U.S. foreign policy in the Horn of Africa: the Eritrean option

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The U.S. requires more creative and consistent policies to address the host of development, political, and security issues plaguing the Horn of Africa. Friendly relations with Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, and military involvement in Somalia under the banner of the Global War on Terrorism have so far achieved little.

Engaging Eritrea and its hostile regime led by dictator Issayas Afewerki will certainly prove difficult but the rewards could strengthen U.S. foothold in the region and improve regional stability.

Strategic value

Eritrea’s strategic value and impact on security in the Horn of Africa has been overlooked for too long. The country has a long history of belligerency, and its violent regime remains a central cause behind migration and conflict-related insecurity in the region.

Eritrea is centrally located between a number of unstable states and the Red Sea, which separates it from the Arabian Peninsula. Shipping routes across the Red Sea are crucial to the world economy and the U.S. In 2014 alone over 1,300 ships containing more than 76,000 tons of cargo passed through the Suez Canal at the northern end of the Red Sea. Approximately 736,000 barrels of oil bound for the U.S. transited through the canal every day in 2013.

U.S. involvement in the region can provide further stability but it has so far remained limited. U.S. military presence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea is relatively small and stretched, and mostly known for occasional drone strikes on Islamist militants.

The United States Agency for International Development has spent $1.8 billion since 2011 on the Horn of Africa in response to starvation and poverty epidemics. Yet, the region remains highly unstable, impoverished, and its inhabitants lack elementary levels of security.

A reconfigured role for the U.S. in the Horn of Africa

To make significant strides in addressing insecurity in the Horn of Africa U.S. policy needs to more actively undermine and isolate the Afewerki regime while further supporting Ethiopia and Djibouti in their border disagreements with Eritrea.

The Eritrean society is characterized by extant social divisions that should be fully exploited to further weaken Afewerki’s regime. A great deal of division is caused by the “Nakfa Syndrome,” a siege mentality inherited from Eritrea’s devastating independence war in the early 1990s.

This syndrome is most vivid among Eritrean political leaders whose ruthless policies have disappointed the large Eritrean youth who did not experience the conflict and yearns for more freedoms. These tensions can easily be exploited by Western regimes to discredit the aggressive Afewerki regime.

The U.S. should develop stronger relationships with Eritrea’s neighbors and stand firmly on their side when tensions arise at the borders. Eritrea’s unresolved border disputes with Ethiopia and recurring clashes with militaries and armed groups on the borders with Djibouti, Sudan, and Yemen are a constant source of tension in the region.

Supporting Eritrea’s political foes, particularly Ethiopia, will counterbalance Eritrean aggressivity and further isolate Afewerki. Desperation on the part of the Eritrean regime could in turn result in opportunities to exact concessions from the hostile regime.

Eritrea is an unexplored policy option that has the potential to improve security in the Horn of Africa. Weakening the Afewerki regime is unlikely to eliminate the problems plaguing Eritrea and the broader region, including Islamist influence in Somalia.

However, recognizing the strategic importance of Eritrea will broaden U.S. policy options and offer new means to address diplomatic and security issues across the Horn of Africa. If the U.S. really seeks to effect change in the Horn of Africa it should strive for a clear and decisive policy that challenges regimes like Afewerki’s Eritrea.

Sean Curtis is a graduate research assistant at the National Security Studies Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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