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


  • Where Do Things Stand in the Horn? What Next?

The purpose of this memorandum is to sum up what seems to be happening in the Horn now, to look at where the future may lead and to consider U.S. policy interests in relation to these developments.

Ethiopia: Mengistu appears to be firmly in control, but he does not have the country as strongly behind him for his Eritrean effort as he did for the fight against Somalia. Rather substantial strains have developed between Mengistu and the Soviets and Cubans but there is no sign of irreparable antagonism. Both sides still see more advantage in cooperation than in permitting a falling out. The Cubans and Soviets have drawn careful lines to preclude direct involvement in Eritrean fighting. The more successful the Ethiopians are in Eritrea (and they have been doing well recently), the less pressure there will be for more direct Cuban involvement. Strains between the Soviets and Mengistu are likely to develop more over questions of consolidation of the revolution in Ethiopia, organization of a leading political party and suspicions on Mengistu’s part that the Soviets are scheming against him than over Eritrea. The new Cuban and Soviet ambassadors who will be arriving on the scene shortly are probably going to be charged with working out a new political balance with Mengistu and a basis for longer-term exercise of influence in the country.

Meanwhile, signs that Mengistu wants to keep openings to the West have multiplied. Our new ambassador has been relatively warmly received.2 A long-postponed major aid project has been given the go-ahead. There are signs that the problem of compensation for nationalized property may be amenable to settlement. Underlying pro-American sentiment in Ethiopia is stronger than ever, as firsthand experience of Soviets and Cubans results in accumulation of grievances. In much of the country revolutionary changes are at a standstill. Mengistu has bought the backing of the population by permitting life to run its accustomed course. Economic strains, however, are growing, and infla [Page 244] tion is becoming a problem, but compared to much of the third world, Ethiopia is still in remarkably good economic shape. A good harvest this year and the ability to export via the railroad to Djibouti will probably prevent serious economic strains in the near future. The problem of payment for massive Soviet military aid, which is still arriving in accordance with earlier commitments, could become a serious issue if Moscow presses it.

We have been on a consistent course in respect to Ethiopia since the Aaron Mission last February.3 Our new ambassador was quickly accepted and indications are that we will now have much more constructive dialogue with Mengistu and other senior officials. Our capacity to influence thinking and events in the country, still extremely limited, should gradually improve. Ethiopia remains the most important country in the Horn. It is in our interest to rebuild our influence there.

The Ogaden: The Ogaden remains in an unsettled state and Cuban involvement there still appears necessary for the Ethiopians. Guerrilla activity has been energetically and imaginatively supported and, in large part, directed by the Somali Government. As long as the Somalis persist in encouraging the guerrillas and as long as they receive sufficient weapons and supplies from abroad to pass on to them, a fair level of guerrilla harassment can probably be maintained. There is no evidence that the Ethiopians have had difficulty re-establishing their control over major cities on the northern fringe of the Ogaden: Diredawa, Harar and Jijiga. There is increasing evidence that impatience with the guerrilla situation in the Ogaden is driving Mengistu (and others) to consider more decisive retaliatory moves against Somalia than the minor air attacks that have been carried out in recent weeks. Progress in Eritrea will embolden Mengistu for harsher action against Somalia. The Soviets are apparently discouraging him from considering invading, but they could come to see advantage in permitting him to do so in the expectation that his improved relations with the U.S. and key European countries would be disrupted and the West would be pushed into backing Somalia.

We should continue to point out to Mengistu, as we did last February, that he has more to gain by being patient and resisting the temptation to invade Somalia’s own territory than he can ever hope to accomplish by invasion.

Somalia: “Commitments” and “promises” notwithstanding, Siad has consciously developed and expanded his support for Ogadan guerrillas since last March. Some Somali regulars are involved and will [Page 245] probably continue to be needed to maintain the level of destabilization Siad wishes to support. Intercepts prove that Somalia is directing and guiding these operations. During recent weeks Siad has become bolder in his public commitment to the Ogaden guerrillas (e.g. at the Khartoum OAU Summit)4 and all available intelligence indicates that he fully intends to continue support for them, employing various forms of prevarication and sophistry to confuse the United States and its friends. It is not clear that the commitment to support Ogaden insurgency is as intense among the Somali people as it is with Siad himself, but nationalism and irredentism remain strong in Somalia and disagreement on this issue is probably over tactics and timing, not the fundamental desirability of uniting all Somalis in one state.

