84. Interagency Intelligence Memorandum1

NI IIM 78–10010



This paper is the product of an informal interagency working group, chaired by CIA under the auspices of the National Intelligence Officer for Africa. The paper has been coordinated at a working level.

This memorandum addresses the Eritrean situation from the perspective of the involved countries and weighs the possible outcomes of the imbroglio. Owing to the fluidity of the situation, we have tended to focus on developments over the next three months, although in looking at the possible outcomes we have gone beyond this time frame. We also would point out that there are gray areas between the various possible courses of development.

[Omitted here is the table of contents.]


There are markedly different perspectives among the key groups concerned with the Eritrean situation.

—The Soviets, Cubans, and Arab states clearly would prefer a negotiated settlement in Eritrea.

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—The Ethiopian regime and the insurgents are not now interested in negotiations except on their own extreme terms. The prospects for negotiations at this time are nil.

—The Soviets and Cubans are not prepared to jeopardize their strong position in Ethiopia by exerting heavy pressure to force Addis Ababa to the bargaining table.

—The Arab states also are unwilling to cut off their aid to the insurgents to force them to negotiate.

—If the fighting went extremely badly for either the Ethiopians or the insurgents, a chance for some type of negotiated arrangement would improve only marginally.

The Ethiopians are well along in their preparations for the opening stage of the major Ethiopian military push against the insurgents and the opening stages of the offensive may already have begun.

—The degree of Cuban support for this effort is unclear, but at this time it appears to be limited to support activity.

—We strongly doubt that the Ethiopians will succeed in suppressing the insurgents, although they may recapture some major population centers and open up some lines of communication.

—In favorable tactical situations the insurgents are likely to stand and fight, despite the firepower Ethiopia now possesses. Beyond this, the insurgents are prepared to retreat to the countryside and wage a protracted guerrilla campaign.

As time passes, we believe that the Cubans and the Soviets will become increasingly involved in the Eritrean fighting.

—Ethiopian leader Mengistu will press for this if the Ethiopians are unable to defeat the insurgents, and we believe that Havana and Moscow will feel compelled to be responsive.

–Their initial involvement is likely to consist of advisory and support activities, but if this kind of support does not bring success to the Ethiopian campaign, we believe that the Soviets and Cubans will commit Cuban combat forces.

–Even then they would still hope that at some point a negotiated solution would be possible.

—With Cuban combat participation, the Ethiopians would be more successful on the battlefield, but they would probably not be able to defeat the insurgents decisively.

—The Arab states supporting the insurgents would view Cuban combat involvement as further communist expansion in the Red Sea area, and they would press for some US response.

–Independently they would probably increase their support to the insurgents, though none of them would be willing to become directly [Page 221] involved in the fighting. They also would continue to hope for a negotiated settlement.

There is a possibility that the fighting will spill across the Ethiopian border into Sudan—a development that might under some circumstances lead Egypt to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty.2

—The Arab states would continue their support to the Eritreans.

—Somalia might take advantage of the Ethiopian and Cuban concentrations in Eritrea to step-up guerrilla activities in the Ogaden.


A. The Ethiopian Perspective

1. A number of practical and psychological considerations influence Ethiopian thinking on Eritrea. In practical terms, geographic and economic factors have encouraged Ethiopia’s determination to maintain control of the province. Eritrea has Ethiopia’s only coastline, its only ports, its only petroleum refinery, and its most active portion of the modern sector of the economy. Without the ports of Massawa and Assab, Ethiopia would be dependent on Djibouti for access to the sea.

2. Because of Eritrea’s location on the Red Sea and its large Muslim population, the province figures prominently in Ethiopia’s historical fear of “Arab encirclement,” a concern that has increased because of the military regime’s belief that conservative Arab states are supporting the Eritrean insurgency in an attempt to weaken or destroy Ethiopia’s socialist revolution. While some of the rhetoric on this subject is deliberately exaggerated, the Ethiopian leaders genuinely believe that a guerrilla victory would allow Eritrea to be used as a base of operations by the government’s opponents.

