US military build-up in ‘Horn of Africa’ likely to further destabilise the region

Developing Just Leadership

M.S. Ahmed

Ramadan 11, 1423 2002-11-16


by M.S. Ahmed (World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 18, Ramadan, 1423)

The US is stepping up its military presence in the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s most unstable regions, as part of its global ‘war on terrorism’ and to support its allies, as General Tom Franks, the commander of US troops in the Gulf, has said at a news conference at the Pentagon. About 800 US troops are already stationed in Djibouti and on ships offshore, but their number will soon be increased to 2,000. Nearly 400 troops assigned to US central command have now arrived in the tiny East African country, which is a former French colony, to establish a headquarters for the forces already there. Their declared function is to conduct training missions and to be ready to attack al-Qa’ida fighters who, Washington alleges, are hiding throughout the region. But to the Americans, and to the warlords and rulers in the region, all Islamic groups are linked to al-Qa’ida and must be fought as terrorists, making them a legitimate target for US forces, which are already helping Ethiopian forces and Somali warlords to hunt down Islamic groups in Somalia.

This is a dangerous development in a region plagued by ethnic and religious conflicts that are complicated by border disputes. US foreign policy, backed with economic and military aid, has played a direct role in these conflicts for many years, but this is the first time that US troops are being stationed in and around the region with the stated aim of taking sides. The immediate effect is that the various factions have become more interested in obtaining US support and fighting for victory than in negotiating peace deals. The Somali and Sudanese peace negotiations being conducted in Kenya, for instance, have suffered immediate setbacks as a result. At the Pentagon news conference on October 29, General Franks presented the introduction of US forces into the region as a positive step aimed at destroying al-Qa’ida, but implied that there are also other reasons for their presence. “It’s tied to the global war on terrorism,” he said, “but you also know that we have security relationships or engagement opportunities — however you choose to think about them — in a great many countries in the Horn of Africa: Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen.”

Kenya, Eritrea and Ethiopia — countries governed by Christian elites, although they have large Muslim populations — are natural allies of the US, particularly in the absence of ideological divisions that can complicate relations, now that communism and the Soviet Union are things of the past. But Djibouti and Yemen have only begun to interest the US since September 11 last year, and since Washington’ s war on Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Taliban, US officials began to say that al-Qa’ida fighters were leaving Afghanistan to hide in Yemen and the Horn of Africa — particularly Sudan and Somalia. The fighters were attracted to Yemen and ‘Islamist Sudan’ because of Usama bin Ladin’s previous connections with them, and to Somalia because as a ‘failed state’ it is an ideal hiding ground for ‘terrorists’, the US reasoned. This has led to the strategy of combining Yemen and the Horn of Africa to form a single theatre of war in which terrorists are targeted as a common enemy. This explains why General Franks includes Yemen in his reference to the countries of the Horn of Africa.

In fact, the CIA’s unmanned Predator aircraft that assassinated six ‘suspected’ members of al-Qa’ida in Yemen on November 3 was operating from Djibouti, which is becoming the command and control centre for operations in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The Americans have acquired a small military base several kilometres from the capital (also called Djibouti), and, according to a senior US military official, the base will give the US a “permanent foothold” in the region. This suggests that Washington will greatly expand the base and increase its forces there, but it seems not to be prepared to reveal the extent of either. President George W. Bush is on record as having said that the ‘war on terrorism’ will be fought in secret, and last February the Pentagon set up a covert unit to give false information designed to mislead the media about plans for the war against terrorists.

The seriousness of the expansion and the size of the forces, particularly those on ships offshore, however, indicate that the build-up is not directed only against Iraq but also against ‘terrorists’ in the Horn of Africa. This is also indicated by the French defence minister, who was in Djibouti at the end of October, and made a statement that he need not have made if the build-up were not substantial or not noticeable. Nor would Paris have despatched its minister so urgently had it not been worried about the US’s designs on a small, poor country that France considers to be within its own sphere of influence. France has a security treaty with Djibouti and maintains a base and a 2,700-strong force there.

But, despite French misgivings, Washington will act independently of Paris and Djibouti, whenever it decides to use its military might against any target in the region, as it will not seek the permission of the government of the country where the target is situated. Washington is not likely to send its own troops to fight on the ground, but it will train the forces of its allies in the region and will use bombing raids to attack selected targets. The norm will be unilateral and pre-emptive raids similar to the missile attack used to assassinate the six men in Yemen, though Predator unmanned aircraft need not figure regularly in the attacks. The operations will cause great resentment against the US, as they have done in Yemen, and will not bring victory to Washington’s allies. They are much likelier to lead to more fighting and greater instability.

Sudan and Somalia will probably bear the brunt of the operations. Ethiopian forces and their allied Somali warlords are already waging war against Islamic groups in Somalia with the help of CIA operatives and special US forces. In Sudan, American Church groups and Washington are giving financial and military aid to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting Khartoum. The US government has also restored the sanctions imposed on Sudan in 1997, despite Khartoum’s cooperation with the ‘war on terrorism’. In a statement issued on October 29, the White House said that the sanctions were being reimposed because Sudan continues to pursue policies that pose a great threat to US security and foreign policy strategies. The reverse is, of course, more likely to be true, as the US is committed to a strategy that seeks to divide Sudan into a Muslim north and a Christian south. Ethiopia, which is a traditional enemy of Sudan and has a potentially serious dispute with it over the waters of the Nile, certainly has a strategic interest in seeing its Western neighbour kept permanently weak.

Ethiopia also has great interest in Somalia’s being kept torn apart, as it has a serious territorial dispute with its southern neighbour, having already fought a war over the vast disputed territory known variously as “Western Somalia” and as “Ogaden region”. That is why it sounds absurd when it claims that the military support it is giving its allied warlords is designed to restore peace to the war-torn country by the elimination of ‘terrorist groups’. When, for instance, 20 Somali warlords and the transitional government signed a ceasefire agreement in Kenya on October 27, Addis Ababa hailed it as a vitally important development that it supported. Only one day later, clashes occurred in Southern Somalia in which Addis Ababa’s heavily armed allies were involved, leaving 15 people dead and 30 injured. Later clashes also broke out in Mogadishu, making the ceasefire meaningless.

But if Addis Ababa and Washington believe that their operations in the region will only destabilise their adversaries, they are seriously mistaken. Ethiopia, which shares borders with all the countries in the Horn of Africa, will go down with its neighbours if peace eludes the region, especially as a result of its role in the US’s imperialist wars.

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