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


  • Djibouti—CIA Assessment (U)

CIA has produced an assessment on Djibouti which I requested several weeks ago. It strikes me as sane and competent. It provides no real justification for the assertion being made in State these days that the level of our naval visits and utilization of Djibouti has threatened to destabilize the situation there. It does discuss in some detail what is already well known: that Djibouti is a very fragile polity whose relative stability depends on continued French presence. There is no evidence that the French plan to leave soon. It also emphasizes that the Ethiopians, with Cuban and Soviet backing, possess the capability of a fairly high degree of harassment of Djibouti if they wish. The conclusion: if we are going to continue to use Djibouti (and there are good reasons for doing this), we need to be frank with the French about our need for their alertness and support there and we have to warn the Soviets that we will not tolerate Ethiopian harassment or destabilization effort—we will retaliate in other ways.

[Page 264]


Interagency Intelligence Memorandum2

Djibouti: Prospects for Stability and Implications of US use of Facilities

[Omitted here are a title page and table of contents.]


The situation in Djibouti is inherently unstable because of:

—Longstanding tensions between the country’s generally pro-Somali Issas and the Ethiopian-oriented Afars.

—The unwillingness of President Gouled, an Issa, to delegate real authority to his Afar Prime Minister.

—The alienation and militancy of the Afar community.

—The potential for Ethiopian and Somali meddling and subversion in Djibouti.

The French role and military presence in Djibouti is a major factor promoting stability, particularly as a deterrent to direct attack by Ethiopia or Somalia.

In addition to the strategic importance of Djibouti for their naval operations in the Indian Ocean, the French view their presence as:

—An obstacle to Soviet expansion in the Horn of Africa.

—A beachhead for safeguarding Western interests in the area.

We know of no plans for a French withdrawal within the next year, and present indications are that the French commitment probably will extend beyond 1980. However, because of past differences between French political and military leaders over policy toward Djibouti, it is difficult to assess confidently the firmness of French determination to stay the course in Djibouti.

The French have a military agreement—of uncertain duration—to defend Djibouti against external attack, but responsibility for internal [Page 265] security rests officially with the Djiboutians. Despite French training and advisory assistance, Djiboutian security forces remain woefully inadequate and would be unable to control major violence between rival Afar and Issa terrorist groups. If France were confronted with a drastically deteriorating internal security situation and the prospect of heavy casualties, it would almost certainly face negative reactions at home and could well be forced to withdraw its forces.

Paris believes that external aggression against Djibouti is unlikely as long as a French military presence is maintained there. If, however, either Ethiopia or Somalia were to attack, the French would most likely make good on their commitment to defend Djibouti, but they would try to avoid a long-term combat role by seeking a negotiated end to the conflict. If a political settlement proved unattainable, the French would probably attempt to initiate a phased withdrawal of their troops, dependents, and civilians from the area.

Because of its history and location, Djibouti has attracted considerable attention from its neighbors and their friends:

—Ethiopia’s interest stems largely from its fear that Somalia might annex Djibouti and take control of the railway terminus and port through which an important part of Ethiopia’s trade historically has passed.

—Somalis have long included a significant part of Djibouti in their irredentist ambitions and share an ethnic affinity with the Issas who now dominate the political scene there. Mogadishu also harbors suspicions about Addis Ababa’s intentions toward Djibouti.

—The Soviets look upon Djibouti in the context of their regional policies and, consequently, support Ethiopian policy and objectives there. Over the long term, Moscow hopes to see the emergence of a Djiboutian regime that will support Soviet interests and deny naval and air facilities to the West.

—The Arab states see Djibouti as a relatively malleable pawn in intra-Arab contention, and use economic assistance as a lever to influence Djibouti’s foreign policy.

There are enough uncertainties in the Djibouti equation to make projection of events beyond the next 12 to 18 months or so hazardous. Nevertheless, we believe that:

—Tribal rivalries and contention for power by disgruntled Afar militants could lead to the unraveling of the regime, and a series of minor incidents or the incapacitation of President Gouled could lead to tribal strife that would encourage intervention by either Ethiopia or Somalia.

