By Kumsa Aba Gerba 08/14/09
Some laypersons in US diplomatic circles are asking "have we used Ethiopia or have they used us?" They believe Ethiopia is using counter terrorism as a means to get cozy with USA. Even though there are legitimate terrorist concerns in the Horn of Africa, they advise that the U.S. must be careful in appeasing the Ethiopian government whose governance and human rights record they do not approve. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S does not have that much leverage with Ethiopia. The notion that Ethiopia benefits from the East Africa Counter terrorism Initiative and the U.S. Terrorist Interdiction Program is miniscule and exaggerated at best. Whether the insurgents in Somalia, the Eritrean or Ethiopian governments, as the players in the Horn are getting smarter in dealing with an infantile US policy that is in an all time disorder, the US seems to have trouble in getting a good handle to the region’s political intricacies.
US policy makers seem to approach the trouble in the Horn in the same manner that they dealt with Pakistan which eventually resulted in a big diplomatic contention between the Bush Administration and the Pakistani government. The Pakistanis had been persistent that the US is only interested in hunting Bin Laden and Al Queda leaders rather than helping them in getting rid of the Taliban terror network both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US only wanted the head of Osama and friends, as gift for George Bush, but did not want to antagonize the potentially helpful Afgani and Pakistani Talibans in the hunt [for Bin Laden] in the tribal regions.
Similarly in Somalia the US wants to resolve the Somali crisis but does not want to be seen as helping Ethiopia and antagonize Somali Islamists including ONLF. This strategy is much more reinforced under the Obama Administration and has a lot to do with the new image they want to build in the Middle East, i.e. portraying Obama as a friend of the Islamic world.
In Somalia, sources say that USA is looking for the helping hands of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys and his Hizbul Islam. The United States knows that Aweys is under the total control of Asmara and owes his existence to the Eritrean Regime. It is to be recalled that the president of Somalia’s TFG, Sheik Sharif Shiek Ahmed who was the former Commander in Chief of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) used to be harbored by Eritrea, until he was found useful by USA to head the fragile TFG. Sheik Aweys, who has some weight on his Al Shabab allies, has become a jewel that is closely guarded by the Eritrean regime as a bargaining chip.
For USA, the most valuable issue than peace and stability in Somalia is the destroying links to Al Queda and Al Shabab. Sheik Aweys who is wanted by Ethiopia and listed as a wanted terrorist by the US is in a tight situation. For USA, to get out of their quandary of chasing the terrorist ghosts in Somalia, the rope may be loose for the Eritrean Regime and may not be asked to deliver Aweys. The US found no value of detaining terrorists in Guantanamo Bay and they may not see any value putting Aweys in jail either. Sheik Aweys is well situated as an insider of the terrorist camp, willing and capable of destroying Al Shabab or at least marginalize it. Sources say that the US is trying to t befriend Aweys by way of the Asmara regime.
With all the rhetoric of USA telling Eritrea to cease and desist from helping terrorists in Somalia, the Eritrean regime already knows that the country has been relieved of being categorized as a terrorist heaven. The reasoning here is that the US government believes that Eritrea is not interested in hosting terrorist bases on its land. The Eritrean regime is too smart to directly harbor and host Al Qaida or Al Shabab and become a regional base for terror on its own land. It may however host ragtag units of Ethiopian rebels composed of Ethiopian army deserters and border bandits on its territory.
Contrary to the official grandstanding and sanction talk of Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, the US has been in close discussion with Eritrea with a mindset that “pressure and punishment do not work in Eritrea”. Susan Rice’s efforts at the UN and Hillary Clinton’s Nairobi speech about sanctions are simplistic strategy and a flimsy stick without even a hidden carrot. The tough talk is an attempt to comfort Somalia’s TFG for the short term, at least at the Nairobi photo-ops. The Eritrean regime knows it and it is publicly reproaching USA while not closing its back door on a lot of issues.
Asmara may not even stop its arms supply to Somalia. USA knows that there are Wahabists, sponsors and money launderers of high sea Somali pirates as well as arms dealers behind the military supply to Somalia. Now the USA is in the mix of those who spurt armament into troubled Somalia by openly supplying the TFG. Next to Eritrea, the US is the second official violator of the UN arms embargo on Somalia, in preposterous manner. So sanction on Eritrea has questionable outcome, if any and the Asmara regime is adamantly unresponsive to the threat.
There are some dodgy Washington influences who would like to inversely castigate Ethiopia by appeasing Eritrea. They put nice words for the Eritrean Regime in a smart way that attacking the Eritrean regime for its domestic repression may open space and a sign of relief for its arch foe Ethiopia.
The Eritrean opposition forces have been lobbying the US government and trying to charge the Eritrean Regime against its domestic repression and its involvement in regional havocs. Sources close to the opposition forces say that they are often told by USA that it will make the Eritrean Regime increasingly vulnerable and may force the Eritrean regime to actively aid and abate terrorists, more than what it is doing now in Somalia. They are told that going after the Asmara regime is something the USA cannot handle, with the entire regional political impediments.
Unlike Eritrea, the tone and gesture of the Ethiopian regime towards objectionable US rhetoric about the Somali issue, democracy and human rights is often polite, but behind the curtain it is a firm and resolute rebuff. A couple of things may seem opaque for US policy makers but are quite clear for close Ethiopian observers. The first is that Ethiopia will not go back to Somalia in full force to help the TFG as it did in the past, even at the request of the UN. It will however get in and out, at will and without anyone’s permission, if it senses eminent danger to its security and deems it necessary to crash its threats. The other is that Ethiopia sensed the circuitous political arm twisting of the West, using the country’s opposition parties and various NGO. Ethiopia’s NGO and anti terrorism laws is a systematic aversion of any covert influence to its policies by the West in addition to dealing with armed domestic and inter-border trouble makers. Ethiopia has long thought that if the US and the West are acutely objecting these laws, it is as if they are objecting their own, since both laws are direct copies of British and American laws.
There are many political reasons why Hillary Clinton did not have Addis Ababa, the seat of UNECA and African Union, on her itinerary of her recent trip to Africa. Of course with an avowed antagonist of the Ethiopian government, Congressman Donald Payne going along her side, a visit to Ethiopia is unthinkable. In an imprudently predictable way trying to flatter the Ethiopian Regime, the US immediately dispatched its trade representative Ambassador Ron Kirk to Addis Ababa, as a make up for Hillary Clinton’s skip.
The Horn of Africa is a politically and diplomatically risky neighborhood for USA. Whether it is for Eritrea or Ethiopia, the carrot that the US has in its pouch is less than half a billion dollars aid, albeit it is mostly in food purchased from US farmers in Kansas. The only stick the US has in its arsenal is a threat to deny the food aid, since there is no meaningful trade deal between USA and countries in the Horn, even with all the hoopla about AGOA.
The author is an Ethiopian American graduate student and a researcher of International Relations in USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org