Less has been heard about an immediate Somali threat to Kenya in recent weeks, but no real progress has been made toward reconciliation between the two countries. Kenyans are so suspicious of Siad personally that acceptance of guarantees from him may never be possible. A post-Siad leadership might be able to effect reconciliation with Kenya.

The OAU Mediation Committee dealing with the Ogaden dispute has just come out again for the Ethiopian position in its report in Khartoum, but for all practical purposes it has no immediate relevance to settlement of the dispute. African opinion is more solidly behind Ethiopia than ever. As if Somalia were not already sufficiently alienated from African opinion on the territorial integrity question, her dickering with South Africa (about which there have already been accusations on the Ethiopian radio) will make her a total pariah if it becomes pubicly confirmed and widely known.

Internally Siad’s position appears to be gradually weakening. It has become clear that his main opponents are not, as he has tried to maintain, pro-Soviet officers. They are officers who are united in their resentment that he gambled on invading Ethiopia and failed and officers and civilians who resent what they regard as his discrimination against Northerners and intense favoritism toward his own Marehan tribesmen. Siad himself has made (and continues to make) overtures to the Soviets for a reconciliation; the Soviets have rebuffed him. In spite of repeated public professions of anti-Soviet and pro-Western convictions, Siad has not dismantled the “socialist” police state in Somalia and has kept practically all of the officials once reputed to be most pro-Soviet in office. Siad has shown little enthusiasm for the idea of concentration on economic development, toward which we and our [Page 246] European allies have tried to shift his interest, though our new AID mission in Somalia has developed a number of worthwhile project proposals.

After weeks of delay and argumentation, Siad has recently shown more serious interest in a U.S. military aid commitment. Our own position in Somalia is neither stronger nor weaker than it has been at any time in the past year and a half. The disadvantages of our becoming identified with Siad insofar as the rest of Africa is concerned, the problem of presumed tacit support of his guerrilla operations in the Ogaden if we provide military aid and the prospect of having anything we do or say to Siad misrepresented are even more serious obstacles now than they were six months ago to trying to work out a modest, rational effort for supporting Somalia. It may be more difficult now to offset the adverse effects of support for Siad with Ethiopia and Kenya than it would have been six months ago because Siad’s refusal to meet the conditions set by the President in early March is clear.5

So what is to be done in respect to Somalia? Bide our time in hope that Siad will be replaced by a leadership more committed to Western values, internally less identified with the failure of the Ogaden adventure, and prepared to moderate its irredentist policies in the interest of making the most of what Somalia has.

Kenya: Reports of deterioration of Kenyatta’s health and mental condition persist, but there is no evidence of political instability in Kenya. The Kikuyu leadership that is already running the country appears likely to be able to weather any immediate problems that could arise from Kenyatta’s death. The sense of immediate threat from Somalia has subsided but prospects for reconciliation are poor. Having been aroused to concern over their military weakness, Kenyans are unlikely ever to revert to the complacency that prevailed until recently. The Kenyan leadership is realistic about what is going on in Ethiopia, but still sees Ethiopia as a more acceptable ally than any other in the area, though relations with Sudan are good. While our military survey team that went to Kenya this spring may not have been as politically and tactically skillful as we could have hoped and Kenyans may be disappointed by the modesty of our military aid offers, the symbolism of expanding their military relationship with the United States is important to them and prospects for working out a sound military aid relationship are good. It remains very much in our interest to do so.

The Soviets may be tempted to become more politically active in post-Kenyatta Kenya—both making offers for military and economic cooperation and engaging in covert political maneuvering. We need [Page 247] to remain alert to such maneuvering and work closely with the Kenyans to counteract it.

Eritrea: Nothing has changed in respect to the fundamentals of the Eritrean situation. Mengistu is pursuing a military solution with formidable commitments of manpower and materiel. His efforts are now beginning to pay off. There is new evidence of dissension among Eritrean rebel groups. Though substantial aid still flows to Eritrean rebels from Arab sources, the rebels have made no significant gains in support for their advocacy of independence. In fact, they have recently lost ground. The Sudanese, who fear an independent Eritrea, are ready to play a major role in a negotiated solution. If significant victories by the Ethiopians could be followed by more forthcoming offers of concessions that would permit a political solution, something representing a return to the 1952 UN principles, the Eritrean issue could still be settled and conservative Arab support for retention of an autonomous Eritrea within Ethiopia could probably be secured.

Our cautious policy on Eritrea, including recognition of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and of the UN settlement of 1952 as the most practical basis for association of Eritrea with Ethiopia remains sound and we should stick to it.