3. Government leader Mengistu and his supporters also share the previous regime’s fear that making concessions to the Eritreans would encourage many of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups to assert separatist demands. For all the regime’s Marxist rhetoric and assertions about granting ethnic minorities local autonomy, Ethiopia’s rulers are nationalists and determined to maintain the country’s territorial integrity.

4. Emotional factors also have probably influenced the intensity of Ethiopia’s desire for a purely military solution to the conflict; to back down after so many years of fighting would be a blow to its pride. The military rulers would be compared unfavorably with Haile Selassie in terms of their ability to hold the Ethiopian empire together.

5. [4 lines not declassified] The Ethiopians—even if they were willing to consider compromise—would be unwilling to open talks at present, [Page 222] while they are at a military disadvantage. Optimism in Addis Ababa following the successful routing of the Somalis in the Ogaden is also encouraging the Ethiopians to proceed with an offensive in Eritrea.

6. Ethiopian leaders probably have some doubts about how successful the military will be in Eritrea without direct Soviet and Cuban involvement, but they are confident they will gain ground against the guerrillas—and also confident that the Soviets and Cubans will come to their aid if the offensive runs into trouble. They believe that without Cuban troops they will face a difficult struggle, but they are willing to pay the price in men and resources.

7. After achieving initial military objectives, the Ethiopians might offer a figleaf of autonomy to the Eritreans—a deal that the insurgents are most unlikely to accept under any circumstances. In any event, the fighting will continue—at a reduced level—but the situation will remain basically unchanged.

B. The Soviet Perspective

8. The USSR sees considerable potential for gain from its involvement in Ethiopia, including important local opportunities in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as a chance to advance the USSR’s status as a great power with an expanding presence on the world scene. Moscow wants to replace air and naval facilities that were lost in Somalia—particularly in light of US-Soviet negotiations on forces in the Indian Ocean—and to intimidate Somalia’s Arab and potential Western backers with the warning that Moscow has permanent interest in the area of the Red Sea. The Soviets thus far have perceived few external deterrents to their course of action, and they apparently judge the political risks of US reaction as tolerable and the military risks as negligible.

9. Against the background of these overall Soviet goals in Ethiopia, the Soviets are committed to helping Mengistu resolve the Eritrean issue on terms acceptable to him. Nevertheless, from the Soviet perspective the Eritrean insurgency is a less tractable problem than the Ogaden conflict. The Eritreans are generally perceived as a genuine “national liberation movement,” and Soviet involvement against the insurgents will be harder to justify politically than was support against Somali aggression. To the degree that the Soviets become involved in the counterinsurgency effort in Eritrea, they will antagonize a wider circle of Arab and possibly African states that view Eritrea as an internal affair. There are military constraints as well, particularly the Kremlin’s wish to avoid involvement in a bloody and protracted guerrilla affair, as well as the difficulty—even with Cuban help—of reconquering Eritrea.

10. For these reasons, the Soviets would like to mediate the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict and may try to limit and, in any event, will [Page 223] certainly make less conspicuous their military support for the approaching military campaign. The Soviets and East Germans have already had contacts with all three guerrilla factions in an effort to forestall a military confrontation. [2 lines not declassified] Both Brezhnev and Castro would like Mengistu to provide some form of autonomy for Eritrea that would preserve Ethiopian sovereignty over the region.

11. These efforts to mediate the conflict have produced no visible progress so far, and neither the Soviets nor the Cubans have ruled out an expanded military involvement, including the commitment of Cuban combat troops if necessary. The Soviets presumably realize that Ethiopian success in Eritrea without Soviet involvement would greatly strengthen Mengistu’s confidence in his ability to act independently. Moscow may very well believe that the Ethiopians would then be in a better position to defy Soviet entreaties on the need for Ethiopia to create a “vanguard” Marxist-Lenninist party, which Moscow is fostering to consolidate Mengistu’s revolutionary regime as well as Soviet influence in the country.

