali ethnics who live in the region bordering Somalia and Kenya. The rebellion is run by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) which uses terror and sabotage as its preferred methods of warfare. It targets not only Ethiopian forces and military installations, but locals who wish to maintain their allegiance to Ethiopia or reach a negotiated resolution of the conflict. In their most sensationalist attack to date, in April ONLF terror forces attacked a Chinese-run oil installation in April killing nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopians.
Ethiopia, for its part has fought a brutal counter-insurgency to restore its control over the region. Human rights organizations have accused Ethiopia of massive human rights abuses of civilians in Ogaden.
Then there is Sudan. As Eric Reeves wrote in the Boston Globe on Saturday, "The brutal regime in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, has orchestrated genocidal counter-insurgency war in Darfur for five years, and is now poised for victory in its ghastly assault on the region's African populations."
The Islamist government of Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir is refusing to accept non-African states as members of the hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur that is due to replace the undermanned and demoralized African Union peacekeeping force whose mandate ends on December 31. Without its UN component of non-African states, the UN Security Council mandated force will be unable to operate effectively. Khartoum's veto led Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN undersecretary for peacekeeping to warn last month that the entire peacekeeping mission may have to be aborted.
And the Darfur region is not the only one at risk. Due to Khartoum's refusal to carry out the terms of its 2005 peace treaty with the Southern Sudanese that ended Khartoum's 20-year war and genocide against the region's Christian and animist population, the unsteady peace may be undone. Given Khartoum's apparent sprint to victory over the international community regarding Darfur, there is little reason to doubt that once victory is secured, it will renew its attacks in the south.
The conflicts in the Horn of Africa have regional and global dimensions. Regionally, Egypt has played a central role in sponsoring and fomenting conflicts. Egypt's meddling advances its interest of preventing the African nations from mounting a unified challenge to Egypt's colonial legacy of extraordinary rights to the waters of the Nile River which flows through all countries of the region.
Globally, the region is a hotbed of Wahabist activity. Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum until 1995. The ICU receives support not only from Eritrea, but from the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. So too, international attempts to end the genocide in Darfur have been stymied by the Arab League and the OIC. One of the main reasons for the recent US decision to establish a military command in Africa is its strategic importance to the forces of global jihad. The US's largest force in Africa is located in Djibouti.
International efforts to resolve the manifold conflicts in the region have failed to address the roots of the conflicts and so, even when successful are generally short lived. As the situation in Southern Sudan and the Eritrean-Ethiopian border show, these agreements only last as long as neither side believes it can defeat the other.
Beyond that, while US and European leaders have spoken eloquently of the need to end the slaughter in Darfur and help the Somalis establish order, Washington and Brussels have made clear that they will not take effective action to back up their declarations. Indeed, even if Khartoum weren't actively working to undermine the peacekeeping mission in Darfur, it is hard to see the mission actually succeeding. No NATO member will agree to donate helicopters to the peacekeeping force. Without the helicopters, the peacekeepers will be unable to perform their mission.
This regional morass of wars and rivalries formed the backdrop last week to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's one-day visit to African Union headquarters in Ethiopia. It is far from clear what Rice hoped to accomplish by traveling to Africa. She didn't bring any plans to solve any of the region's problems or even suggest new ways of looking at them. Even more troubling, Rice devoted the majority of her attention not to pointing a finger at Eritrea and Sudan for their bad behavior, but to attacking Ethiopia and pressuring the southern Sudanese to cut a deal with Khartoum.
It seems fairly clear that Ethiopia's hands are not clean in its handling of the separatist war in Ogaden. But at the same time, it is equally clear that Ethiopia is the only state among the warring factions that has tried to bring a semblance of law and order and openness to its war torn, fractured society.
Beyond that, Ethiopia is without a doubt the US's most loyal, stable, militarily capable and strategically valuable ally in the region. And yet, in her public statements, Rice singled Ethiopia out for censure demanding that it curtail its operations along its border with Eritrea. She also called for an Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia despite the fact that she knows that the African Union has not been successful in raising a peacekeeping force to deploy to the country that could secure a peace. Rice refused to accept Ethiopia's position that the ONLF is a terrorist organization and took a step back from US threats in September to label Eritrea a state supporter of terrorism despite its open support for the al-Qaida linked ICU.
Then too, aside from declaring that the peace agreement between the southern Sudanese and the Khartoum government must not be permitted to unravel, she offered no helpful advice on how to prevent that from occurring. Rice refrained from attacking Khartoum for boycotting her visit, and apparently sufficed with pleasantries in her meeting with south Sudanese leader Pagan Amum.
Rice's foray into the Horn of Africa left an acrid aftertaste. Her superficial treatment of deep and dangerous conflicts indicates her lack of interest in the strategically vital region. Most troubling though, was her abusive treatment of Ethiopia. By attacking the US's strongest ally while making light of the actual conflicts plaguing the area, Rice showed that in the Horn of Africa her view of her role as chief US diplomat is no different from her perception of her role in the Middle East and Asia. Apparently, as Rice sees it, her remaining time in office is best spent weakening America's allies and giving a free ride to its foes.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should be thankful that her main focus lies elsewhere.