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


  • Where Do We Go With Somalia?

The Somalis have played a wily game with everybody and, so far, have come out way ahead. They have built up a highly effective army with Soviet equipment and advice. They have put it to use against Soviet advice (at least so it seems) and are, in effect, blackmailing the Soviets into continuing military assistance to them. At least we have seen no evidence yet that the Soviets have cut off military aid to Somalia.

Claiming to feel threatened by Ethiopia, the Somalis extracted promises of aid, and some actual aid, from a wide range of countries who would like to see them draw away from their friendship with the Soviets during the very period when they were putting the finishing touches on their plans for invading Ethiopia and seizing nearly a third of its territory.

The Somali operation into Ethiopia is one of the most skillful the world has witnessed in many years. They gradually built up internal insurgent movements (Galla2 as well as Somali-based) so that they could be credible as freedom fighters. Then they added their own military forces—efficiently deployed and with clear military objectives. They cloaked the whole operation in a barrage of propaganda and diplomatic maneuvering, alleging Ethiopian atrocities against the Somali population and the presence of large numbers of Cubans and other mercenaries. The camouflage of their invasion has worn thin, but they stick to their cover story and defy the OAU and everyone else. Their propaganda would be admired by Goebbels. They would have had a more difficult time if the Ethiopian forces in the Ogaden had not already been demoralized and they would have a tougher time diplomatically if Mengistu’s government had not acquired such a disgraceful reputation in Africa and in the world at large.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that the Somalis invaded Ethiopia with Soviet equipment and defeated the Ethiopians, who have been using primarily U.S.-supplied equipment; in the process the Soma[Page 62]lis have probably already captured more U.S. equipment and supplies than we could have delivered to them in a year if we had undertaken to support them.

Even if the Somalis take Diredawa, Harar and Jijiga and even if they link up with the Afars and Eritreans and cut off the last remaining Ethiopian lifeline from the port of Assab, they will be in a precarious position. To maintain themselves in Ethiopia they must have military support. They cannot now expect to get it from the West—so they must rely on what the Soviets can supply. Even if the Soviets should cut them off while the Iraqis and other remaining friends continue to provide what they can, the Somalis may have to shift to a position of gradual military withdrawal to the purely Somali-populated parts of Ethiopia they can justify some claim to.

Ethiopia, though close to being militarily defeated both in the Southeast and in Eritrea, can never reconcile itself to major Somali territorial gains. A more humane and representative Ethiopian government—if this is what follows Mengistu—is likely to be able to attract much more sympathy and support from the OAU and from countries outside Africa. It is difficult to envision any circumstances where the Somalis can secure any significant measure of endorsement for their territorial claims against Ethiopia, let alone for the manner in which they have asserted them. Thus the Ethiopia-Somalia quarrel is likely to fester for years to come. A resurgent Ethiopia, much stronger in terms of population and resources than Somalia can ever be, is bound to reassert itself against Somalia when it has mustered the strength to do so. This will be especially true if the Somalis succeed in capturing Diredawa and Harar, which have great emotional and patriotic significance for Ethiopia. Ethiopians born in Harar or derived from the Harari Amhara ruling group are still prominent in the Ethiopian leadership and are likely to be even more influential in a post-Mengistu government than they are now.

So where do we go with Somalia? We should aim to show as much skill as they have in playing all sides against all sides. We want to continue to maintain friendly relations and, thus, some basis for dialogue and influence. We may want to continue to develop an economic aid program for the same purpose.

Somalia, internally, remains essentially a police state. Political strains are likely to develop once the rejoicing over the victories in Ethiopia subsides. The Somalis in the territories taken over from Ethiopia may prove harder to digest than the leadership in Mogadiscio anticipates. There is a great potential for tribal/clan strains. Somalia is a very poor country; it is questionable whether it can offer a standard of life equivalent to the low standard prevailing in the territories it has seized. It will have a difficult time keeping up economic activity in Harar and Diredawa if it seizes and holds this relatively rich area and Djibouti, [Page 63] deprived of the Ethiopian transit trade, is already approaching a condition of economic crisis. So Somalia will have plenty of problems and will need help and advice. And there will be many ways in which Somalia can be subjected to pressure.

Somalia’s relationships with friendly countries are complex. Iraq, e.g., cannot go too far in supporting Somalia without encountering objections from the Soviets—if they follow a policy of relative coolness to the Somalis. Iran and Saudi Arabia have a tradition of being relatively pro-Ethiopian and are likely to revert to this position if a rational government replaces Mengistu. Somalia has always been relatively isolated in Africa. It cannot win OAU support for its territorial claims. It can win no friends by threatening Kenya.

Somalia may, in the end, have no recourse but to return to the Soviet embrace. It is far from clear yet that the Somalis have firmly committed themselves to become extricated from dependence on the Soviets. We cannot condone their recent behavior or support their ultimate political/territorial aims. Neither should we push them back into the laps of the Soviets. Instead, we should attempt to exploit the basic weaknesses in their position to persuade and push them into a settlement in the Horn that could ultimately benefit all the countries there. As an ultimate aim, some sort of regional federation makes sense . . .

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files 1977–1981, Box 184, PRC 033 Horn of Africa, 8/25/77. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. Galla refers to the Oromo people of Ethiopia.