12. To protect their equity in Ethiopia, therefore, the Soviets have already assumed a key role in the logistics for the Ethiopian buildup in Eritrea. The Soviet-Ethiopian supply channel is functioning smoothly, and Moscow will certainly continue to funnel military equipment to Ethiopian forces. [5 lines not declassified]

13. If the Ethiopians begin to encounter difficulty on the ground they will demand more from Moscow, and the Soviets will then be placed in a position of having either to support more actively a war that they are hesitant to endorse or—by refusing further support—undermining relations with Mengistu. Confronted with that choice, Moscow’s gradual—but deeper—involvement in the war would be highly probable, perhaps in time resembling what it did in support of the Ogaden campaign.

C. The Cuban Perspective

14. The Castro regime is trying assiduously to avoid a major combat role in Eritrea. Havana has temporarily shelved Mengistu’s pleas for a combined assault on the secessionist guerrillas and has urged the Ethiopian leader to make a sustained effort to achieve a solution through negotiations. The Cubans—who see possibilities in some form of Eritrean autonomy short of independence—are also using diplomatic channels to smooth the way for a negotiated settlement, but prospects for success appear exceedingly dim.

15. Constraints on Cuba. Castro has long been alert to the negative domestic reaction that is sure to be generated by heavy Cuban casualties on African battlefields. A recent report indicates that as casualties have mounted in Angola, Castro has become disenchanted with the [Page 224] continuing military burden there and would prefer to avoid becoming entrapped in a similar protracted conflict elsewhere. Moreover, the Cubans have a healthy respect for the ability of the Eritreans to sustain a guerrilla war. The level of casualties Cuba sustained in the Ogaden—reportedly higher than first indications—has probably also given Castro pause about further Ethiopian combat. In addition, Castro acknowledged recently that he would prefer to turn his attention to southern Africa, where the colonial “villains” are more readily identifiable and the risk of antagonizing close allies is less.

16. Havana is aware that Cuban combat involvement in Eritrea could jeopardize key elements of its foreign policy. Motivated by ideological affinity and in many cases by a desire to cultivate additional sources of financial assistance, Cuba has given high priority in recent years to broadening its ties with such radical Arab states as Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Libya. All of these have provided varying degrees of support to the Eritrean separatists, however, and they have all sought assurances that Cuba will not join with the Mengistu government to suppress the Eritreans.

17. Cuba covets a leadership position within the nonaligned movement and hopes to take a significant step toward furthering that goal next year when it hosts the nonaligned summit conference. Among the more moderate nonaligned members, there is concern over Cuba’s military involvement in Angola and Ethiopia; some countries have even talked of shifting the venue of the summit. Cuba’s desire to limit the damage to its nonaligned position has doubtless intensified in response to specific warnings by Yugoslavia that Havana should stay out of Eritrea.

18. Havana’s commitment to the “world revolutionary struggle” has caused the Cuban leadership to value highly the respect of Third World liberation movements. Many of these movements are sympathetic to the Eritrean cause, and they, as well as the Cubans, realize that the separatists not only command wide popular support at home but that some espouse a Marxist ideology. The Castro regime is keenly aware that, after having helped to train Eritrean guerrillas in Cuba in the 1960s and in South Yemen in the mid-1970s, Cuban participation in the quelling of the separatists would leave Havana open to the accusation of failing to pursue a “principled” foreign policy.

19. Forces Impelling Cuba To Intervene. The Cubans have a heavy stake in the Mengistu government, and we do not believe they would stand idly by if it fared badly against the guerrillas. The Cubans clearly hope to avoid a full-scale combat commitment, but to protect their investment they are likely to find themselves drawn gradually into deeper involvement in Eritrea if the Ethiopian offensive flounders. Havana would probably worry that by refusing to help the Ethiopian [Page 225] leader at that point it would open itself to the criticism that it was knuckling under to US pressure. From his earliest days as a revolutionary leader, Castro has acted boldly and impulsively even when the odds were stacked against him. He would be inclined to follow a similar course in Eritrea while trying to minimize the diplomatic costs.

