The Magazine

Ethiopia versus the Islamists

What the U.S. military has been up to in the Horn of Africa.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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The flood relief activities in eastern Ethiopia, for example, may have helped provide a screen for the U.S. military to conduct reconnaissance activities on the Islamists just across the border in Somalia. The Kenyan veterinarian program, meanwhile, took place in the Lamu archipelago, an island chain just south of Somalia that has been used in the past as a transit point by Islamic radicals moving along the Swahili coast. When one plots the U.S. military's civil affairs presence on a map of the Horn, it is no coincidence that they follow a rough arc along the Somali border and other trouble spots that the United States has an interest in keeping an eye on.

Ironically, these sorts of missions were not what the Pentagon had in mind for CJTF-HOA when it was created in 2002. At that time, the concern was that large numbers of foreign jihadists would flock to the Horn of Africa from Afghanistan and the Middle East, drawn by its porous borders, weak governments, and large Muslim populations--and that the U.S. military needed to be ready to take direct action against them.

This was not an unreasonable calculus. Although Americans tend to think of Africa as a continent apart from the rest of the Muslim world, this division is more imagined than real. Shared waters bind together Arabia, South Asia, and the Horn. At the chokepoint where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea, it's only an hour's ride on a speedboat between Djibouti and Yemen.

But not until the seizure of Mogadishu by the Islamists last year did the large-scale terrorist infrastructure that Pentagon planners had feared materialize. In the meantime, CJTF-HOA began emphasizing military training and civil affairs as a new justification for its existence. Not that Camp Lemonier was without its uses: For one thing, it provided a platform for unconventional operations against specific targets--most famously, the CIA's use of a Predator drone to assassinate al Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi in November 2002.

Regardless of its rationale, the reinvented task force has won some influential supporters, including retiring CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid, under whose authority the Horn of Africa falls. Abizaid has described CJTF-HOA as a "blueprint" for the future. "Dollar for dollar and person for person, our return on our investment out here is better than it is anywhere in the CENTCOM [area of responsibility]," he commented.

The task force has fewer than 2,000 U.S. troops, an economy of force that advocates like Abizaid argue keeps the U.S. military under the radar and prevents it from stirring up local or global resentments. In Somalia, this strategy seems to have worked: The U.S. military has provided training and support for the Ethiopian military, and it furnished Addis Ababa with intelligence before and during the invasion of Mogadishu, but the details of the Pentagon's involvement passed largely unnoticed in the media.

This presents more reasons the use of the Ethiopians in Somalia was so appealing. U.S. land forces and political will had been tapped out by Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, any U.S. involvement in the Horn of Africa would stir up memories of "Black Hawk down." Military operations by Ethiopia, by contrast, aren't liable to provoke the kind of international outrage or diplomatic dislocations that a U.S. attack would elicit.

That's not to say there aren't still risks. If the invasion turns into a quagmire, the media--not to mention our African partners--are sure to start placing quite a bit more emphasis on the Bush administration's role (as happened after the collapse of the CIA-supported warlord coalition earlier this year). Relying on proxies may afford greater freedom of action initially, but spectacular failure is still likely to boomerang back onto Washington.

And even when the media are looking the other way, our enemies are not. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two, has already issued a recording calling Somalia "one of the crusader battlefields that are being launched by America ... against Islam," a message that will no doubt resonate in the Muslim world.

The use of proxy forces involves other, more fundamental, risks--foremost, a lack of control over agents, often when it matters most. The United States can offer an impressive range of inducements to make the Ethiopians do what they otherwise might not desire to do, but they retain control over their army in Somalia. They decide where they will deploy, whom they will empower, when they will leave, and how they will behave while there. As the United States should have discovered at Tora Bora in 2001 and in Baghdad in 2005, this reliance can create dangers that should at least caution against any surfeit of confidence in our allies.