The Superpowers and the Ogaden War, by The Washington Post

By Don Oberdorfer March 5, 1978

On the night of last Nov. 28, U.S. surveillance stations in the Middle East tracked flights of Soviet military transport planes heading toward Ethiopia from their home base in the Soviet Union.
They were the vanguard of a still-continuing air and sea lift that has catapulted 11,000 Cuban troops, 1,000 Soviet advisers and many tons of modern weaponry into an African war, reversing the tide of battle between warring states and stirring growing argument and speculation around the world.
In Washington, the Soviet-Cuban intervention is being called “Jimmy Carter’s Angola,” a reference to the two-year-old precendent for communist expeditionary forces in Africa, thousands of miles from either Moscow or Havana. The parallel is striking but inexact, for the present conflict involves far more complex issues and greater international ramifications.
And while Angola brought on a domestic showdown between Congress and executive branch under President Ford, the policy struggle over Ethiopia appears to have exposed, for the first time, serious fissures within the high councils of the executive branch itself, under President Carter.
The situation in the Horn of Africa – the northeast sector facing oil-rich Arabia – is at one level a superpower competition for strategic interests and affiliations. Since the 1973 Middle East war and oil embargo loosed forces of dramatic change, almost every state around the Red Sea has reversed its superpower connection – Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Northern Yemen ousting Soviet advisers and bidding, with Saudi money, for American arms; Ethipia ousting American advisers to bring in Russians and Cubans.
At another level, the conflict in the Horn is a regional problem involving the diverse policies and perceptions of African states prizing territorial integrity above nearly everything else, and nervous Middle East nations eyeing their sea lanes and the fate of Islamic cousins.
And at ground level in the harsh volcanic desert and eroding plateaus of one of the world’s most poverty-stricken regions, the conflict is the continuation of 500 years of intermittent fighting between homogeneous Moslem people called Somalis and the diverse Christian tribes that make up the venerable empire of Ethiopia.
Of fundamental importance at every level is the fact that Somalia’s attack last summer, to liberate fellow tribesmen in the Ogaden region, violated the international border of Ethiopia. This boundary was imposed by colonial powers decades ago in disregard of ethnic balance, but like many similar lines, it is recognized throughout the world. Whatever may be the merits of ethnic kinship in the Somalia cause, the attempt to unite the Somali populations is rejected by international law.
By the accepted norms of international behavior, Ethiopia was fully within its rights in calling for Soviet and Cuban troops and arms to repel an invasion across its eastern border, a point which can scarcely be aruged by U.S. officials who made so much of an invitation to intervene in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. “The Soviets are not violating the United Nations charter, the rules of the Organization of African Unity or the rules of the superpower game as they are recognized,” said Tom J. Farer, professor of law at Rutgers Unversity in New Jersey and a leading expert on the Horn of Africa.
The tangled threads in this crazy-quilt fabric are so complex and paradoxical that Art Buchwald recently made a humorous column of a straightforward recitation of the situation in the Horn of Africa. A State Department official dealing with the area read the Buchwald account, pronounced it accurate and told his wife he couldn’t see what was amusing.
The development of the present multilayered conflict involves four power centers – Ethiopia, Somalia, the United States and the Soviet Union/Cuba – as well as many peripheral forces. Although rooted in the past, the crisis can be dated from Sept. 12, 1974, when an Ethiopian military group arrested the 82-year-old Emperor Haile Selassie, a once-illustrious monarch who had outlived his time. A seemingly reformist military regime was displaced two months later by a radical faction.
Amid bloody purges and executions, state control of property and Marxist-Leninist declarations, Ethiopia’s leaders made repeated bids for Soviet support while continuing to receive dwindling amounts of U.S. military aid under a long-standing pact and alliance. In the initial stages, according to U.S. officials, the Ethiopians were rebuffed. During 1975, Moscow was building a naval and communications base for its fleet near Berbera in Somalia, a Soviet aid and arms recipient since 1963 and Ethiopia’s historic enemy.
