ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

War Fears on Eritrea-Ethiopia Border

All Agree US Plays A Role - But Do Not Agree On The Policy

By Clay Varney

The International Crisis Group, a well-respected international NGO whose aim is to "prevent conflict worldwide" has issued a policy briefing on the rising tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea along their contested border, centered specifically on the status of the town of Badme. The ten page report covers the delicacy of the current situation and does a strong job of taking an even-handed approach towards both sides, while offering concrete solutions to the dispute.

According to ICG: "The risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real. A military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions." The ICG fears that a potential flash point for hostilities will emerge in November when the Boundary Commission responsible for fixing the border will close its operations unless able to demarcate the line. As to how such a conflict might start, the report offers the possibility of an "Ethiopian-backed coup attempt against President Isaias Afwerki, followed by an Ethiopian military intervention, leading to a long conflict," with the chance that the United States might support such a move.

The likelihood of the US supporting such a coup is largely based upon the Eritrean government's support of central members of the Islamic Court Union (ICU), the al-Qaeda linked Islamist organization in Somalia. This is further compounded by the nature of Afwerki's government. President Afwerki has failed to liberalize his governments position on matters relating to the press and to opposition political parties. Additionally, elections long promised, have failed to transpire.

The ICG recommends that each country follow its obligations under the Boundary Commission as the way to resolve the dispute but states that the root cause of the problem is "the nature of the regimes in both countries and their attitudes towards each other." The report also goes into detail regarding both Eritrea and Ethiopia's support of proxies against one another, including the issues raised in a previous ThreatsWatch article.

Addressing the border and the larger differences between the two nations perceptions of their role in the Horn of Africa is unlikely to be accomplished without significant sacrifice. The Boundary Commission ruled in what Ethiopia's government sees as an illegal form, and in favor of Eritrea. The specifics, including the inclusion of Badme in Eritrea, are quite possibly not the primary cause of Ethiopia's concern. Based on comments by their Prime Minister, it is readily clear that Ethiopia's government continues to maintain aspirations to city's and ports beyond the border area.

The United States and the United Nations are seen by the ICG as the two outside actors with the strongest chance of preventing a conflict. It recommends that the US make clear that "Washington would have no sympathy for a stage-managed coup against the Eritrean regime or any military action to resolve the border stalemate unilaterally." The ICG also believes that the US should remove its threat to put Eritrea on the state sponsors of terrorism list. Regarding the UN, it is suggested that the Security Council pass a resolution in support of the decision of the Boundary Commission and its mission. What role the United Nations could play in actually preventing such a conflict remains unclear as UN peacekeepers are already present on the border and would likely serve as no deterrent if a drive toward war was initiated by either side.

These measures are deemed short-term solutions to the threat of war. For a resolution of the dispute between the two countries in the long term, "the parties will have to cease using proxy forces to damage the other…stop violating the Security Council's arms embargo on Somalia…reopen bilateral channels of communication" and receive help from the international community.

Here the crux of the issue becomes more evident. So long as the economically more successful and democratically more stable state of Ethiopia chooses to oppose its, now independent, former co-nationals, the two will not gain from the potential trade and transport opportunities they share. Likewise, resources which should be focused on alleviating the regions poverty or confronting the threat of terrorism are instead focused on securing what Ethiopia's Prime Minister called a "godforesaken village." It is here that US diplomatic power may best be availed. We should encourage Ethiopia to seek economic opportunities and partnerships with Eritrea, while also encouraging Eritrea to take concrete measures to liberalize its economic, political and press systems. Closing the disparity between the two will not occur by words and dialogue alone, but the US has economic might it can bring to bear, and the positives to be found are worth the effort, particularly given the Horn's importance.

After the report was released, various international players commented on the situation, seeking to defuse tensions. In a statement released November 9 by Department of State spokesman Sean McCormack, the countries were urged to ease tensions along the border. As the statement read: "We call on the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia to exercise maximum restraint and avoid any actions that might further heighten tension or reignite conflict." United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed his concern on November 7 over the tense situation and sought a permanent resolution of the border's status.4 However, despite these calls for restraint, the situation along the border remains fragile. As violence increases in Somalia, the situation along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border does not bode well.

In an op-ed in Thursday's New York Times, two former chiefs of mission at the American embassy in Ethiopia, Vicki Huddleston and Tibor Nagy, take a decidedly pro-Ethiopian stance in addressing the standoff. In the piece entitled "Don't Turn on Ethiopia" the authors declare: "A new war in the Horn of Africa would destabilize the region and bolster radical Islam's push to build a Muslim caliphate." Additionally, Congress is blamed for increasing war tensions as it considers a bill ( H.R. 2003: Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007) that will cut off technical assistance to the African nation unless it behaves in a more democratic manner. The authors offer a list of some measures that have improved transparency in Ethiopia and find that this bill "puts Congress unwittingly on the side of Islamic jihadists and insurgents." Instead, the authors offer that the United States should support Ethiopia by helping to resolve the border issue with Eritrea and facilitate negotiations between the various warring factions. The authors then criticize Eritrea for insisting on the border established five years ago, which in their view needs reconsideration and mutual agreement. The former ambassadors conclude by urging Congress to drop the previously mentioned bill and use "creative diplomacy to deal with the threat of insurgency and war."

As this round-up of commentary on the threat of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia demonstrates, the influence of the United States in the region becomes the overarching theme. Specifically, the ICG report and the op-ed by the two former ambassadors highlight the role the United States could play in preventing such a war. However, the two reports reach widely varying conclusions on the true nature of that role. The International Crisis Group fears that an Ethiopian-backed coup against Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki with American support may touch off a war between the two countries and recommends that the threat to declare Eritrea a state sponsor of terror be dropped. Taking an entirely different tack, Huddleston and Nagy accuse the United States of selling Ethiopia down the river by potentially passing H.R. 2003, thereby emboldening Ethiopia's enemies. Both reports think the US can and should stop the slide toward war, and in this instance, both are correct.

The primary challenge facing US policy-makers with regard to this situation is not dissimilar to those we face in other areas of the world. We seek to encourage further advances in the development of civil liberties and the fostering of democratic institutions and governments, while at the same time attempting to prevent existing governments from being weakened before potential threats - primarily authoritarian and anti-liberty supporting ideologues and organizations supporting terrorism to bring about an Islamic state. Eritrea and Ethiopia must resolve their border issues, with the assistance of the UN and the United States perhaps, but in the end the solution must be amicably found and not forced upon either state. Our task then becomes aiding the two states to see the positives of border resolution, further moves toward a free and democratic society, and expansion of economic cooperation.

US policy in the Horn of Africa should be clear to both African states and in the halls of Congress. We cannot permit governments to harbor, no matter the terminology or rationale used, terrorists leaders or supporters. Nor can we turn a blind eye to those who wrongfully prosecute those seeking no more than a voice in their government. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have issues which must be addressed. However, removing our support from allies, such as Ethiopia, who are making progress - albeit less rapidly that we might wish - serves neither our best interest, the best interest of Ethiopia, or the efforts to secure a peaceful and prosperous Horn of Africa.

This does not imply that Ethiopia should get carte blanche support nor have any openings to seek the overthrow of the Eritrean government. Both governments should be encouraged to consider the eventual negative impacts that will follow war over the border. Likewise, both governments should understand the US position of advocacy is that of their citizens futures, not of their governments maintenance.

Or at least it should be so.