Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden: Lessons from an Obscure Cold War Flashpoint in Africa
Figure 1: Former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selaisse
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, once quipped that “SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.” The Ogaden War (1977–1978) between Somalia and Ethiopia upended the Cold War geostrategic balance in the Horn of Africa, and bore tragic consequences for the region that linger today. While many observers associate the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve of 1979 with the end of détente, historians now recognize that it was the Soviet intervention in the Ogaden conflict, for American decision-makers like Brzezinski and Carter, that precipitated the end of this era. Three decades later, the Horn is once again a potential flashpoint of global competition — this time between the United States and China.
Examining the Ogaden crisis offers key insights for this new era. First, East African states will remain motivated foremost by domestic considerations and calculations of their own regional interests. Competition among, and within, regional powers in the Horn of Africa will likely continue to transcend the wishes of distant superpowers. However, East African leaders will remain closely attuned to the emerging Sino-American competition and will seek to exploit this dynamic to advance their agendas.
Recent policy pronouncements that seek to place “great power competition” at the center of American interests in Africa risk exacerbating this tendency. Examination of the Cold War in the Horn suggests that such threat-based definitions of American interests will likely cede leverage to regional actors with costly results. Broadly considered, competing with China in Africa should not become an interest in and of itself, detached from how Chinese activities in Africa might actually threaten American security and prosperity. As the tragedy of the Ogaden War illustrates, such a zero-sum approach would be inherently destabilizing, counterproductive to long-term U.S. interests, and ultimately dangerous.
The Ogaden Crisis
In 1973, Ethiopia, under Emperor Haile Selaisse (pictured above), represented a stalwart American regional partner. Ethiopia hosted a major U.S. military and communications facility at Kagnew and received a foreign military assistance package that included F-86 and F-5 fighter jets. Somalia, meanwhile, was firmly in the Soviet sphere under the regime of Siad Barre. Somalia hosted a Soviet naval and air base at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden that menaced the oil fields of the Gulf States and the Bab el-Mandeb maritime choke point. Somalia also received extensive Soviet equipment and assistance. The Ogaden War totally reversed this strategic alignment. By 1983, Ethiopia recieved over $2.3 billion in Soviet equipment, the largest Soviet military assistance program in sub-Saharan Africa, while Somalia aligned itself with the Western powers.
The rapid upending of allegiances in the region confounded contemporary observers and frustrated the efforts of the superpowers to impose their Cold War frameworks on the region. The roots of this realignment lay in Somalia’s irredentist claims to the Ogaden region, another corner of the globe where history, ethnicity, and culture clashed with colonial-era boundaries. Ogaden Somalis held deep ties with their kin on the Ethiopian side of the border, who shared a strong sense of Somali identity. Since Somalia’s independence in 1960, Mogadishu had supported various Ogaden rebellions against the ruling Ethiopian government. The 1974 overthrow of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia by a clique of young Marxist officers known as the “Derg,” or Committee, shook what had previously been a relatively stable regional order. As political unrest overcame Ethiopia and the Derg grew increasingly radical, ethnic insurgencies by Eritreans, Oromos, Tigrayans, Afars, and Ogadens flared on the peripheries of the former Ethiopian empire. Eritrea, which been in various degrees of rebellion since 1960, was home to the most serious insurgency. The burden of these simultaneous rebellions placed a massive strain on the military resources of the revolutionary Ethiopian state.
Fearful of losing Ethiopia to the Soviet orbit, American arms shipments continued, albeit in diminished quantities, after the fall of Selassie. The Marxist Derg, which required huge volumes of military equipment to meet the threat of the Eritrean insurgency, maintained this relationship while simultaneously reaching out to the Soviets for assistance. While the Soviet Union began to answer some of the Derg’s urgent requests for arms, Mogadishu remained Moscow’s primary partner in the region. In fact, a 1976 CIA analysis assessed that in the event of war, “the Soviets would have little choice but to support their clients in Mogadicio [sic]” while the Ethiopians “would almost certainly ask for additional US assistance.”