The Soviet decision to accept the Ethiopian offer of alliance dates from 1976, according to U.S. accounts. The most definitive sign was a Soviet-Ethiopian military aid pact signed secretly that December. There is a consensus among Kremlin-watchers that this decision was made at the top level of the Soviet government, and there is clear evidence that Moscow’s African specialists were less enthusiastic than high-ranking politicans and military-ranking politicans and military strategists.
Why did the Kremlin choose to endanger its secure position in cohesive Somalia by placing a major bet on highly unstable Ethiopia? There is a range of theories in Washington all of which may have an element of truth:
Ethiopia is a larger country of greater geographic, symbolic and political importance in Africa.
The appeal of the Ethiopian revolutionaries – who patterned slogans and behavior on the early Bolsheviks in Russia – was irresistible.
It was a chance to strike back at the United States – Saudi combination that to Moscow’s plan and embarrassement, was dramatically reducing Russian influence in Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere.
The U.S. national decision not to contest Soviet-Cuban military power in Angola made an Ethiopian expedition, if required, relatively riskless.
And finally, there is a strong consensus that the Soviet decision makers hoped and probably even expected that they could have a position in both Ethiopia and Somalia by mediating or managing the conflict between the two neighbors.
The most promising and important mediation effort was carried out by Cuban President Fidel Castro, whose ties with radical Ethiopia were also improving swiftly. In March 1977, Castro visited both Ethiopia and Somalia, and brought together the leaders of the two countries in an all-night summit session in the South Yemen capital of Aden. But Castro’s effort to create a “socialist federation” of the two communist backed enemies was a failure. Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny tried the following month, also unsuccessfully, in a surprise visit to Somalia.
In Washington, meanwhile, the new Carter administration inherited the Horn of Africa as one of many piles of unfinished business and long-postpostoned decisions. In reaction to the developments in the area, there was growing disenchantment with Ethopia in the Carter White House – and a growing temptation to place a U.S. bet on Somalia.
In view of the anti-American drift in Addis Ababa, the Ford administration had decided in its last days to eliminate military grant aid to Ethiopia but continue military sales on credit. The new administration, casting around for symbolic actions to validate Carter’s campaign commitments to human rights, decided to utilize this still-unannounced aid cut for this purpose. The decision was made, according to informed officials, after the State Department’s Latin American bureau objected that only Latin countries – Argentina and Uruguay – had been selected for military aid reduction on human rights grounds.
The governments involved were to be informed diplomatically, but in an apparent mixup, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance disclosed the reductions prematurely in the course of a Senate hearing on Feb. 24, 1977. The “symbolic” aid cut has been seized upon by some U.S. conservatives as evidence that Carter’s human rights policy drove Ethiopia into Moscow’s arms.
Of greater long-term importance was a Carter decision last April, following a National Security Council review, to downgrade the alliance with Ethiopia by reducing the military advisory group and closing Kagnew Station, the once-important U.S. communications base that was the central reason for the American presence. Less than 24 hours after being informed of these decisions, Ethiopia’s leaders announced that they were closing Kagnew and other U.S. facilities and ordered the military advisers and most other American officials to get out.
On May 6, just two weeks after cutting most ties with the United States, Ethiopian leader Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam signed two friendship pacts with the Soviet Union and in publicized Moscow ceremony, and a separate, unpublicized military aid pact estimated at $400 million – more than the United States had provided to Ethiopia in three decades of alliance.
The increasingly close relations between Addis Ababa and Moscow caused anger in Somalia, the Soviet Union’s longtime socialist ally in the area, and Somalia hinted to the United States that it was in the market for a new superpower sponsor, Saudi Arabia had begun furnishing $20 million to $30 million a year to Somalia for reasons of Saudi security and Islamic solidarity, and early last year there were reports that Arab oil states were offering $300 million to $350 million if Somalia would break with the Soviet Union.
Somali overtures had reached Carter last February via U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and Arab sources, and Carter appears to have been fascinated by the prospect of displacing the Soviets. Within earshot of Time magazine, which was recording “a day with Jimmy Carter,” the president directed Vice President Mondale in early April to “tell Cy [Vance] and Zbig [Brzezinski] that I want them to move in every possible way to get Somalia to be our friend.” Both the Boy Scout tone and inplications of the remark, when published in Time, sent shivers through U.S.
