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Ogaden war

Origins of the war

While the cause of the conflict was the desire of the Somali government of Siad Barre to incorporate
the Somali-inhabited region of Ethiopia into a Greater Somalia, it is unlikely Barre would have
ordered the invasion if circumstances had not turned in his favour. Ethiopia had historically dominated
the region. By the beginning of the war, the Somali National Army (SNA) was only 35,000-men
strong and was vastly outnumbered by the Ethiopian forces. However, throughout the 1970s, Somalia
was the recipient of large amounts of Soviet military aid. The SNA had three times the tank force of
Ethiopia, as well as a larger air force.
In September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie had been overthrown by the Derg (the military council),
marking a period of turmoil. Meanwhile, separatist movements sought to take advantage of the chaos.
One of the separatist groups Pro-Somalia Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) operating in
Ogaden, which by late 1975 had struck numerous government outposts while being funded by the
Somali government.
Despite the violence, the Soviet Union believed that Ethiopia was developing into a genuine Marxist-
Leninist state and that it was in Soviet interests to aid the new regime. Thus, they secretly approached
Mengistu with offers of aid that he accepted. Ethiopia closed the U.S. military
mission and the communications centre in April 1977.
Course of the war
The aggressors numbered 35,000 SNA soldiers and another 15,000 WSLF
irregulars. By the end of the July, 60% of the Ogaden had been taken by the SNA-
WSLF force. The Ethiopian Air Force (EAF) also began to establish air
superiority, despite initial numerical disadvantage.
The U.S.S.R., finding itself supplying both sides of a war, attempted to mediate a
ceasefire. When their efforts failed, the Soviets abandoned Somalia. All aid to Siad
Barres regime was halted, while arms shipments to Ethiopia were increased.
Soviet military advisors flooded into the country, as well as around 15,000 Cuban
combat troops.
By September Ethiopia was forced to admit that it controlled only about 10% of the Ogaden and that
the Ethiopian defenders had been pushed back into the non-Somali. However, the Somalis were unable
to press their advantage because of the high level of attrition among its tank battalions, constant
Ethiopian air attacks on their supply lines, and the onset of the rainy season, which made the dirt roads
The expected Ethiopian-Cuban attack occurred in early February. The Somali defence collapsed and
every major Ethiopian town was recaptured in the following weeks. Recognizing that his position was
untenable, Siad Barre ordered the SNA to retreat into Somalia on 9 March 1978. The last significant
Somali unit left Ethiopia on 15 March 1978, marking the end of the war.
Following the withdrawal of the SNA, the WSLF continued their insurgency. By May 1980, the rebels,
with the assistance of a small number of SNA soldiers who continued to help the guerrilla war,
controlled a substantial region of the Ogaden. However, by 1981 the insurgents were finally defeated.
For the Barre regime, the invasion was perhaps the greatest strategic blunder since independence, and
it weakened the military. Almost one-third of the regular SNA soldiers and half of the Somali Air
Force (SAF) were lost. The weakness of the Barre administration led it to effectively abandon the
dream of a unified Greater Somalia. The failure of the war aggravated discontent with the Barre
The United States adopted Somalia as a Cold War ally from the late 1970s to 1988 in exchange for use
of Somali bases, and a way to exert influence upon the region. A second armed clash in 1988 was
resolved when the two countries agreed to withdraw their militaries from the border.