20. The Cuban-Soviet Relationship. In the final analysis, Cuban policy will be linked closely to Soviet guidelines. The Cuban and Soviet positions—in some cases for different reasons—are essentially identical at the present time. Moreover, Havana is so deeply dependent on the USSR economically and militarily that Castro is compelled to pay close heed lest his policies deviate too much from those of his benefactor.

21. Realizing how difficult it will be to avoid getting sucked into a combat role, the Cubans have already begun building a rationale to justify such an involvement should it become necessary. Cuban officials have taken the line that the “reactionary” Arabs and Western powers are aiding the Eritrean separatists in order to weaken the Mengistu government and have warned that if this external assistance increases Havana will be forced to respond. By advocating a political settlement and by emphasizing Cuba’s willingness to serve as a broker between Addis Ababa and some of the Eritrean groups, the Cubans have also set the stage for blaming Eritrean intransigence for undermining prospects for peace. In short, the Cubans probably would conclude that if negotiations are not possible and the Ethiopians are unable to suppress the insurgents, they would have little choice but to increase the level of their military involvement in Eritrea.

D. The Insurgent Perspective

22. Addis Ababa’s preparation for an offensive and the Soviet and Cuban presence in Ethiopia has caused no weakening of the insurgents’ determination to continue their military resistance and to adhere to their demand for independence. The guerrillas realize the Ethiopians will deploy a more formidable force than in the past, but—like the Ethiopians—they are optimistic about their prospects and confident they can withstand the Ethiopian drive.

23. The guerrillas are probably still heady from their successes of the past three years, during which they greatly expanded their forces and mounted an offensive that drove the Ethiopians into a few enclaves and left the insurgents in control of 90 percent of Eritrea. The guerrillas for almost a year have failed to capture any more government garrisons, despite several major attempts, but their severe mauling of government troops in recent battles has undoubtedly encouraged their confidence about being able to blunt the Ethiopian offensive.

24. The insurgents seem realistic about their military capabilities now that Ethiopia has vastly superior firepower. They are probably [Page 226] reconciled to Ethiopia’s reopening some of the major roads and regaining some of the towns now under insurgent control. The guerrillas may engage in some major conventional battles in order to test the Ethiopians’ mettle, but they are preparing over the long term to wage guerrilla warfare that they believe will prevent Ethiopia from pacifying the province. The guerrillas are well entrenched in the countryside and can count on strong support from the local population.

25. The guerrillas’ demand for independence, despite the price the Eritreans are likely to pay in pursuit of that goal, is a measure of their antipathy toward the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians and many of the Eritreans share a common ethnic and religious background, but these links have been submerged by the Eritreans’ belief that they are politically and culturally more advanced than the Ethiopians. The government’s ruthless military tactics of the past few years have reinforced Eritrean hostility toward the Ethiopians. Like the Ethiopians, the guerrillas may eventually think more seriously about compromise, but a shift in policy would require a serious decline in their military position, concessions from Ethiopia, and probably strong pressure to negotiate from the guerrillas’ Arab supporters.

26. The guerrillas are probably reasonably confident about their arms situation. They may be uncertain about the willingness of Arab states to meet all insurgent arms requests, especially in the amounts necessary to wage large-scale warfare, but they probably are satisfied they have enough supplies on hand and will receive enough resupplies in the future to conduct guerrilla operations.

27. The insurgents realize that division within their ranks prevents the most effective use of their forces, and there are efforts under way to try to form a more unified movement. Whether this succeeds or not, the insurgents will probably paper over their disputes sufficiently to continue the fight against the Ethiopians.

E. Arab Perspectives

28. As long as Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia, most Arabs—albeit for diverse reasons—supported the Eritrean rebellion. The military takeover led Libya, South Yemen, and Algeria to switch sides, convinced that a “progressive regime” had been established in Addis Ababa.3 Iraq and Syria remained committed to the Eritrean cause. Alarmed by the increasingly radical stance of the Addis Ababa government, the Saudis stepped up aid to the guerrillas and grew more supportive of Eritrean political aspirations.