Instability in Ethiopia presented Somalia with an opportunity to realize its dream of a “Greater Somalia” that incorporated ethnic Somalis living in Ethiopia. Barre’s regime initially sought to achieve this goal through irregular warfare. In early 1975, the Somali state helped restructure the Ogaden insurgency as the Western Somali Liberation Front in order to establish greater political and military control. According to a CIA study conducted after the war, the group “obtained virtually all of its training, arms, supplies, and funds through the Somali government.” By May 1977, these insurgents controlled the majority of the lowland Ogaden region. The Ethiopian government in these regions existed in a state of siege and effectively ceded control over the countryside. The insurgents even destroyed a critical bridge on the Addis Ababa-Dijbouti railway, a line which carried over 40 percent of Ethiopia’s exports and half of its imports. Meanwhile, Soviet officials advised the Derg to focus their military efforts on the insurgency in Eritrea, and assured their new Ethiopian comrades that they could restrain their Somali clients from mounting a conventional invasion of the Ogaden.
The World Turned Upside Down
Despite the successes of the Ogaden insurgents, Barre grew increasingly impatient with the slow pace and indecisive nature of the irregular campaign. After conventional assaults by guerillas in the spring of 1977 failed to secure any major towns, Somalia began preparations to deploy conventional forces to achieve its political goal of unifying all Ogaden Somalis under the Somali state. In brazen defiance of Moscow, the Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained Somali National Army (SNA) invaded the Ogaden in July 1977. The speed and combined-arms character of the Somali advance overwhelmed the underequipped Ethiopian units stationed in the barren plains of the Ogaden desert. However, after a 700-kilometer advance, the Somali formations approached the cities and towns of the Harar plateau, a more mountainous and multiethnic region on the western edge of the Ogaden. Here, their assault sputtered. Ethiopian resistance stiffened, enabled by the urban and mountainous terrain. Meanwhile, logistical difficulties hamstrung Somali mechanized formations. In the skies, the outnumbered Ethiopian Air Force, relying on superior training and American-made AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, wrested air supremacy from the Somalis. After seizing Jijiga in fierce fighting, the Somali invasion stalled once again outside Harar, a town of 48,000 and the home to Ethiopia’s prestigious Harar Military Academy. The four-month battle over Harar (September 1977–January 1978) allowed the Soviets to take stock of the bizarre Marxist-on-Marxist war and assess their interests in light of Somalia’s reckless behavior.
By August 1977, the Soviets began to come down firmly, and publicly, in support of Ethiopia. The Soviets sharply reduced aid to Barre in hope of forcing him into a peace agreement that would allow the Soviets to maintain their relationships with both Ethiopia and Somalia. However, continued Soviet support for Barre’s opponents enraged the Somali president, who expelled all Soviet advisors from Somalia in November 1977. Barre believed that this expulsion would open an instant and much-needed deluge of arms from the new administration in Washington.
Cold War Paradigms and Missed Opportunities
Members of Carter’s national security team entered the Horn crisis with widely divergent perspectives on the utility of détente and U.S.-Soviet competition in the so-called “Third World.” While such divisions are typical of the early phases of an administration, the policy differences and power struggles between Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance prevented a coherent and decisive response to the crisis. Brzezinski, a Cold War hawk, believed that the Soviet Union had taken advantage of American weakness in the post-Vietnam era to rapidly advance its Marxist agenda in the Third World. In contrast, Vance sought to capitalize on détente with the Soviets to achieve breakthroughs in priority areas such as arms control. Vance also vowed to avoid underestimating the nationalist character of revolutionary movements, a sin he believed doomed his predecessor, Henry Kissinger, to a fruitless and prestige-harming intervention in the Angolan civil war.
These contradictory visions prevented a strong, coherent response to the initial Somali invasion in July 1977. The State Department issued what one historian described as a “watered-down reprimand” of the illegal Somali invasion of Ethiopia. The National Security Council walked back a stronger Vance-supported draft in order to avoid alienating Barre, who Brzezinski believed might be pried out of the Soviet orbit. Barre received this and other U.S. signals as approval of his invasion and a portent of future military assistance. Blinded by opportunism, “the administration just could not move beyond the Cold War mindset,” historian Louise Prentis Woodruff later wrote.
In the summer of 1977, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union attempted to resolve the crisis bilaterally, despite the interests of both superpowers in a hasty cessation of hostilities and the restoration of the status quo ante. The Soviets likely surmised that by reducing aid to Barre and increasing aid to Ethiopia, they could force Barre to the negotiating table. Had this gambit succeeded, the Soviets might have retained their base at Berbera and frozen the United States out of both the peace process and the region, mimicking Kissinger’s virtuoso performance that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Acting alone, however, the Soviets could not restrain their erstwhile Somali partners.
