106. Memorandum From Paul B. Henze of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • The Horn Conflict

For the third time in the last three years, Siad has unleashed a major military effort in Ethiopia using Somali regular forces. The conflict which is now intensifying in both the southern and northern sectors of the Ogaden has not yet reached the level of the war of 1977 but it already exceeds the scope of the fighting of the fall of 1978. (U)

There are reports of Somali plans to sabotage the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad again. If this occurs, it will represent a dangerous threshold of escalation because of the political and economic importance of the railroad to Ethiopia. You will recall the cutting of the railroad marked a crucial step on the way to full-scale hostilities in 1977. (S)

There has been a remarkable similarity in each of these three episodes of Somali attack against Ethiopia. Long-developed preparations (probably at an earlier stage encouraged by the Soviets) brought Siad to the point in the spring of 1977 where, in light of severe political deterioration in Ethiopia, he found the temptation to invest regular Somali forces in a major attack irresistible. The crucial decision seems to have been taken only, however, when the Somalis concluded they had a good chance of securing American military aid. Ambassador Addou probably gave Siad an overly optimistic interpretation of his June 17 meeting with President Carter.2 In the expectation U.S. backing had been secured—but with no commitment from us—they escalated their assault on Ethiopia to a full-scale war. It was a daring gamble and almost succeeded. (C)

Again in 1978, the Somalis let their own impatience get the better of them. Had they pulled back and lain low after their defeat in Ethiopia [Page 289] in March, we would have inaugurated a “defensive” military relationship with them.3 (U)

In the expectation that we would be sending a military survey group to lay the groundwork for such a relationship, Siad decided to rebuild the guerrilla structure inside Ethiopia with a major investment of Somali regulars. This led to renewed fighting on a scale sufficiently intense that sending a military survey team could not be justified and plans for military aid were shelved.4 (C)

We have seen a similar pattern over the last eight months. We started the effort to secure facilities in Somalia which is currently continuing in face of a significant level of continuing guerrilla activity in the Ogaden. The level of direct Somali military preparation was rather low last fall, however. Though we hoped (unrealistically) to persuade the Somalis to keep it low and reduce the intensity of guerrilla activity further in return for the prize of an American military relationship, Siad looked at it differently. Intensifying east-west hostility encouraged his wishful thinking: this time, he apparently felt, the Americans could be enticed into accepting Somali operations in the Ogaden . . . (C)

So rather than a reduction in Ogaden operations, we have had a steady expansion with more and more direct regular Somali military participation. This has reached its natural culmination over the past ten days in serious military engagements between regular Ethiopian and Somali forces, with both sides now reinforcing the units already engaged. The prospect is for further escalation, expanded Ethiopian air retaliation against Somali territory and perhaps—there are obviously some on the Ethiopian side urging such action—Ethiopian attacks into Somali territory. (C)

There is also a new ingredient in the present situation, one whose importance is still difficult to assess. The “Somali Salvation Front” which for a long time looked like nothing but an Ethiopian invention, appears to have some potential for attracting disaffected elements in Somalia. Best evidence for this is the increasing concern Siad shows for it. There are other indications that his own political position is weakening and that opposition to Siad in Somalia, partly perhaps as a result of the ferment generated by the refugees, is growing. Some of this opposition has no connection with Somali Salvation Front activity. (C)

Siad, by escalating the confrontation with Ethiopia at this time, is taking a more daring gamble than before. His own expectation must be that the potential U.S. relationship is sufficently ensured to secure [Page 290] some degree of U.S. involvement in defending himself against Ethiopian air attack, and then more substantial backing. We deceive only ourselves if we prefer to believe Siad would not want full U.S. military support to defeat Ethiopia if he could contrive to get it.

Siad has already had considerable success in gaining humanitarian support for the Ogaden refugees who are—deplorable as their condition may be—largely the creation of his own policy of pursuing the war in the Ogaden to the point where the very people who are supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of it have had their home ground rendered uninhabitable. (C)

Siad may, of course, as he periodically intimates to us, be consciously risking Gotterdämmerung. If his own political base is eroding and he sees no political future for himself within the framework of any policy that would lead to peaceful resolution of the Ogaden conflict—he loses little by gambling on bringing us in to back him. There has never been any evidence that Siad would ever reconcile himself more than temporarily to our desire to limit our involvement in the Somali-Ethiopian struggle. (C)

This is our dilemma. Are our interest in Somalia and our interest in Siad identical? I have always argued, as you know, that they should not be. There is more to Somalia than Siad. He is a good example of the harm that can be done to a country by an authoritarian leader who sells himself first to the Soviets and then to any other bidder and sacrifices the real national interests of his country as his mistakes propel him deeper into the whirlpool of events that outdistance his capacity to control them. A third, unsuccessful attempt to wrest territory from Ethiopia by force cannot—by any reasonable calculation one can make—end successfully for Siad. We cannot let ourselves be drawn into it to the extent that would resolve the issue in favor of Somalia. If the result is some degree of defeat for Siad, or prolonged heightened tension, Siad’s own position is likely to be weakened fatally. Some group in Somalia is going to try to rid the country of him. Do we want to find ourselves trying to prop up a discredited Siad whose own internal power base is eroding? Do we want to take the opprobrium of letting Siad fall when he has identified himself with us? We may be closer to facing that unpleasant dilemma than we realize. (C)

I continue to be struck by the fact that the most ardent proponents of a U.S. policy of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” in respect to Somalia are those who know the least about it and have not studied the lessons of the recent history of the Horn. A serious assessment of our real strategic interests in SW Asia and what we can do to improve our position at a politically bearable cost must underscore the unwisdom of proceeding further with Siad and the desirability of positioning ourselves to cut potential losses from our current degree of entangle[Page 291]ment before it is too late. While the Somalis escalate the fighting in Ethiopia, our effort to gain facilities there should be put on the shelf.5 (C)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, General Odom File, Box 48, Somalia/Horn of Africa: 2–10/80. Secret. Copies were sent to Odom, Ermarth, Funk, Sick, Thornton, Brement, Hunter, Wriggins, and Welch. In the upper right corner, Brzezinski wrote, “I need the reactions of the others to these pts. that Paul makes so forcefully. ZB.” See footnote 5 below.
  2. The meeting took place on June 16, 1977. See Document 20.
  3. See Documents 6976.
  4. See Document 82.
  5. In a June 4 memorandum to Brzezinski, Wriggins “strongly” supported “Paul’s cautionary view.” He continued, “To be sure, Berbera and Modadishu are certainly geostrategically attractive. But they are not worth the politico-diplomatic and even possibly conflict risk so long as Siad Barre or an equally irredentist successor is in control.” (Carter Library, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 69, Somalia: 1/80–1/81) In a June 5 memorandum to Brzezinski, Ermarth wrote, “What troubles me most about Paul’s argument is that it is a prescription for passivity at a time when we can no longer afford to be passive.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Outside the System File, Box 57, 6/1–12/80) In a June 5 memorandum to Brzezinski, Odom wrote, “We would be better off politically in the region if we signed an agreement and later were thrown out by Siad for not supporting him, than to look too timid to strike a bargain in the first place.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 69, Somalia: 1/80–1/81) In a June 9 memorandum to Brzezinski, Funk agreed with Henze’s analysis, but felt the dangers were understated. He wrote, “My bottom line is this: it would be advantageous to play it mean and tough, but unless we really do have the political guts and the military muscle to engage in a fairly large action in Somalia, we will have our bluff called, and we will get our heads kicked in.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, General Odom File, Box 48, Somalia/Horn of Africa: 2–10/80)