Ethiopia and the Global Antiterrorism Campaign
February 27, 2007
The Bush Administration’s recent announcement that it plans to create an Africa Command underscores Africa’s growing strategic significance to the United States, particularly in the post 9/11 era. At the same time, however, a new Africa-specific military command highlights critical, underemphasized, and to a large extent Africa-specific issues at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. The core issue is this: how can the United States pursue its global counter-terrorism agenda in partnership with African countries in ways that strengthen weak states, encourage embryonic democratization, and support Millennium Development Goal objectives?
Ethiopia offers a case in point. The United States has forged a strategic military partnership with Ethiopia, and a key purpose of this partnership is to combat terrorism alleged to be incubating in a neighboring failed state, Somalia. The risk to be averted is that in pursuing this agenda, Ethiopia’s progress in promoting political stability and expanding state capacity, as well as in democratization and development, not be compromised or undermined, particularly since these areas encompass important policy objectives the United States shares with other western donor countries.
Pursuit of these non-military interests cannot be permitted to distract from the defeat of global terrorism, but neither can counter-terrorism campaigns be permitted to override stability, development, and democracy objectives. Achieving this indispensable integration of the military and nonmilitary dimensions of U.S. foreign policy will require much better coordination between the Department of Defense and other agencies of the U.S government than has occurred on Iraq. It will also require all actors, in Africa and the global system, to reconcile the pursuit of their own interests with the increasingly recognized common interest in overcoming war, poverty, ignorance, and disease. Here, too, U.S. unilateralism in Iraq war has created a tragic negative example that must not be repeated.
Media attention to the fighting in Somalia and U.S. air attacks against Islamists there has
obscured this wider array of issues. In October 2006, the United States and Ethiopia agreed to collaborate in intercepting terrorist cells seeking safe haven to incubate in the Horn of Africa. U.S. pursuit of reputed terrorists in Somalia coincided with Ethiopia’s decision to give crucial military support to the ouster of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) regime by the Transitional Federal Government. The long-term consequences of Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia are not yet known, and much could go wrong from the U.S. and Ethiopian perspectives – and for the people of Somalia. (See Ken Menkhaus, “Somalia: the Backup Plan,” CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum, February 13, 2007.) Obviously, it is critically important that the U.S. government pursue its counter terrorism agenda in the Horn in ways that also contribute to the reconstruction of the Somali state and do not exacerbate civil war and state failure. Less obvious, but also very important, is that U.S. policy in Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa promote its Ethiopian partner’s stability, rather than undermine it.
What is at stake for Ethiopia in this counter-terrorism partnership and by extension for America’s own interests in the region? Fundamentally, joint counter-terrorism initiatives must be kept separate from Ethiopia’s struggles with democracy and its continuing pursuit of a post-imperial political identity. Although it is unquestionably an important partner for the United States, Ethiopia’s own constitutional identity remains deeply contested. Its progress toward democracy has been stalled or even reversed in the violent aftermath of the country’s first truly competitive parliamentary elections, held in May 2005. (For more on the Ethiopian political situation, see Terrence Lyons, “Ethiopia and the Search for Regional Peace in the Horn of Africa,” CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum, January 22, 2007).
The central issue in those elections was the ruling regime’s highly confederal constitution, which, however compromised in practice, grants considerable autonomy to the ethnically-based provinces because of the concern that otherwise they might seek to replicate Eritrea’s secession. The leading opposition party regards that constitution as a passport to the Balkanization of the country, and its leaders are now on trial for treason. Many of Ethiopia’s component communities, on the other hand, have not forgotten that they were forcibly incorporated into the Ethiopian empire by Haile Selassie and his predecessors. Resentment remains particularly high in Oromo regions, where low level insurgencies have simmered for many years. Ethiopia’s communities need to settle this and other issues peacefully and on their own, although they could be aided in doing so through sensitive diplomacy on the part of the United States and other outside actors.
The emphasis here is on the word “sensitive.” The lessons of both Iraq and, much earlier, Vietnam dramatize the dangers of superimposing global U.S. foreign policy objectives on issues roiling one country or region. The fundamental problem is that the newly minted Ethiopia-U.S. collaboration appears to leave open-ended the question of who might be considered a terrorist. Ethiopia’s own stability could be undermined if Prime Minister Meles Zenawi decides – and the Americans agree – that anyone who opposes his regime must be infected by global terrorism. Nor does the collaboration appear to define when an Islamic fundamentalist becomes a terrorist. As many as 50% or more of Ethiopians are Moslems, and many of them oppose the regime. This raises a danger that the United States might be drawn into an anti-Muslim conflict in Ethiopia, with potentially disastrous consequences extending into the Middle East.
Nor does the U.S.-Ethiopia collaboration appear to specify when a Somali resident in the Ogadaen region bordering Somalia has become a terrorist through sympathy or affiliation with Somalia-based Islamists. Ethiopia has fought more than one war to keep the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region within Ethiopia; and indeed it was the UIC’s irredentist threat to reopen this conflict that prompted Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia. Both Ethiopia and the Somalia factions need carefully to avoid escalating tensions in the Ogaden, and the United States must avoid seeing the Ogaden situation through glasses tinted by the Global War on Terror. Doing so could propel it into backing Ethiopia uncritically, perhaps provoking the very rise of Islamist sentiment that policymakers had been hoping to avoid.
The fact that Ethiopia and Eritrea are backing rival surrogates in Somalia creates another danger for the United States. The border dispute between these two countries, which led to a war that began in 1998 and lasted two years, is still unresolved. Renewed fighting on an even wider scale remains a distinct possibility. As a result, U.S. diplomats must take care to see that Ethiopia not use the Somalia situation as a lever to involve the United States in the Eritrean confrontation.
Ethiopia’s counter-terrorism partnership with the United States is reminiscent of the role the country played as an outpost of the western alliance during the first Cold War decades. The new partnership may well prove of great value to both countries as, many would contend, was the earlier one. On the other hand, Emperor Haile Selassie unquestionably used his relationship with the United States to perpetuate his authoritarian, undemocratic regime, and the result was a political upheaval that shook the region and reverberates even today. Consequently, it is vital that the United States, concentrated as it is on the Global War on Terror, not conflate its global adversaries and domestic activists inside Ethiopia, however aggressive they may be. Instead, every effort must be made to keep Ethiopia on the path of democratization and development.
John W. Harbeson is Professor of Political Science in the Graduate Center and at City College in the City University of New York He has written extensively on the politics of eastern Africa and the Horn and has served as U.S.A.I.D. Regional Democracy and Governance Advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa.
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