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U.S. Policy in the Horn of Africa
Russian Academy of Sciences
Institute for African Studies
International Conference of Africanists
27-30 May 2014
David H. Shinn
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
The Horn of Africa as considered here includes Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea,
Djibouti, and Somalia/Somaliland. The problems of the Horn are frequently interlinked and often
cross national boundaries. The root causes of the conflicts include economic inequality, political
marginalization, poor governance, ethnic tension, competition for scarce resources including
water and arable land, periodic drought, and poverty. Contributory factors are porous borders,
widespread availability of weapons, corruption, a poor record by governments on human rights,
and interference in the region by organizations and countries outside the Horn. The Horn is also
located on a Muslim/Christian religious fault line. In terms of numbers of conflicts, the Horn has
arguably been the most conflicted corner of the world since the end of World War II.
The Horn has posed a serious challenge for U.S. policy for more than three quarters of a
century. While Africa, among major world regions, has always been at the bottom of the U.S.
foreign policy priority list, the Horn has received a disproportionately high amount of attention
within the context of Africa. This was due to the security importance the United States attached,
especially to Ethiopia, during World War II and the Cold War until the overthrow in 1974 of
Emperor Haile Selassie. In the mid-1970s, Soviet influence replaced American influence in the
country. The United States shifted its security ties to the Siad Barre government in Somalia and
somewhat later to the Gaafar Nimeiri government in Sudan. The end of the Cold War witnessed
a U.S. pullback from the region during the 1990s.
Following the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in nearby Kenya and
Tanzania and, especially, the attack on the United States in 2001, U.S. security interests in the
Horn reemerged as the focus of U.S. policy shifted to the global War on Terrorism. In 2002,
Washington established a military base in Djibouti known as Combined Joint Task Force – Horn
of Africa (CJTF-HOA), provided significant support to the African Union mission in Somalia
aimed at countering the al- Shabaab terrorist group, and stepped up security cooperation with
Ethiopia, including establishment of a small drone surveillance operation at Arba Minch in the
southwestern part of the country. U.S counterterrorism policy has driven its policy in the Horn
throughout the 21
The Cold War, the Horn, and U.S. Policy
The Cold War determined U.S. policy in the Horn until the beginning of the 1990s. The
United States concentrated its economic and military support on Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile
Selassie, who was a reliable ally of the United States. The U.S. military maintained a critical
communications station known as Kagnew outside Asmara, which at the time was part of
Ethiopia. In the mid and late 1960s, Ethiopia received the United States’ largest economic and
military assistance program and hosted the largest American embassy in Sub-Saharan Africa.
When Ethiopia was threatened by Somali irredentism or Eritrean separatism, the United States
backed the Haile Selassie government.
In 1974, the military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam seized power. The United
States tried initially to maintain cordial economic, political, and military relations with the new
left-wing regime. The United States refused, however, to provide all of the military assistance
requested by Mengistu and Ethiopia turned increasingly to the Soviet Union for support. As
Ethiopia slipped into the Soviet camp, the United States looked for a new ally in the Horn.
During the early 1970s, Sudan was not interested in close ties with the United States.
Eritrea had begun a war of secession from Ethiopia. Djibouti did not obtain independence from
France until 1977 and, in any event, was not seen at the time as sufficiently important for
purposes of U.S. security interests. This left only Somalia as a possible U.S. ally in the region.
Somalia had relied heavily during the 1960s and first half of the 1970s on the Soviet Union for
military assistance and was aligned with Moscow. As the Soviet Union turned its attention to
neighboring Ethiopia, Somalia’s traditional enemy, this opened the door for the United States to
replace Soviet influence in Somalia.
Somalia had a long-standing irredentist policy aimed at incorporating Somali-inhabited
parts of Ethiopia and Kenya and all of Djibouti. In fact, Somalia invaded the Somali region of
Ethiopia in 1977 and briefly captured most of the southeastern part of the country. Soviet
military equipment and advisers and troops from South Yemen and Cuba helped Ethiopia to push
the Somalis out. While the United States did not provide military equipment to the Somalis
during the war, it initiated the delivery of military aid not long after the war ended.
