US Counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa: A Chance for Ethiopian-Eritrean Cooperation?

By: Harvey Granger, Guest Columnist

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In August 2017, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) encouraged the formation of a military partnership between the United States and Eritrea.[[i]] The question is, could a US-Eritrean partnership, added to an existing US-Ethiopian partnership, contribute towards amity between these rival neighbors?

Ethiopia has been a major player in the US-lead Global War on Terror (GWOT) in the Horn of Africa. Military and intelligence cooperation remains ongoing.[[ii]] Were Eritrea to partner with the U.S. on the counterterror front in the Horn of Africa, operational success would require that it cooperate with fellow US partners, reducing hostilities with Ethiopia and promoting a regional outlook extending beyond the parochial border tensions between the two countries.[ [iii]]

Is it reasonable to consider the possibility of Ethiopia and Eritrea setting aside their differences and accepting the U.S. as a mutual security partner? As mentioned, US-Ethiopian security relations are strong. While the U.S. has favored Ethiopia, leaving Eritrea feeling embittered, the idea that Eritrea could warm to the idea of a US-led partnership is more probable than might be expected. Eritrean President Afwerki made overtures to the United States in 2002 during Donald Rumsfeld’s tour of the Horn of Africa, during which Rumsfeld sought counterterror partners. Afwerki stated, ”[w]e have very limited resources, but we are willing and prepared to use these resources in any way that is useful to combat terrorism”.[[iv]]

More recently, Eritrea has begun to assist US allies. Afwerki is still in power and has accommodated Israeli bases on Eritrean soil, allegedly in hopes of improved foreign relations outcomes, more specifically, to curry favor with Washington.[[v]] Eritrean diplomacy is characterized by flexible pragmatism. Afwerki is likely to retain a defiant stance towards the US so long as support remains withheld. However, we could see a volte-face should America’s stance change. Raising the question of a balanced US alliance with Ethiopia and Eritrea, Afwerki has asked, “[w]ouldn’t it be better for the U.S. to work with countries of this region for a safe and stable environment?”[[vi]]

Afwerki may also be more likely to agree to a partnership in light of Eritrea’s deteriorating domestic situation. The outflow of refugees from Eritrea, often in response to its policy of compulsory military conscription, has triggered international concern.[[vii]] Aggression towards Ethiopia, or the ‘Siege State’ approach, has been the Eritrean raison détat, but is failing as a national cause.[[viii]] Rapprochement with the U.S. offers an alternative way to achieve a militarized state with the potential for development, trade agreements, and foreign investment. Rather than risk regime collapse as a consequence of complete demilitarization, a US partnership could usher in military reform through programs on human rights and liberal values.[[ix]]

Military cooperation between the U.S. and both Ethiopia and Eritrea could have a variety of applications, considering the threat of terrorism and instability in nearby Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Such cooperation could further benefit regional stability in another way. The Ethiopia-Eritrea feud is vulnerable to proxy manipulation, as contending powers are able to count on Eritrea, politically isolated and hostile towards Ethiopia, to cooperate in the name of upending Ethiopian interests.

A recent example of this geopolitical proxy strategy is Egypt’s exploitation of Eritrean opposition to the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to intimidate Sudan. Construction of the dam has generated immense apprehension in Egypt, as its completion would give Ethiopia significant control of the upstream water supply from the Nile.[[x]] Sudan supports the dam due to its perception that Egypt has taken an undue share of the water supply from the river.[[xi]] In response, Egyptian soldiers have been martialed along the Eritrean border with Sudan, to which Khartoum has responded by deploying soldiers on the Sudanese side.[[xii]] Prevention of proxy tactics such as these requires the resolution of pre-existing feuds, so that they do not serve as means of escalation.