—However, as long as the French remain on the scene, we do not expect major escalation of external support for Djiboutian factions that would increase tribal strife and lead to direct military intervention.

—In the event of a French withdrawal, the way would be clear for a major escalation of subversive activity by Ethiopia and Somalia, [Page 266] working through their sympathizers in Djibouti, probably touching off direct military intervention by Ethiopian and Somali troops.

There has been no significant reaction thus far to the US Navy’s use of Djibouti’s port and aviation facilities for refueling, bunkering, and crew rest. If the Navy continues its present relatively high level of usage of Djibouti’s facilities—four to six ship visits and one P–3 aircraft visit per month—or only modestly increases that level, reactions would probably continue to be generally muted. However, we cannot rule out an effort by Ethiopia, the Soviet Union, or radical Arab states to use US activity in Djibouti as a basis for more active diplomatic maneuvering or harsher propaganda against Washington, should this appear to be in their interests. Nor would we exclude the possibility of a move by these states to make the US activity a pretext for encouraging stepped-up Afar insurgent operations against the Gouled regime. The Ethiopians already have sufficient guerrilla and political action assets to escalate subversive activities with little or no warning.

The US Navy does not at present contemplate seeking permanent basing rights in Djibouti, nor does it plan to lease Djiboutian facilities or to construct facilities for its exclusive use. But, if it should eventually opt for a significant quantitative—as opposed to qualitative—increase in its use of Djiboutian facilities, we would expect reactions along the following lines:

—The Djiboutians would expect increased economic assistance and, perhaps, the provision of military supplies.

—While the French have welcomed recent increased US use of Djibouti, they might become apprehensive that a significant increase in usage levels could destabilize the internal situation and invite foreign military intervention.

—The Ethiopians would condemn such a move as a US-Somali effort to subvert Djibouti and as a plot by the United States and moderate Arabs to undermine the Ethiopian revolution; Addis Ababa could well respond by encouraging increased guerrilla activity in Djibouti by Afar militants.

—The Somalis would welcome the move as a deterrent to Ethiopian military action against either Djibouti or Somalia and Soviet-Cuban adventurism in the region.

—The Kenyans would probably not oppose an increased US presence as long as it did not arouse serious Ethiopian concerns or threaten to generate all-out war in the Horn.

—The Soviets would condemn the move as an effort by the United States to turn Djibouti into a US naval facility like Diego Garcia, and they would try to convince Gouled that US use of his facilities was inconsistent with Djibouti’s professed neutrality and dangerous for its continued stability. Moscow might react by increasing its own force levels in the region and by seeking expanded use of military facilities in South Yemen and Ethiopia.

—The Cubans would be quick to mount a propaganda barrage against the US activity and might react by prolonging the stay of [Page 267] their forces in Ethiopia and by increasing their military presence in South Yemen.

—Among the Arabs, Oman would favor such a move; Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf States, and North Yemen would be ambivalent, although more favorable privately than publicly; South Yemen would loudly condemn it.

[Omitted here are sections unrelated to U.S. use of Djibouti’s facilities.]

Reactions to and Implications of US Use of Djiboutian Facilities

33. There has been no significant reaction on the part of Ethiopia, Somalia, the USSR, Cuba, France, or concerned Arab states to US naval use of Djibouti’s port and aviation facilities since the practice began with P–3 maritime patrol flight visits in 1975. Reactions will probably continue to be generally muted if the US Navy continues its present level of usage. This level, in fact, increased significantly over the past three or four months with the deployment of the USS Constellation and Midway task forces to the northern Indian Ocean area.4 Another similar isolated surge would be unlikely to generate much of an outcry. But a greater increase would likely cause a variety of reactions in Djibouti and elsewhere.

34. Djibouti. If the US Navy were to seek sharply increased use of Djiboutian facilities, the Gouled regime, as a quid pro quo, might increase pressure for the provision of military supplies from the United States. At a minimum, they would expect a significant increase in economic development assistance. Djiboutian leaders have already indicated that they believe their government is benefiting insufficiently from virtually unrestricted US access to their air and naval facilities.

