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Proxy War in Africa’s Horn

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: December 20, 2006

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In the disputed border area between Ethiopia and Eritrea, tensions have been high all year but neither side appears willing to break the stalemate. Instead, both countries have been amassing troops in neighboring Somalia in what appears to be a proxy war. The build-up threatens to tip the entire Horn of Africa into a regional war (CSMonitor). Such a conflict appears increasingly imminent: Somalia’s Islamists set a December 19 deadline for Ethiopian troops to leave the country, and shortly after its expiry, clashes erupted (Independent) in several locations throughout the country.

Ethiopia—a Christian-led nation with a significant Muslim population—sent troops into Somalia in support of the country’s weak, but internationally recognized, transitional government. Since the Islamists’ seizure of Mogadishu in June and the expansion of their area of control, Addis Ababa has been concerned their influence could inflame Ethiopia’s Muslims. Eager to support the enemy of its enemy, Eritrea has provided arms and troops to support the Somali Islamists, as well as other anti-Ethiopian forces in Somalia.

The proxy war in Somalia marks a substantial escalation of the longtime conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia refuses to recognize and implement border demarcations brokered in the 2000 Algiers Agreement, which ended a bloody and futile two-year war between them. Eritrea continues to send troops into the disputed area—patrolled by UN troops—and threaten war. An International Crisis Group report warned in December 2005 that peace between the two countries was “fraying dangerously,” and since then the situation has only become more precarious.

If war breaks out in Somalia, Eritrea will benefit from Ethiopia’s preoccupation with the Somali front, which might tempt it to adopt a more aggressive posture on the border region. War would also allow Somalia’s Islamists to drum up Somali nationalism as well as attract further external support. While the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute and Somalia’s internal power struggle are linked, the United States should work to resolve them separately, says a new Council Special Report. If it doesn’t, the report says, Ethiopia “may drag Washington into a conflict that will be framed in many parts of the Muslim world as another U.S.-sponsored attack on Islam.”

A U.S.-backed Security Council resolution passed on December 6 strengthens the link between Washington and Addis Ababa. The United States said the resolution—which authorizes the deployment of an African peacekeeping force to support the transitional government—aims to halt the expansion of Islamist influence and prevent full-scale war. Yet war is exactly what the Islamists promised (VOA) if the resolution passed. Instead of promoting African peacekeeping troops in Somalia, Washington should push for peace talks between the Islamists and the transitional government, a strengthened arms embargo, and the withdrawal of foreign forces, says the Council Special Report.

“Washington’s new Somalia policy is not just self-defeating: it is inflammatory,” writes Somalia expert Matt Bryden in the CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum. “The apparent determination of the United States to approach Somalia as a new front in the Global War on Terror is well along the path to becoming a self-fulfilling policy.” A November report from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia suggests the Islamists already receive help from various African and Middle Eastern nations. Experts believe only two terrorist groups—including a small al-Qaeda cell—currently operate in Somalia, but as this Backgrounder notes, conditions are ripe for the country to become a significant terrorist haven.

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