Ethiopia and Somalia became classic examples of pawns in Cold War policies with the
Soviet Union supporting Ethiopia and the United States allied with Somalia. It was not until the
late 1980s as the Cold War was coming to an end that the United States concluded Somalia’s
Siad Barre was no longer a satisfactory ally and began to cut back its economic and military
By the late 1970s, Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri had become a Cold War ally of the
United States. By the end of his regime in the mid-1980s, the largest American economic and
military assistance program in all of Africa was in Sudan, which had replaced the position
formerly occupied by Ethiopia. The U.S. oil company, Chevron, discovered and was developing
Sudan’s oil wealth. These close ties to the Nimeiri government resulted in the reluctance of the
United States to support John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which
began operations in 1983 with the goal of toppling the Nimeiri government. The United States
tried to walk a fine line by supporting the Nimeiri government and maintaining relations with the
SPLM and southern Sudanese generally.
The 1985 overthrow of Nimeiri, as he was en route to the United States for a meeting
with President Ronald Reagan, led to a rapid decline in relations with Sudan. U.S. ties with the
successor interim military government were correct, but not warm. They improved slightly
following the democratic election of Sadiq al-Mahdi early in 1986 but then slowly deteriorated
during his rule. Sudan’s military coup in 1989 and installation of an Islamic government led by
Omar al-Bashir led to deep concern in Washington and progressively worsening relations
between the United States and Sudan.
As the Cold War wound down at the end of the 1980s, Washington had poor relations
with Mengistu’s failing regime in Ethiopia, growing concerns about the autocratic Siad Barre
government in Somalia, and poor prospects for cordial relations with the new Islamist al-Bashir
government in Sudan. Eritrea was not yet independent and Djibouti remained a minor player in
U.S. Policy in the Horn during the 1990s
The end of the Cold War coincided with dramatic political developments in the Horn.
There was a new Islamic government in Sudan. In 1991, the left-wing Mengistu government fell
to rebel forces that became known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front
(EPRDF) and a secessionist rebel movement in Eritrea. The same year, several opposition
groups removed Said Barre from power in Somalia and northwest Somalia, known as
Somaliland, unilaterally declared independence. In 1991, Eritrea achieved de facto
independence and two years later held a referendum that ratified secession from Ethiopia.
The Cold War and competition with the Soviet Union no longer dictated U.S. policies in
the Horn; its termination presented an opportunity for the United States to focus on economic
development throughout Africa. Instead, there was a major competition for scarce U.S. financial
resources and diminishing U.S. interest in Africa. As a result, the 1990s witnessed a series of ad
hoc policy decisions in Washington for dealing with both the Horn and Africa generally.
In 1991, the United States played a key role in helping to broker the departure of
Mengistu from Addis Ababa, the replacement of his regime with the EPRDF, and the
independence of Eritrea. The United States quickly developed cordial relations with both
Ethiopia and Eritrea and strengthened personal ties with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki.
In late 1992, at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, the United States led a
large, international military coalition to end a horrific famine in Somalia, which had no national
government and had become a failed state. While this international effort ended the famine, the
operation became focused by mid-1993 on capturing warlord Mohammed Aideed, whose militia
was responsible for killing Pakistani peacekeepers attached to the UN peacekeeping mission that
had replaced the U.S.-led coalition. In October 1993, the famous ―Blackhawk Down‖ incident
resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers and a decision by the United States to pull its forces
out of the UN mission in Somalia. The entire UN peacekeeping operation ended a year and a
half later as a failed nation-building mission. The negative U.S. experience in Somalia caused it
to minimize engagement in the country throughout the rest of the 1990s.
Due to concerns about Sudan’s growing support for terrorist organizations, U.S. relations
with its Islamic government deteriorated in the 1990s. Osama bin Laden moved his headquarters
to Khartoum late in 1991. The United States put Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism
in 1993; this was followed by a major U.S. sanctions regime against Sudan. Under pressure
from the United States, the Sudanese government asked bin Laden to leave Sudan in mid-1996,
when he relocated to Afghanistan. This did not result, however, in improved relations with the
United States that Sudan anticipated.