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29. Despite signals by Moscow and Havana that they intend to avoid a combat role in Eritrea, most Arab governments are unconvinced, and the radical Arabs have been trying to persuade the Soviets and Cubans to refrain from military involvement.

30. Iraq, probably the staunchest backer of the Eritrean cause, has made it clear that despite its close ties with Moscow and Havana, Baghdad would take a very dim view of a significant Soviet and Cuban combat role. In its approach to Moscow (and probably also to Havana), Baghdad has warned that “progressive Arab forces” would not react to Soviet support of Ethiopia in Eritrea in the same way as they did to the Soviet-Cuban role against the invading Somalis in the Ogaden. This also seems to be the position of Libya and Algeria.

31. The Saudis are appalled by the idea that Moscow or Havana might succeed in getting Ethiopia and Eritrea to agree on a solution based on something short of Eritrean independence. Such a development would enable the Soviets and Cubans to pose as the peacemakers in the region. The moderate Arabs fear that Eritrea eventually will come under Marxist control—either through a compromise settlement or a Soviet- and Cuban-backed offensive against the guerrillas. The Saudis’ worst case scenario evisages Soviet-backed radicals going on to threaten Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya, as well as putting pressure on the moderate governments of the Arabian Peninsula.

32. This pessimistic assessment has not led the Arabs to abandon the rebels. Both moderate and radical Arabs, for example, continue to send aid to the insurgents and keep trying to broaden the number of players by raising in various international forums the issue of possible foreign military involvement in the fighting.

33. Sudan is particularly fearful of developments in Eritrea, viewing the situation as a potential threat to Sudan itself. Sudan serves as a major sanctuary for and funnel of supplies to the insurgents and the Numayri government has feared that increased fighting with the rebels will spill into Sudan. He has attempted a rapprochement with Addis Ababa to lessen the chances of involvement in the fighting. There is little evidence, however, of any serious effort to reduce the flow of supplies to the rebels.

F. The African Perspective

34. African states are unlikely to have much influence on the Eritrean problem, which they have long been accustomed to consider an internal Ethiopian affair. During the many years the insurgency has been going on, the Organization of African Unity has not given a hearing to the rebels, and the OAU African Liberation Committee has not recognized them. This stand is primarily in observance of the OAU’s principle of the preservation of the territorial integrity of member states; [Page 228] in addition, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was revered as the founding father of the OAU, and few Africans were willing to listen to his opponents.

35. Some African states oppose a Cuban combat role in Eritrea, and their opposition has been a factor in Soviet and Cuban attempts to limit their involvement in Ethiopian efforts to suppress the insurgency. African reactions, however, are not likely to be strong enough to deter Moscow and Havana from expanding their role. Some Africans would privately express disapproval, but their criticism would be muted by the recognition that the Soviets and Cubans were supporting the OAU’s principle of the inviolability of existing borders. Some of the African states or the OAU itself might try to promote negotiations, but they would do so more for form’s sake than for real expectation of being successful.


A. Negotiations

36. Attempts to mediate the Eritrean problem have failed, and the near-term outlook for any headway is bleak. The major mediation effort now under way is a Cuban one. In recent meetings in Havana, Castro sought Palestinian and Iraqi help in inducing the insurgents to negotiate, but with no apparent results. The Palestinians are divided in their approach to the insurgents and, in any case, have little leverage on them. Iraq, whose role as the insurgents’ major arms supplier gives it considerable leverage, is unwilling to pressure the Eritreans or to curtail its longstanding investment in what Baghdad views as an Arab nationalist cause.

37. The apparent Soviet-Cuban strategy in Eritrea is to split off the Marxists from the non-Marxists in the insurgent movement, to bring the Marxists—primarily the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), plus Marxist elements in the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front)—to the negotiating table with the Ethiopian government, and eventually to set up a Marxist front or government in an autonomous Eritrea that will be prepared to work with Addis Ababa.