It remains in our long-term interest to attempt to deny the Soviets permanent bases on the Ethiopian (i.e. Eritrean) Red Sea coast, either at Assab, Massawa or in the Dahlak Islands. Whatever chance we have of achieving this aim will depend on continued recognition of Eritrea as part of Ethiopia and improvement of our relations with the Ethiopian government in the hope that we can encourage nationalistic Ethiopians to see the disadvantages of permanent base rights for the Soviets.

We should not attempt to play anything other than an indirect and peripheral role in a negotiated settlement in Eritrea unless and until (a) there are good prospects that it can succeed and (b) there is a unique role that we can play. Of our allies, Italy is the best suited for a mediating role in Eritrea or, eventually, between Ethiopia and Somalia. Conservative Arab countries—and foremost among them the Sudan, should also be persuaded to contribute to this effort.

Sudan: Everything about our relationship with the Sudan continues to be positive. Our modest military aid effort is going well. Sudan’s internal political reconciliation has so far been successful beyond anyone’s expectations. Sudan has handled the complex Eritrean problem with remarkable maturity. The Sudan’s main problems are economic and recent agreement with the IMF promises to keep these problems from getting worse and set them perhaps, on the road to longer-term solution. We should continue to be guided, when we need guidance, by the Sudan’s perceptions of Horn problems, both in respect to Eritrea and Somalia. Nimeiry’s grasp of these issues is far more relevant and pertinent than those of most of the Saudi leadership.

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Djibouti: The problems of the Horn do not revolve around Djibouti. As long as the French remain militarily and as long as Ethiopia and Somalia can both be prevailed upon to avoid actions that could cause the fragile political structure there to fall apart, Djibouti will remain in a state of delicate political balance for the short term at least, and this is in our interest. The Soviets may have their eye on Djibouti. It has some advantages as a base over the Ethiopian ports. We do not want them to establish themselves there—but it would be a lesser evil for them to end up with a foothold there and none elsewhere in the Horn rather than to see them consolidate a long-term presence in Ethiopia, return to Somalia or gain influence in either Kenya or Sudan. In the medium-to-longer run, Djibouti might be a pawn around which a territorial trade-off and settlement between Ethiopia and Somalia could eventually be contrived.

Summary of U.S. Interests: Ranked in order of intrinsic importance (population, resources, strategic significance), Ethiopia remains the most important country in the Horn, followed by Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. We should aim to reassert ourselves in the most important country, Ethiopia, maintain our increasingly strong position in Sudan and Kenya and look upon Somalia and Djibouti as essentially marginal. During the past year, we have successfully avoided succumbing to pressures from the Saudis, Egyptians, and Iranians to become identified with Siad’s Somalia in ways which could preclude reasserting ourselves in Ethiopia. The dramatization of Somalia as a country which defied and broke with the Soviets and therefore deserved Western support was always overdone and the importance of this consideration has waned in recent months as Siad has been increasingly seen for what he is: a military dictator who was very comfortable running a Soviet-style system but could not convince the Soviets that Somalia was more important than Ethiopia when he used their arms to make war. Somalia, as a country, deserves better, but we will not be serving either our own or the Somali people’s interests by catering even to the illusion of military support for Siad.

The Horn remains an important area. Its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, to the “soft underbelly” of Asia and its relationship to the Indian Ocean, all contribute to its strategic significance. Africa and the Middle East meet here. Sixty to seventy million people live in these countries and we have taken a constructive interest in all of them in the past and remain concerned about their economic and social development and their human rights. The fact that this Administration became so concerned about the Horn this past year obligates us to seek ways of asserting ourselves constructively in the region. But we will assert ourselves effectively only if we keep our long-term objectives in mind and avoid tactical pitfalls. We have done well in this respect in [Page 249] recent months. We can now capitalize on the groundwork we have laid. But we must be patient.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files 1977–1981, Box 70, PRC 068 7/31/78, Somalia [1]. Top Secret. Sent for information. Copies were sent to Aaron, Huntington, Thornton, Mathews, Denend, Sick, Quandt, and Bartholomew.
  2. See footnote 4, Document 82.
  3. See Documents 57 and 58.
  4. At the OAU Summit held in Khartoum July 18–22, Siad condemned Ethiopia for its behavior in the Ogaden and named Cuba as a surrogate of the Soviet Union in the Horn of Africa. (“African Group Avoids a Deep Split By Skirting Issue of Outside Forces,” New York Times, July 22, 1978, p. 2).
  5. See Document 70.