Decisive Soviet Intervention
The Soviet decision to massively intervene in favor of the Ethiopians in the late fall of 1977 caught the Carter administration flat-footed. Soviet aid and advisors, many of whom flew directly from Mogadishu, poured into Ethiopia by air and sea. In four months, the Soviets provided over 100,000 tons of military equipment, three times the existing Ethiopian stock, and over 1,000 advisors, led by the deputy commander of all Soviet ground forces. Perhaps most critically, 17,000 Cuban combat troops, including many veterans of the Angolan conflict, arrived to decisively tip the military balance in favor of the Ethiopians. Cuban formations quickly made their presence felt when they stonewalled a final Somali attack on Harar in January 1978.
One month later, the newly internationalized Ethiopian forces, which included Cuban mechanized brigades; a South Yemeni tank battalion; and Cuban-piloted MiGs, Sukhois, and Mi-8 helicopters unleashed a massive counterattack. Facing relentless combined arms assaults on multiple axes, the SNA lost Jijiga and fled eastward. When the Somalis committed their only strategic reserve, a mechanized brigade, to stabilize the situation, Cuban pilots decimated the formation from the air as it crossed the open desert. With his army expelled from the Ogaden in tatters, Barre repeated his urgent calls for Western military aid.
The Horn Heats Up the Global Cold War and Ends Détente
The shock of the Soviet intervention exacerbated the divisions within the U.S. government and ultimately led Carter to endorse Brzezinski’s more confrontational Cold War perspective. Brzezinski later wrote that the Soviets “embarked on a repetition” of their Angolan playbook in the Horn in violation of the spirit of détente. In retrospect, however, much of the crisis of détente stemmed from mutual misperceptions of its meaning in Moscow and Washington.
According to the superb Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad, the Soviets thought détente, as formulated during the Nixon-Kissinger era, allowed each side to both “intervene in areas where local revolutions were coming under threat” and “keep Third World policies separate from their bilateral relationship.” While the Soviets believed they held the upper hand in what they called the “Global South” in the 1970s after successes in Vietnam and Angola, they did not believe that intervention in defense of a Marxist regime facing an illegal invasion represented a departure from the norms of détente. Carter, in contrast, felt blindsided by Soviet behavior in Ethiopia as he believed détente incorporated principles of non-intervention. The Horn of Africa, lacking the established treaty relationships, norms of superpower behavior, or channels of East-West communication that characterized competition in other regions, provided the perfect context for a crisis to expose this mutual misunderstanding.
The Ogaden War unleashed a chain of events with apocalyptic consequences for East Africa — many of which endure today. Barre’s regime sputtered after its defeat. With his prestige in free-fall and the hoped-for Western assistance limited, Barre attempted to levy new taxes. This sparked widespread discontentment among clans and ultimately led to a civil war that catalyzed the overthrow of Barre. The civil war left Somalia a failed state for decades. Meanwhile, the Derg, flush with confidence from victory and continued Soviet backing, pushed an ambitious program that included collectivization, the introduction of intensive farming methods, and the nationalization of forest areas. These reforms, combined with a drought, decimated Ethiopian agricultural output and sparked a severe food shortage. By 1985, an estimated one million Ethiopians had perished in what a BBC reporter famously described as a “biblical famine.”
Digging Lessons from the Sands of the Ogaden
Many of the leading storylines of today’s Horn echo narratives from the Ogaden crisis. Great powers, now the United States and China, once again jockey for military bases on the strategic Gulf of Aden through which approximately 15 percent of global maritime traffic travels, including over 4.7 million barrels of oil daily. Whereas American strategists once worried about Soviet access to the Gulf of Aden through Berbera, Somalia, they now focus their fears on a new Chinese facility in Djibouti, its first on the African continent. Ethiopia, the most populous and second wealthiest state in the region, is again in the midst of dramatic internal changes, the outcome of which will shape the geopolitical dynamics of the region for decades.
The modern Horn also contains new dynamics that would have befuddled Cold War strategists. Economically, China represents the largest external trading parter for most East African countries. Chinese investment in the region, much of which occurs under the Belt and Road Initiative, is extensive, opaque, and closely linked to Chinese geopolitical ambitions. Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in a decade-long campaign against al-Shabaab, the deadly al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Somalia. The nuances of these modern conditions resist the blunt application of analogies from the past. Nevertheless, as former State Department Counselor Eliot Cohen wrote, historical analogies can be useful “not for the purposes of prediction, but as ways of exploring a problem.” In this tradition, the Ogaden War represents a useful vehicle to interrogate modern great power competition in the Horn of Africa.