38. Whatever pressure outsiders may exert for an accommodation, we do not believe that either protagonist will negotiate seriously unless and until the military realities decisively favor that approach. The guerrillas, even if defeated at Asmara, Massawa, and other urban areas, will probably again take to the hills and continue the insurgency, with Arab support. Mengistu, meanwhile, will probably resist any compromise until he has seen whether Ethiopian military power can force the Eritreans to come to terms. If the insurgents remain undefeated but see the military advantage turning decisively against them, they will probably show more interest in negotiations.

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39. The insurgents appear to be increasingly polarized between leftists and conservatives, but this development does not seem to have advanced the prospects for a deal between the Marxists and the Ethiopian Government. EPLF leaders so far seem no more inclined than other insurgent leaders to negotiate or to abandon the Eritrean demand for complete independence.

40. Mengistu, a hardliner on Eritrea and the chief proponent of a military solution, has never gone beyond reiterating his support for the Ethiopian nine-point plan offered in 1976 to the Eritreans. The plan was never precisely formulated, and in its literal interpretation provided autonomy for the various linguistic and cultural groups of Eritrea rather than for the province as such—a clear attempt to destroy the concept of Eritrean nationalism. These provisions gave the Eritreans no reassurances that the Ethiopians would not again seek (as in the 1952–62 federation period) to circumscribe Eritrean autonomy and, finally, to impose tight centralized control from Addis Ababa.

B. An Ethiopian Military Push

41. The Ethiopian military is steadily building up its forces in Eritrea and neighboring Tigre and Gondar Provinces for a major offensive against the insurgents. It now appears that this offensive will continue to unfold gradually over the next few months. Air and, to a lesser extent, ground operations will be hampered, however, by the rainy season in July and August.

42. The pace of the fighting in Eritrea has been on the upswing over the last month as government troops, supported by airstrikes, have attempted to loosen the insurgents’ grip on the roads around Asmara. The insurgents, for their part, have mounted repeated efforts to eliminate some outlying Ethiopian garrisons in an attempt to solidify their positions before the weight of government forces can be brought to bear.

43. [7 lines not declassified]

44. [6 lines not declassified]

45. The likelihood of Ethiopian success depends, among other things, on how well the Ethiopian troops fight and on how successful they are in sealing off insurgent supply routes from Sudan. On paper the Ethiopian ground and air forces are much stronger than those of the insurgents. However, the combat capability of these forces, in the absence of direct Cuban involvement, has not really been tested—except for that of Ethiopian Air Force pilots, many of whom have shown considerable skill in recent air attacks on Eritrean strongholds.

46. The success of the Ethiopian push will also depend in large measure on Eritrean tactics and the degree of cooperation among the three insurgent groups. If the Eritreans respond in such a way as to [Page 230] present massed formations for Ethiopian air and artillery forces, they will be seriously hurt. The battles of Barentu and Massawa, for example, are indicative of the high casualties the insurgents incur when fighting from fixed positions.

47. On the other hand, if the Eritreans conduct a mobile, hit-and-run campaign they could make it very costly for the Ethiopians to pursue the war over a period of a year or two. The insurgents would probably not gain any large or decisive victories over the Ethiopians using these tactics, but, given sufficient time, they could wear the Ethiopians down to a point where Addis Ababa might look more favorably on negotiations.

48. On balance, we do not believe that the Ethiopian forces alone will be able to gain a decisive victory over the Eritrean insurgents. They will probably be able to recapture some of the major garrisons now in insurgent hands, and they should open up some lines of communication. Beyond this, Addis Ababa would have to calculate how much more it could accomplish on its own. There would be a concern that the longer term prospect was for a protracted and bloody military struggle in an area where the terrain and the loyalties of the population would favor the insurgents. To make major gains quickly, Mengistu is likely to look rather early on to his Soviet and Cuban allies for help. (See section C, below.)