35. Ethiopia. The Ethiopians, who have complained of “imperialist activities” in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, would condemn any major expansion of US naval activities in Djibouti. Addis Ababa would probably portray such a move as part of a US-Somali effort to destabilize Djibouti to Somali advantage and to deny Ethiopia access to the port of Djibouti. Traditionally fearful of Arab encirclement, the Ethiopians might also label such a move as collusion among the Americans, the Somalis, and the moderate Arabs to “undermine” the Ethiopian revolution—an interpretation Addis Ababa has repeatedly placed on Washington’s motives for bringing about the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

36. Mengistu would probably retaliate—at least for openers—by encouraging radical Afar militants to step up guerrilla operations in [Page 268] an effort to intimidate the Gouled regime into at least reducing US activities to previous levels.

37. Somalia. Somali President Siad, who has made repeated efforts over the past year or so to draw the United States into a military relationship, would prefer that it use Somali facilities in exchange for military aid. On balance, however, he would welcome a greater US naval presence in the area as:

—A counter to the threat of Ethiopian military action against either Djibouti or Somalia.

—Evidence of US determination to thwart Soviet-Cuban adventurism in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

38. Siad would almost certainly interpret the US move as signaling a new willingness on Washington’s part to be more responsive to Somalia’s security needs. He would press even harder for the establishment of an arms supply relationship and would renew previous offers to make Somali bases available for US use.

39. An upsurge in Ethiopian-sponsored guerrilla activity in Djibouti designed to counter an increased US presence there would probably not provoke a military reaction by Somalia unless it perceived such activity to be aimed at Gouled’s overthrow and the undermining of Mogadishu’s vital interests in Djibouti. In that case, Siad would almost certainly encourage pro-Somali elements in the Djiboutian Army to move against the Afars.

40. Kenya. Nairobi allows the United States limited access to its airfields and the port of Mombassa. The Kenyans favor the present level of US naval activity in the region, viewing it as a counter to Soviet, Cuban, and radical Arab maneuverings. They would probably not oppose an increase in US use of Djiboutian facilities as long as the expansion did not arouse serious Ethiopian concerns or threaten to generate all-out war in the Horn. Nairobi probably fears that the Ethiopians would react by undermining the Gouled regime and pressuring Kenya to alter its pro-Western policy. Ethiopia and Kenya—despite their ideological disparity—are united in a defense pact directed against Somalia.

41. The USSR. Although the Soviets have thus far avoided mention of US use of Djiboutian facilities, they roundly criticized US naval deployments during the Iranian and Yemeni crises, and have repeatedly warned of plans by the United States to increase its military presence throughout the region. If US naval ships began to use Djibouti on a significantly increased basis, Moscow would probably carefully tailor its public statements to place the burden of guilt on Washington. Djibouti—if mentioned at all—would be portrayed as an unwitting dupe or helpless victim of US “imperialism”; the French connection [Page 269] would also be largely ignored to avoid damaging Franco-Soviet relations. Soviet commentary would:

—Concentrate on the US arms buildup in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf and accuse the United States of increasing tensions in the region to justify its military ambitions.

—Link the increase in US naval activity to the fall of the Shah, the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, and US oil needs.

—Charge the United States with attempting to turn Djibouti into another US naval facility like Diego Garcia.

—Remind the littoral states that the USSR supported the UN resolution calling for a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean.

—Emphasize that it was the United States, not the USSR, that broke off the Indian Ocean arms control talks.

42. Although the USSR has little influence with President Gouled, it would lose no opportunity—unilaterally and through sympathetic third parties—to remind him that US use of his air and naval facilities was inconsistent with Djibouti’s professed neutrality. If Gouled proved unresponsive to such demarches, the Soviets might urge increased Ethiopian/Cuban support for Afar dissidents based in Ethiopia.

43. Because of their traditional reluctance to use naval facilities permanently occupied by a Western power (in this case, France), the Soviets would be unlikely to request regular access to Djibouti for their own naval forces, although they might attempt to establish the right in principle to make occasional port calls. Moscow would be more inclined to react to greater US use of Djibouti by increasing its overall force levels in the region and, possibly, by seeking expanded use of military facilities in South Yemen and Ethiopia.

