Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

Return to Iraq War index page

October 29, 2002

US Moves Toward Pre-Positioning in the Horn, Ready for Iraq

Exclusive. Analysis. By GIS Staff. The US Defense Department has been moving to place a US Marine Divisional headquarters in Djibouti, in the Red Sea, and has been engaged in detailed discussions with the Government of Eritrea regarding the prepositioning of US forces and matériel in the country (possibly in Assab, Massawa and/or Asmara), in readiness for operations against Iraqi forces loyal to Pres. Saddam Hussein. 

It is understood that the US hoped to be able to launch airlifts of forces and strike aircraft from bases in Djibouti and Eritrea against Iraq by overflying the Red Sea and then Saudi Arabia. However, there are grave concerns that Saudi Arabia would not permit overflights by US forces in a US-led conflict against Iraq, unless such a conflict was expressly ordered by the United Nations Security Council. However, it is believed that the US has also been looking at such options of flying up the Red Sea and then up the Gulf of Aqaba and across Jordanian air space and into Iraq.

It is understood that the French Government had been working closely with the US to ensure a smooth cooperative basis for the US Marine Corps advance HQ deployment to Djibouti, which is the location for a long-standing deployment of French ground, naval and air force elements.

The US moves to rebuild relations with Eritrea come at a critical time for the Government of Pres. Isayas Afewerke, who had become increasingly desperate in the wake of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war which had left Eritrea without access to trade from Ethiopia. Eritrea’s economy had been substantially based on the re-sale of Ethiopian coffee to the world market. Ethiopian coffee exports now go almost exclusively through Djibouti. The Eritrean economy, already substantially in ruins from the massive war expenses, has shown little sign of recovery, which has meant that Pres. Isayas’ position has been sustained only by increasing repression against any political opposition.

Compounding the Eritrean political problem — and Pres. Isayas’ position — has been the worsening drought in the Horn of Africa. The UN World Food Program on October 28, 2002, launched an urgent appeal to provide emergency relief food to countries in the Horn of Africa, where more than 12-million people were reported threatened with starvation over the coming months. Recent joint WFP, donor and government assessment missions across Ethiopia reveal widespread losses of maize and sorghum crops, the staple foods for most rural people. Malnutrition rates have reached alarming levels in some areas. In Eritrea poor rainfall since October 2001 has meant that cereal planting was delayed and was not as extensive as usual. Recent estimates indicate an almost complete loss in the country’s cereal harvest.

As well, on October 24, 2002, Hiruy Tedla Bairu, the new secretary-general of an alliance of Eritrean opposition forces, said that his alliance aimed to set up a “democratically elected administration” in Eritrea as soon as possible, noting at the end of a conference convened by the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF) in Addis Ababa: “Our resolve is to remove the dictatorship in Asmara in the shortest possible time with the least possible damage and set up a democratically elected administration.” The conference, which brought together some 14 opposition groups, also elected Abdella Idris — leader of the Eritrean Liberation Front independence movement — as AENF chairman.

Significantly, although Pres. Isayas of Eritrea had, in recent months, been increasingly critical of the US, which had appeared to abandon the Eritrean Administration as it became increasingly repressive, he is now dependent on Washington to provide a lifeline against the increasing challenges. Ironically, the Ethiopian Government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has gone to great lengths in recent months to identify with the US and the US-led “war on terror”, now faces the prospect of being isolated and rejected by Washington, which needs the geopolitical asset base of Eritrea as part of its positioning for the war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein.

As a result, Pres. Isayas, who has been railing against the US, may be propped up by Washington, while Prime Minister Meles, who had been moving away from his earlier marxism and toward total support for the US, may be abandoned by Washington. But despite this short-term, tactical maneuvering, Eritrea’s medium-term strategic fundamentals remain weak, while Ethiopia’s are gaining in strength and, in the medium-term, Ethiopia retains control of the heartland of the Horn of Africa, as well as the success of Djibouti’s economy. 

US abandonment of Ethiopia in favor of short-term dependence on Eritrea will need to be weighed against longer-term interests in the Horn of Africa. Significantly, however, it currently appeared as though short-term needs — the requirement to build up for the Iraq campaign — was already militating against a balanced US strategy in the Horn.

Current US actions were designed, during the week leading up to October 28, 2002, to end the period of hostilities between Asmara and Washington. The US State Department on October 21, 2002, was forced to dismiss allegations it had tried to overthrow the Government of President Isayas. On October 18, 2002, the Eritrean Government had reacted strongly to a statement by the State Department earlier that week accusing it of human rights violations. An Eritrean Foreign Ministry statement said that Eritrea “totally rejected” the remarks and accused the US of “unwarranted intervention”. It went on to claim that officials from the previous US Administration had, during the two-year border war with Ethiopia, used the CIA to “unlawfully change the [Eritrean] Government”.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher denied the allegations, noting on October 21, 2002: “We have called on the government to change its ways, but no, we're not trying to overthrow it.” On October 17, 2002, he put out a statement in connection with the continued detention of two Eritrean employees of the US Embassy in Asmara, calling on the Government “to respect fundamental human rights”.