Carter made extensive comment on Foreign Service experts on the area, written and oral briefings about Somalia, mentioned it favorably in several press conferences and had an unannounced meeting June 16 in his office with the Somali ambassador. On July 15, he authorized a U.S. agreement in principle to sell “defensive” weapons to Somalia, which quickly presented an extensive list.
But as the United States and its Western allies moved toward an alliance with Somalia, the Somalis decided to “liberate” the Ogaden while the Ethiopian enemy was in midair between a disintegrating U.S. connection and a still-emerging Soviet connection. Somali-backed guerrilla activity was stepped up sharply starting June 1. And on July 23, close to two-thirds of Somalia’s Soviet-trained regular army of 32,000 armed with Soviet weapons, invaded Ethiopia.
“Never has so small a state with so few people [3 million] caused so much havoc,” said a U.S. policymaker, Ethiopia’s leaders, already faced with multiple insurgencies and growing opposition to radical policies, could sense the country coming apart. The Soviets were embarrassed at their arms being used to destroy their newest client – and all the more so since they had assured Ethiopia that it could safely thin its forces in the east without fear of a Somali attack. And the Western powers, appalled at the troublemaking of their tentative ally, told Somalia in early August that the arms sales were off.
Soviet leaders sought urgently to negotiate a settlement, summoning Ethiopian and Somila leaders, including Somali President Siad Barre, to Moscow. Somalia refused the mediaiton and its troops kept rolling through the Ogaden until stalled on the battlefield in mid-September.
In late October a senior Soviet military mission arrived in Ethiopia to plan massive assistance, Moscow cut off further arms shipments to Somalia, and Ethiopian leader Mengistu flew to Havana and Moscow for emergency conferences. Somalia responded, predictably on Nov. 13 by summarily ousting all Soviet military advisers and closing the Soviet base at Berbera.
According to U.S. officials who monitored the operation, there was “a slapdash nature” to the Soveit air and sea lift that began Nov. 28. Unlike the Angola intervention, which relied primarily on Cuban transport to move troops to Africa and which may have been largely Cuban-instigated, Soviet planes and ships were used this time. Soviet officers, some of whom used to advise Somali forces, are directing combat operations. All signs are that the Soviet Union, rather than Cuba, is the driving force.
Despite the growing array of Ethiopian, Soviet and Cuban military power, there is yet no indication that Somalia is engaged in a large-scale withdrawal from the Ogaden, U.S. officials said late last week. Close to 90 percent of the Somlian regular army is reported across Ethiopia’s border. Nonetheless, there are few who believe that Somalia can hold its own alone against the nearly unlimited power of the Soviet-Cuban combination. The Soveit airlift, which slackened in late January and early February, has recently quickened again. The State Department estimated Thursday that Cuban forces are arriving at the rate of 200 per day.
The Carter administration, which seems to have been surprised and shaken by the powerful nature of the Soviet-Cuban intervention, has been afflicted with indecision and even dissension about what to do. In another time, countervailing power might have been ordered, overtly or convertly, but in view of the political history of Vietnam and Angola this is considered almost impossible. And due to the illegal nature of Somali action the United States has refused so far even to permit transshipment of American-supplied weapons by allied nations to aid the Somalis.
The Horn of Africa situation has been handled at an unusually high level in the United States, with only the president and a few top advisers involved and informed. First an unsuccessful effort was made to hamper the airlift by stimulating other nations to protest Soviet flights over their territory. Then there was an unsuccessful diplomatic exploration of taking the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Now the United States is calling for Somali withdrawal, Soviet-Cuban withdrawal and a negotiated settlement.
Another White House decision was to give the Soviet-Cuban enterprise much greater visibility through on-the-record statements by National Security Affairs Adviser Brzezinski. But to complain about it loudly implies a readiness to do something if it continous – and there appears to be little, outside of vague linkages to other issues, that the United States can do. “The more serious we claim it is, the worse it is,” said a senior defense official of the problem of the Horn.

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