44. Cuba. The Cubans would join the Soviets and the Ethiopians in condemning any sharply increased US military presence in Djibouti and might use it to justify a prolongation of the Cuban military presence in Ethiopia or an expansion of that in South Yemen.

45. France. Although the French would probably welcome further opportunities to share responsibilities in the region, their reaction is difficult to predict with certainty. They might argue that significantly increased and highly visible US naval activity in Djibouti would upset the country’s fragile political balance, lead to internal strife, and increase the danger of external intervention. The French might also calculate that such a US military profile in Djibouti would focus the spotlight on their own continued major presence, and that this could generate an adverse reaction both at home and abroad. Gouled takes his cue from the French on major policy matters, and their position on increased US naval use of Djibouti could be critical to his thinking on the issue.

46. Iraq. As for the Arab states, Iraq—although increasingly concerned about Soviet penetration in the Red Sea and Arabian Penin[Page 270]sula—would not like to see a permanent US presence in Djibouti and would certainly oppose the basing of US aircraft there. Baghdad would be inclined to use economic and political pressure to make its point with the Djiboutians. The issue is, nevertheless, several steps removed from Iraq’s major areas of concern—Arab politics and the peace process and developments in Iran—and Baghdad might be too preoccupied to do more than protest loudly.

47. Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, who usually set the pace for the conservative countries on the Arabian Peninsula, would be ambivalent toward a formal US presence in Djibouti because of the conflicting pressures to which they would be subjected. The Saudis would consider various factors:

—The purpose of the US move (is the United States creating a base? and if so, for what purpose?).

—The context of such a move (when it takes place, the reactions of neighboring states).

—The manner in which Washington explained its purposes to them.

48. If the move were essentially a logistic convenience, we doubt that the Saudis would have any major objection, although they probably would not support it publicly. Because of the potential threat to Djibouti from Ethiopia, and Pan-Arab pressures orchestrated by Iraq in the wake of the Camp David accords, the Saudis would be sensitive to charges or expectations that they supported a US move that could eventually encourage a superpower confrontation in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

49. The Yemens. The South Yemenis would fulminate about American intervention in Arab affairs and would join Ethiopia in condemning American intrusion into the lower Red Sea area, a region where Aden and Addis Ababa assert a joint responsibility. South Yemen and like-minded members of the Arab League (such as Iraq) would take Djibouti to task in that forum, and Aden might also be more receptive to greater Soviet use of its facilities.

50. The Salih regime in North Yemen, worried about its narrow base of support and its need to balance a variety of conflicting relations (with the United States, with the Saudis, with the Iraqis, and especially with South Yemen), would not be able to support the US move publicly, [less than 1 line not declassified].

51. Egypt and Sudan. The Egyptians and the Sudanese would probably welcome an increased US presence in Djibouti, seeing it as a move designed to restrict Soviet, radical Arab, and Ethiopian activities in the region. It is questionable whether either country—especially Sudan—would publicly argue in favor of substantially increased US activity.

52. Other Arab States. The reactions of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates would follow those of Saudi Arabia. Oman, [Page 271] concerned with the military threat posed by South Yemen, plus the more general threat of subversion, would look more favorably on the matter. Since the downfall of the Shah of Iran, Sultan Qabus has turned increasingly to the United States for help and advice in obtaining military supplies, and believes that his country’s security depends increasingly on the United States. Kuwait, which pursues a more independent foreign policy than the other Gulf states, has strongly opposed any great-power presence in the Gulf, but at the same time has sought US support for Gulf security without indicating how this should be manifested. The Kuwaitis—feeling pressure from Iraq and resident Palestinians—probably would condemn an American presence in Djibouti as an escalation of the risk of superpower confrontation in the region. [2 lines not declassified]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Horn/Special, Box 4, Chron File: 8/79. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. Central Intelligence Agency, History Staff Files. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified].
  3. Note: This memorandum was prepared under the auspices of the National Intelligence Officer for Africa in the Office of Political Analysis, National Foreign Assessment Center. It was coordinated at the working level within the Central Intelligence Agency and with the National Security Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State, Defense, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. [Note is in the original.]
  4. The Constellation and Midway were deployed to the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Yemen in March. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XVIII, Middle East Region; Arabian Peninsula, Document 188.