U.S. policy towards Khartoum became increasingly hostile as the al-Bashir government
continued to support several terrorist groups and U.S. domestic advocacy groups urged a harsher
policy towards the government. In 1995, Sudan was implicated in the attempted assassination of
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of the United States, as he arrived in Addis
Ababa for an Organization of African Unity summit meeting. The United States increasingly
gave rhetorical and humanitarian support to Khartoum’s nemesis, the SPLM. In the mid-1990s,
the United States pursued a ―front line states‖ policy that encouraged Ethiopia, Eritrea and
Uganda to put pressure on Sudan and backed up the initiative with a $20 million grant of non-
lethal military equipment.
Close ties to Meles, Isaias, President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Vice President
Paul Kagame in Rwanda led to a personalization of African policy in the second Clinton term
and the brief designation of these officials as the new leaders of Africa. (Nelson Mandela in
South Africa was in a class of his own.) In 1998, the unexpected outbreak of war between
Ethiopia and Eritrea brought a quick end to the Clinton administration’s focus on these four
leaders. It also resulted in the termination of military assistance to Ethiopia and Eritrea and the
cancellation of that part of the $20 million in ―front line states‖ military aid that had not already
been delivered. At the beginning of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, the Clinton team tried to
follow a balanced approach towards both countries, angering each one in the process.
The most constructive Clinton administration policy in the region was the Greater Horn
of Africa Initiative (GHAI). It was intended to mitigate conflict and improve food security in the
five countries of the Horn, in addition to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.
While it had some positive impact on improving food security, it failed as a conflict mitigation
effort for many reasons, not the least of which were new conflicts such as the Ethiopia-Eritrea
war that broke out in 1998 and then overwhelmed the GHAI.
During the last two years of the 1990s, the United States struggled to regain its position
in the region. A period of U.S. policy retrenchment in the Horn was underway at the end of the
Clinton administration and beginning of the George W. Bush administration. U.S. engagement
in Somalia was limited to modest amounts of humanitarian assistance. Policy level officials in
both the Clinton and Bush administrations fled from the Somali issue. Having had a bad
experience in Somalia in 1993, neither administration had any desire to reengage there.
Relations were worsening with Sudan, especially following the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings
of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the mistaken belief in some quarters that
Sudan had something to do with the bombings. In retaliation, the U.S. launched a cruise missile
attack following the embassy bombings on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum suspected of
producing chemical weapons. This was the low point in U.S.-Sudan relations.
U.S. ties with Eritrea were beginning to get testy in the aftermath of the Ethiopia-Eritrea
conflict, especially following Ethiopia’s military victory in 2000 and its unwillingness to accept
the decision following binding arbitration that gave the original locus—Badme—of the dispute
to Eritrea. Djibouti remained relatively unimportant to U.S. policy although it did begin to play
a more significant role in the Somali peace process. The United States focused its efforts on
rebuilding relations with Ethiopia while trying to maintain tolerable ties with Eritrea as the 20
century came to an end.
U.S. Policy in the Horn during the 21
The Bush administration took office with some interest in Sudan, but otherwise the Horn
was not a high foreign policy priority. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that view began to
change. The war on terrorism drove U.S. policy throughout the region except for Sudan where
the United States also played a major role in the North-South peace process and worked hard to
end the crisis in Darfur. Counterterrorism was about the only U.S. policy in Somalia during the
Bush administration although the United States continued to send modest amounts of
humanitarian assistance and food aid.
At the end of 2002, the United States established CJTF-HOA at a former French Foreign
Legion post in Djibouti. The stated mission was to disrupt and defeat international terrorist
groups posing an imminent threat to the United States, it allies, and their interests in the region.
Following the creation of this installation, the only American military base in Africa, CJTF-HOA
Djibouti took on an importance for U.S. policy that it never had before. Today, CJTF-HOA has
grown to about 4,000 military and civilian personnel.
Ethiopia, which itself felt threatened by extremist groups, became an increasingly
important ally in U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region. The United States found it more
difficult to maintain cordial relations with Eritrea as its ties with Ethiopia strengthened. Eritrea
was angry at the United States, claiming that it could have forced Ethiopia to accept the binding
arbitration that gave Badme to Eritrea.
By the end of the Clinton administration there was modest improvement in relations with
Sudan as the al-Bashir government decided to test possible cooperation on counterterrorism.
