Drafted By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
As Washington’s geostrategy has evolved after the September 11, 2001 airliner bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon by Islamic revolutionaries linked to al-Qaeda, the Horn of Africa has taken on vital strategic importance.
In the thinking of U.S. defense planners, the Horn occupies the western end of an "arc of instability" that runs through the Middle East, the Southern Caucasus and into Central Asia to Afghanistan’s eastern border. The vast area encompassed by the arc contains the world’s largest supply of energy reserves, is composed mostly of states with authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian governments that are subject to instability, and has a predominantly Muslim population, a disaffected portion of which provides recruits for and support of violent Islamic revolutionary movements.
Washington’s overriding interests in the arc of instability are to contain and suppress Islamic revolutionary movements in order to secure strategic resources and prevent further attacks on U.S. soil, and to cultivate stable and friendly governments in the area that will serve broader U.S. aims in its competition with the power centers of China, Russia and India.
After Washington’s initial response to 9/11 of invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban regime, it set out on a course of effectively unilateral action, outlined in its 2002 National Security Strategy, which announced that the U.S. was committed to maintaining global military supremacy and was ready to fight preemptive wars against states that threatened its vital interests by harboring "terrorists" or developing weapons of mass destruction. The generally multilateral approach of previous U.S. administrations was abandoned in favor of organizing "coalitions of the willing" under Washington’s leadership.
The test of Washington’s strategy came in its invasion and occupation of Iraq that had the ambitious and comprehensive aims of demonstrating the effectiveness of U.S. military might to hostile powers and creating a model of regime change to serve as an example of market democratization to be emulated by regimes and publics within the arc of instability.
The failure of Washington’s self-imposed test caused defense planners to rethink their strategy. Facing a Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq, Washington no longer had the military resources necessary to make its unilateralist strategy credible. A shift in policy was necessary to protect U.S. interests and it was made through 2005 without the publicity attending the National Security Strategy. Nonetheless, the new strategy has been declared openly and frequently since it was put into place in March.
The "Long War"
At the core of Washington’s new geostrategy is the explicit acknowledgment that its enemy is not "terrorism" in general, but "Islamic extremism." In order to fight that enemy with any effectiveness, Major General Douglas Lute, director of operations for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which has military responsibility for the entire arc, said in August that the U.S. has embarked on a "long war" that — all else being equal — will become the dominant U.S. military engagement once — as Washington hopes — Afghanistan and Iraq are stabilized.
Stability in Iraq, in particular, will, according to Washington’s expectations, drive the Islamic revolutionaries, who are now concentrated there as parts of the insurgency, to seek safe havens and new battlegrounds elsewhere in the arc of instability. The region to which they are most likely to head, in CENTCOM’s view, is the Horn of Africa, where large areas are not effectively controlled by central governments or, such as in Somalia, where there is no functioning central government.
As a variety of Pentagon briefings and statements describe it under various rubrics, the long war is not a conventional military conflict, but a multi-faceted campaign including military-military cooperation with states in the arc, military-administered humanitarian aid and public diplomacy. The aims of the campaign are to encourage governments within the arc to cooperate in suppressing Islamic revolutionary groups and, more importantly, to diminish the recruitment base for those groups by winning over local public opinion.
Washington’s blueprint for the long war marks an abandonment of its former unilateral approach in favor of a region-based multilateralism in which Washington partners with governments in the regions comprising the arc and attempts to get them to cooperate with one another in the common effort against Islamic revolution. The new strategy represents a step back from the ambitions of unilateralism. It further represents an acceptance that Washington is dependent on regional powers to satisfy its aims and must negotiate with them while expecting only partial success.
The new multilateralism must adjust to the fact that regional partners have their own agendas that may differ from Washington’s. They often have conflicts with their neighbors and are split by domestic divisions. The danger of the new strategy is that Washington will be drawn into choosing sides in regional and domestic conflicts, and will face backlashes if it supports the losing side. Yet, given the failure of unilateralism, the new fall-back strategy appears to be the best that Washington can do to protect its perceived interests.
Washington’s Engagement in the Horn of Africa
As the region in the arc that has attracted Washington’s most immediate concern and one in which it does not face rivalry from other great powers, the Horn of Africa has been the site of the fullest development of the new strategy. Washington’s instrument in the region is the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (C.J.T.F.), which is based in Djibouti and comprises 1600 troops from all branches of the armed services, half of whom are available for civil affairs and military training missions outside the base. According to a Defense Department release, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has called the C.J.T.F. "a model for the future of D.o.D." [See: "Intelligence Brief: Djibouti"]
At a wide ranging September 21 press conference, C.J.T.F. commander, Major General Timothy Ghormley, explained that the command had evolved from a "crisis response force" with a military focus to a unit of unconventional war concentrated on fulfilling the new Pentagon strategy. In a frank appraisal of his mission, Ghormley said that the major requirement for its success and his major difficulty was gaining access to the region’s countries, except for Djibouti. Among the four core states of the Horn, the C.J.T.F. is barred from Somalia because Washington has ceded responsibility there to the African Union; it is unwelcome in Eritrea, which accuses Washington of backing Ethiopia in the border dispute between the two countries, and it has achieved solid footholds in Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Although Washington’s wish is to execute its strategy in an environment of tightly knit regional cooperation, it also insists that it is committed not to back any parties in regional conflicts. Ghormley’s remarks show that even where Washington is not opposed by another great power, its access is severely limited and it is constrained, if only by default, effectively to take sides in conflicts.
In the power configuration of the Horn, Ethiopia is far and away the dominant player and its agenda is to isolate Eritrea, play the major role in determining a future government in Somalia and keep its access to Djibouti’s port. Thus far, Washington has been constrained to back Addis Ababa by refusing to pressure it to honor an international boundary settlement awarding the Badme region to Eritrea and by allowing it to provide military support to one of the factions of Somalia’s deadlocked government. In doing so, Washington has alienated Asmara and the other Somali factions, and has supported a regime in Addis Ababa that has become increasingly authoritarian as it contends with a noncompliant opposition that has refused to take its seats in parliament and has threatened to escalate its protest demonstrations into civil disobedience. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Ethiopia"]
The U.S. presence in the region has also been unable to stop the rise of Islamism in Somalia and to suppress a reported al-Qaeda cell there, to prevent a renewed military build up on both sides of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and even to influence Djibouti’s regime to refrain from actions that threaten to reignite ethnic-based civil war in that country.
After having failed in its unilateralist short-cut strategy in the arc of instability, Washington has opted for a long war that inserts it into the briar patches of regional balance-of-power politics where it faces being drawn into taking sides with dubious partners with their own agendas. This is not to say that any other course, save withdrawal, is open to Washington, but only that the long war is going to be tortuous and is likely to have limited success.
Report Drafted By:
Dr. Michael A. Weinstein