49. One element of the Ethiopian strategy which could have external repercussions is the closing of the Sudanese-Eritrean border to halt the flow of supplies to the insurgents. An attempt to close the Sudanese border would certainly risk an extension of the conflict into Sudan. The Sudanese are unlikely to be able to prevent Ethiopian incursions, and might in fact turn a blind eye toward limited cross-border forays in order to avoid being drawn into the conflict. The Sudanese have said that, at the most, they would try to defend only military installations if Ethiopian forces cross the border. If Sudan were seriously threatened, Egypt would probably come to its aid.

50. Among the other Arab states (and African states as well), the Ethiopian push—which has long been expected—will not occasion any significant change in current postures. Aid to the Eritreans will continue and might even increase somewhat, and Arab leaders will continue their efforts to try to find some way to encourage a negotiated settlement.

C. Increasing Cuban/Soviet Involvement in Eritrea

51. The Eritrean situation will entail gradually increasing Soviet and Cuban military support for Ethiopia’s campaign against the Eritrean rebels as it becomes clear that Ethiopia alone has insufficient military capability to quell the insurgents. Once a decision is taken to [Page 231] increase support in Eritrea beyond current levels, their participation is likely to expand and intensify in stages, not as part of a plan to phase in military resources in predetermined steps, but rather as the result of ad hoc responses to specific needs as they arise.

52. The early stages of this increasing involvement are already beginning to take place. For instance, the Soviets have stepped up their logistics support [4½ lines not declassified]. There is also a good prospect that the Cubans will provide occasional tactical air support against low-risk targets and fly forward air control helicopter missions. Additionally, Soviet naval units may back up Ethiopian patrols sent to interdict seaborne supply routes to the guerrillas, although Moscow is likely to instruct its Red Sea ships to refrain from firing on vessels or shore positions except in self-defense. Finally, augmented involvement on the part of the USSR is almost certain to entail a greater logistics effort, including more AN–12 transport flights piloted by Soviets, more advisers and technicians assigned to supply and maintenance operations, and perhaps the provision of engineers to airfield, port, and/or road construction projects. The Soviets however almost certainly will not assume a direct combat role.

53. Within the next three months, this kind of increased Soviet/Cuban military support for Ethiopia will not lead to an Ethiopian victory, and the insurgents’ basic strength is unlikely to be seriously impaired. In the next three to 12 months, however, substantial and growing Soviet/Cuban involvement in the war would contribute significantly to Ethiopia’s military capacity, to the extent that all major lines of communication and most important cities and garrisons would probably come under Addis Ababa’s control. Nonetheless, we estimate that the guerrillas would still control large portions of the countryside. Havana and Moscow would continue to urge a negotiated settlement in the hopes of avoiding an interminable entanglement in perhaps an unwinnable war.

54. Although their level of concern and rhetoric might be heightened, the reaction of Arab countries to this course of events would not differ markedly from that described in paragraphs 49 and 50.

D. A Large-Scale Cuban Combat Involvement

55. A full-scale Cuban commitment of combat forces could result from several causes: a dramatic military defeat; the failure of the Ethiopian forces to achieve in a reasonable time the defeat in the field of the Eritrean forces; or sufficient military success in the field to bring the Eritrean rebels to negotiate on Ethiopian terms.

56. A full Soviet/Cuban commitment to achieve the Ethiopian objectives would involve the transfer of Cuban combat troops now in the Ogaden to Eritrea, commitment of Cuban airpower, and the activa[Page 232]tion of the Soviet/Cuban battle staff similar to that which directed the campaign in the Ogaden.

57. Transfer of the three Cuban mechanized brigades from the northern Ogaden to Tigre would take about a week. Once at the battlefront, these units would probably be committed to eliminating roadblocks and reopening lines of communication. If more imaginative tactics were employed the Cuban brigades could be used in a flanking attack up the western border in an attempt to isolate the insurgents from their sources of supply in Sudan. Such an option would make better use of the mechanized force and serve to minimize Cuban casualties, a major consideration.