This cooperation expanded after the 2001 bombings in the United States. Following progress on
the North-South peace process and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in
2005, there was a serious prospect for the normalization of relations with Sudan and eventual
removal of U.S. sanctions against Sudan. The United States played a key role in encouraging
both Khartoum and the SPLM to sign the CPA; this was the Bush administration’s signal
political achievement in its African policy.
While there was progress on ending the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, the
outbreak of conflict in Darfur in 2003 ended prospects for the normalization of relations between
Sudan and the United States. Under pressure from Congress and domestic advocacy groups, the
Bush administration declared in 2004 that genocide had taken place and put the blame on the
government of Sudan. (The United States was the only government that designated the situation
in Darfur as genocide.)
U.S. charges of continuing genocide, or at least a failure to assert that the genocide had
ended, continued well into the Obama administration. In fact, the worst of the situation in Darfur
ended in 2004. Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, stated at
a September 2011 public meeting in Washington that there was no genocide in Sudan when she
assumed her position late in 2005. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administration was willing,
however, to acknowledge this fact in the face of intense pressure to the contrary from some
members of Congress and domestic pressure groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition. Sudan
provided a rare case in U.S. foreign policy where all domestic interest groups opposed the
actions of the government in Khartoum. There were no organizations arguing for a more
balanced position on Sudan related issues.
The United States welcomed Khartoum’s willingness to move forward with the CPA and
its cooperation on counterterrorism. But there were always new issues, first Darfur, and
subsequently conflicts in Abyei and Southern Kordofan along the North-South border that
prevented normalization of relations with Sudan. The heavy focus on Sudan’s North-South
peace process and the Darfur crisis by the Bush administration and, to a considerable extent, by
the Obama administration sucked all the diplomatic oxygen out of the air. It was difficult to get
high level attention on other issues in the Horn, except for Somalia when it became a center for
In 2006, Somalia became a major issue for U.S. policy in the Horn when a group of
Islamists threatened to seize power in Mogadishu. The United States made its biggest policy
blunder in Somalia since the ill-fated focus on the hunt for Mohammed Aideed in 1993. It
financed a group of discredited Somali warlords who took the name Alliance for the Restoration
of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) to attack the Islamists. The Union of Islamic Courts
(UIC), which included both moderate and extremist elements, defeated the ARPCT by mid-2006
and quickly seized control of most of central and south Somalia. While it was anti-Western and
hostile to Ethiopia, the UIC reestablished law and order, something the warlords failed to do.
U.S. policy in Somalia became a shambles.
The Somali Transitional Federal Government, which was located in Nairobi and had the
support of the international community, invited Ethiopian forces into Somalia to remove the
UIC. By early 2007, Ethiopian troops forced the UIC out of Mogadishu and most of Somalia.
Many analysts argue that the United States not only encouraged Ethiopia to invade Somalia but
financed the operation. There is no proof of this and most evidence suggests otherwise. While
the United States did not do enough to discourage this inadvisable operation, this was a decision
taken by the government of Ethiopia. Once Ethiopia seized Mogadishu, however, the United
States encouraged Ethiopian troops to stay so that Islamist forces could not return.
Eritrea seized upon the conflict in Somalia and Ethiopia’s direct involvement to put
pressure on Ethiopia. Eritrea was still smarting from the fact that Ethiopia had not returned
Badme as required in the binding arbitration. Eritrea supported extremist groups in Somalia,
including one of the successor groups to the UIC, al-Shabaab, which opposed the Ethiopian
intervention and wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate. This Eritrean action, in addition to
hostile actions towards its neighbor to the south, Djibouti, caused a further deterioration in U.S.-
Eritrea relations. The United States and Eritrea are barely on speaking terms today. Although
the United States has a small embassy in Asmara, it has no ambassador.
The independence of South Sudan in 2011 and reduced level of violence in Darfur
offered once again the possibility of a normalization of relations between Washington and
Khartoum. But new problems in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan regions that border
South Sudan complicated the normalization process. U.S. domestic advocacy groups argued
strongly against normalization.