A partnership with Eritrea would also be advantageous for the US interests in a region that faces increased crowding from foreign powers. Japan, for example, has installed a military base in Djibouti in reaction to the development of a Chinese base there.[[xiii]] Both China and Russia also have strategic interests in the Horn. For a time in 2017, it appeared as though China was posed to intervene as a peacekeeper in a spat between Eritrea and Djibouti.[[xiv]] Russia has announced plans to provide counterterror assistance to Somalia and has been acting as a shield against sanctions for South Sudan at the UN Security Council.[[xv]] There have also been discussions of a possible Russian military base in Eritrea.[[xvi]]

Embracing Eritrea as an ally could help support larger US diplomatic and security endeavors. Eritrea has continued to allow Iran and Syria to use its ports, allegedly enabling consignment of materiel to Yemeni Houthis and Hamas.[[xvii]] Eritrea also maintains military relations with North Korea, including an instance of purchasing military equipment from North Korean intelligence services through a Malaysian shell company.[[xviii]] Termination of such relations by Eritrea, as would be required by a partnership with the US, would prune the support networks of these pariah states and increase the likelihood of their willingness to negotiate.

Should Eritrea assess a partnership with the U.S. to be advantageous, ensuing operations could provide an indirect route towards cooperation with Ethiopia. Security cooperation would be an efficient diplomatic and military move, providing Ethiopia and Eritrea with new grounds for cooperation, and providing East and Central Africa with forces to attend to regional instability.



[i] Salem Solomon, “Congressman Calls for US Military Partnership with Eritrea”, Voice of America, August 4, 2017,

[ii] Xan Rice and Suzan Goldberg, “How US Forged Alliance With Ethiopia Over Invasion”, The Guardian, January 13, 2007,

[iii] Charles Stratford, “Eritrea Rebels Struggle as Government Allies with Gulf States”, Al Jazeera, August 31, 2017,

[iv] Marc Lacey, “Threats and Responses: Africa; Rumsfeld Seeks New Allies to Oppose Al-Qaeda and Iraq”, The New York Times, December 11, 2002,

[v] “Eritrea: Another Venue for the Iran-Israel Rivalry”, Stratfor, December 11, 2012,

[vi] Edmund Sanders, “Q&A with President Isaias Afwerki”, LA Times, October 2, 2007,

[vii] Zachary Laub, “Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis”, Council on Foreign Relations, September 18, 2016,

[viii] “Eritrea: The Siege State”, International Crisis Group, September 21, 2010,

[ix] Goitom Gebreluel and Kjetil Tronvoll, “Ethiopia and Eritrea: Brothers at War No More”, Al Jazeera, December 8, 2013,; “International Military and Education Training”, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM),

[x] Heba Saleh and John Agionbly, “Egypt and Ethiopia Clash Over Huge River Nile Dam”, Financial Times, Decembr 27, 2017,

[xi] Keith Johnson, “Egypt-Sudan Spat Muddies Prospects for Deal on Bug Nile Dam”, Foreign Affairs, January 11, 2018,

[xii] “Sudan Deploys More Troops to Eritrean Border”, Al Jazeera, January 15, 2018,; “Why are Tensions Rising in the Red Sea Region?”, Al Jazeera, January 16, 2018,

[xiii] Nobuhiro Kobu, “Japan to Expand Djibouti Military Base to Counter Chinese Influence”, Reuters, October 13, 2016,;

[xiv] “China Considers Sending Peacekeepers to Contested Border”, The Economist: Intelligence Unit, July 25, 2017,

[xv] “Russia Plans to Stomp Out Terrorism in Somalia”, Middle East Monitor, September 20, 2017,; Michele Nichols, “U.S. Threatens South Sudan Action, Russia Warns Against U.N. Measures”, November 28, 2017,

[xvi] “Press Round Table With Acting Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto”, United States Embassy in Ethiopia, December 8, 2017,

[xvii] Lefebvre, Jeffrey A. “Iran in the Horn of Africa: Outflanking US Allies.” Middle East Policy Council 19, no.2 (2012). (accessed December 25, 2017).

[xviii] Zeeshan Aleem, “Here’s Why North Korea’s Economy is Able to Survive Sanction After Sanction”, Vox, December 7, 2017,; James Pearson and Rozanna Latiff, “North Korea spy Agency Runs Arms Operation Out of Malaysia, U.N. Say”, Reuters, February 26, 2017,


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