58. Cuban-piloted aircraft could be committed to the Eritrean campaign in a matter of hours but would not be fully effective immediately. At present, airstrikes against Eritrean targets can be flown only from the Asmara airfield. Unless the roads to Asmara were opened or the new airbase at Makele in Tigre Province completed, the need to fly fuel and munitions into Asmara would seriously restrict the scale of airstrikes against Eritrea. In addition, the flying weather over Eritrea will be relatively poor during July and August.

59. Activation of a Soviet/Cuban command center such as the one run by Soviet General Petrov in the Ogaden last winter would obviously improve the overall coordination of the Eritrean campaign. Petrov and his staff demonstrated the abilty to integrate Cuban and Ethiopian air and ground units and their logistical support in a highly effective campaign against the Somalis.

60. If the Cubans were willing to sustain the casualties required to overcome the presumably effective Eritrean defense positions, they should be able to open the roads to military traffic and recapture the major towns in relatively short order. After this is accomplished, the Cubans would probably be withdrawn to garrisons. If these Cuban actions did not bring the rebels to the negotiating table or produce a practical dispersal of the rebel forces, we would foresee a prolonged campaign of pacification in which the Cubans would be extremely reluctant to participate directly and in which the burden of Cuban activity would again fall on the Ethiopian forces.

E. Neighboring Countries’ Involvement in Eritrea

61. Intensified military action in Eritrea is almost certain to have an impact in neighboring Sudan. As Ethiopia pursues its plan to interdict guerrilla supply routes, limited border crossings and violations of Sudanese airspace will become increasingly likely. The terrain in western Eritrea allows the insurgents to avoid roads, so Addis Ababa may eventually decide that the only way to dry up the flow of supplies is to attack its source. This could entail raids on insurgent logistic centers [Page 233] such as Kassala, a major Sudanese city, opening up the prospect that Khartoum will request military assistance from Egypt. It is highly unlikely however, that Cubans would participate in operations that involved incursions into Sudan.

62. Were Cuba to redeploy its major combat units from the Ogaden to Eritrea, Somalia would probably be encouraged to step up military activities in the regions in Ethiopia it recently evacuated. There are indications that Somali guerrillas are already intensifying their harassment of Ethiopian forces, and if Cuban forces were no longer available to deter another Somali incursion into Ethiopian territory, Mogadiscio might be tempted to recommit some regular forces alongside the guerrillas.

63. The moderate Arab leaders would almost certainly attempt initially to step up their support to the Eritrean insurgents in the face of increased Soviet/Cuban involvement. This would be coupled with increased emphasis on the need for a negotiated solution to the problem. [3 lines not declassified] For example, we strongly doubt that they would dispatch military forces to Eritrea, although Egypt might be willing to provide some personnel to Sudan as an earnest of Cairo’s concern. The moderate Arabs can certainly be expected to appeal to Washington to take a firm stand, [2½ lines not declassified].

64. The problems for the radical Arab states—Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Algeria—would probably be even more acute. At one time or another, all of them have provided support to the Eritrean insurgents, and they still, with the possible exception of Libya, harbor revolutionary sympathy toward the Eritreans. At the same time, however, each of these radical states are linked rather closely to Moscow and Havana. Caught in this dilemma, they would probably try to find some middle way out to avoid having either openly going in a direction different from that of their Communist friends or appearing to buckle under to them. Iraq could be an exception in that its performance to date suggests that it might well be willing to oppose Soviet or Cuban blandishments openly and to continue to provide support to the insurgents.

65. Most Third-World countries would condemn at least privately a sudden escalation of Soviet and Cuban involvement in Eritrea. The countries that have strongly urged the Soviets and Cubans to stay out of Eritrea have not acknowledged the Soviet and Cuban right to intervene under any conditions. Massive Cuban and Soviet involvement in the fighting would be viewed as out of step with the Third World approach to the Eritrean conflict and as intervention in an internal Ethiopian affair.

[Omitted here are annexes A and B.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, History Staff Files. Secret; [handling restrictions not declassified].
  2. Egypt and Sudan had signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1976.
  3. Typically, the position of Libyan leader Qadhafi is somewhat anomalous in that he has recently resumed some degree of support to the insurgents. [Footnote is in the original.]