The international community, including the United States, was excessively optimistic
about the prospects for an independent and democratic South Sudan. While 75 percent of
Sudan’s oil wealth went to the new country, Sudan retained control of the infrastructure for
exporting oil. Following a long dispute between Juba and Khartoum over the fees that Juba was
required to pay Khartoum for use of the infrastructure, Juba made the ill-fated decision to
terminate all oil production, which accounted for about 98 percent of its foreign exchange
revenue. Not long after this dispute with Khartoum was resolved, a power struggle broke out in
Juba in December 2013. The situation has deteriorated into an ethnic war between the two
largest ethnic groups in South Sudan—the Dinka and the Nuer. This poses a new and unpleasant
challenge for U.S. policy in the region.
South Sudan has become an enormous foreign policy disappointment for the United
States, which played a key role in its achievement of independence. It has lectured the South
Sudanese President, Salva Kiir, and the principal rebel leader, Riek Machar, and placed sanctions
on military commanders from both sides of the dispute. Washington is considering the
possibility of further sanctions as the internal conflict continues to rage in South Sudan.
U.S. policy in Somalia has had somewhat more success. It continues to support the
African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the new Somali Federal Government (SFG)
that was established in 2012. Together, AMISOM and the SFG have removed al-Shabaab from
all but one town in Somalia, although al-Shabaab continues to move freely in rural parts of
south/central Somalia. Washington also remains concerned about the ability of the SFG to
establish a viable government in Somalia that has the support of the Somali people. It has not
been possible to undertake development assistance in those parts of Somalia that remain under
The United States has cordial relations with Somaliland, which in 1991 declared its
unilateral declaration of independence. On the other hand, it is not prepared to recognize
Somaliland’s independence until the African Union does so. It is providing more economic
assistance to Somaliland and to semi-autonomous Puntland. Nevertheless, the amounts have
been modest and the leaders of both entities are disappointed with the results so far.
The United States continues to treat counterterrorism as the most important part of its
policy in the Horn, but is implementing that policy in a more nuanced manner than was the case
during the Bush administration. In Somalia, surveillance drones have been in widespread use for
years. The United States has conducted occasional aerial strikes and on-the-ground special
forces operations against al-Shabaab targets inside Somalia.
U.S. contributions to the anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean
have become an important part of U.S. policy in recent years. While the United States pays lip
service to improved human rights conditions in the region, security interests usually trump
concerns about human rights, particularly in countries that are supportive of U.S. policy. One
common thread through U.S. policy in the Horn since the end of World War II has been to
provide assistance to counter hunger and famine. In terms of lives saved, this effort and the
more recent programs aimed at combatting HIV/AIDS have been America’s most successful
policies in the region.
U.S. trade with and foreign direct investment in all countries in the Horn are modest. Its
largest trading partner in the region is Ethiopia, which in 2011 had well under $1 billion in trade
with the United States. Its trade with other countries in the Horn barely registers statistically.
No American oil company is active in the region and few American companies have offices or
production facilities in the Horn. The principal interest remains counterterrorism and security as
demonstrated by the growth at CJTF-HOA in Djibouti. The United States and Djibouti just
signed a new ten year, $70 million annual lease for the facility. This includes $63 million in
lease fees and the rest in development aid each year.
U.S. security interests in the Horn often conflict with U.S. policy that encourages
democratization and improved human rights practices. It is difficult to solicit successfully the
support of governments to combat terrorism and provide personnel for peacekeeping operations,
on the one hand, while demanding, on the other, that those governments end human rights abuses
and democratize. Human rights organizations, which have the luxury of being able to ignore
U.S. security and political interests, tend to be critical of U.S. human rights policies in the region.
The fact is that, since the end of the Cold War, concerns about political stability, security, and
countering terrorism in the Horn have usually trumped concerns about human rights practices
and good governance.
The challenges for U.S policy in the Horn remain huge. From the perspective of
American policy, relations today with the governments of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia are
good. They are poor with Eritrea and Sudan and complicated with South Sudan because of the
recent outbreak of internal conflict there. Washington has a cordial dialogue with the authorities
in Somaliland and Puntland. The interrelationships of the countries in the Horn are such that it is
virtually impossible for a country as engaged politically and militarily in the region as the United
States to have good relations will all of them at the same time.