Lesson #1: Competition can be expensive and dangerous
Past experience suggests that Horn countries will attempt to exploit the Sino-American rivalry to maximize their own power and prosperity. However, as the tragedy of Siad Barre’s Somalia illustrates, this competitive dynamic is prone to dangerous miscalculation and escalation. Djibouti is a case in point.
The Chinese presence in Djibouti, much like the Soviet base at Berbera during the Cold War, deeply unsettles U.S. officials. What has Djibouti gotten out of this militarization? A lot, in fact. In 2014, Djibouti negotiated a $25 million increase in the annual lease the United States pays for basing rights. Meanwhile, the Export-Import Bank of China loaned Djibouti nearly $1 billion dollars while Beijing has assumed funding for over 40 percent of the country’s infrastructure projects.While local officials reaped the benefits of Sino-American competition, they also increased the danger that competition will turn to confrontation.
Recent incidents in Djibouti — where U.S. military officials allege that Chinese forces used military lasers against American aircraft, injuring two pilots — illustrate the risks inherent in this environment. The Ogaden War teaches analysts and policymakers that Horn countries such as Djibouti can easily overestimate their own ability to navigate great power rivalry. As a relatively new arena of strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, the Horn of Africa lacks established treaty relationships and norms of behavior that might otherwise prevent misunderstandings, constrain great power behavior, and limit miscalculations by local powers. The tragic consequences of the Ogaden War illustrate the risks of strategic opportunism by all players in this fluid environment.
Lesson #2: It’s not a zero-sum game
Nationalism, regional balance-of-power politics, and internal political dynamics within modern Horn countries continue to transcend the binary logic of great power rivalry. The most important narratives in the region remain driven by the actions of African states themselves. These states seek great power assistance to achieve their domestic aims but will remain flexible in their loyalties.
This lesson should inform perspectives on the project of Ethiopian reform under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Abiy, now in his second year in office, has undertaken ambitious reforms to the authoritarian Ethiopian state. He ended Ethiopia’s 20-year war with Eritrea, released political prisoners, increased press freedoms, and welcomed dissidents back to the country. Ethnic tensions and political instability, however, threaten this reform agenda. An estimated 2.9 million Ethiopians are currently displaced from internal ethnic violence. The 42-year-old leader has already put down two coup attempts, one by famously challenging revolting soldiers to a push-up contest.
In this fragile environment, China and the United States are competing to shape the reform process in Ethiopia and emerge as the principal international partner to the Horn of Africa’s most populous nation. Ethiopia’s recent history and the Ogaden crisis should teach U.S. policymakers that it would be a mistake to view Ethiopia principally as a zero-sum arena for great power competition. The modern Ethiopian state has historically pursued close ties with both Beijing and Washington. For example, the regime of Prime Minister Melas Zenawi, who governed Ethiopia from 1995 until his death in 2012, simultaneously secured both extensive Chinese economic investments to revitalize its economy and U.S. security assistance in support of its counter-terrorism campaign against al-Shabaab. Abiy’s administration will likely continue to appeal to both countries as it confronts immense internal challenges.
There is serious risk that ethnic tensions, long held in check by Ethiopia’s delicate model of ethnic federalism, may overwhelm the Ethiopian state or reverse the gains of the Abiy era. Viewed from this lens, every Chinese project in Ethiopia is not necessarily a threat to U.S. interests or influence. Both U.S. and Chinese interests in the Horn are advanced by a stable, prosperous Ethiopian state that is at peace with its neighbors, open for foreign investment, and engaged in the regional campaign against al-Shabaab.
Rivalry and the Way Ahead
Given these lessons and the similarities to the contemporary geopolitical environment, it is vital that the United States define its interests in the Horn independent of Chinese activities. Competing with China in Africa should not become an interest in and of itself, unmoored from how Beijing’s activities in Africa might actually threaten American security and prosperity. While select actions, such as construction of the Djibouti base, may endanger American interests, not all Chinese actions in the Horn are inherently threatening, and some activities may be complementary. As the former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Africa Judd Devermont testified to Congress, “There are better ways to advance U.S. interests than criticism and knee-jerk opposition.” The Ogaden crisis shows that reflexively defining U.S. interests in Africa and elsewhere in opposition to a great power rival can encourage regional leaders to play both sides in an attempt to maximize their own internal and regional positions. The tragedy of Said Barre’s Somalia, however, should highlight the risks inherent in such an environment for regional actors who find themselves courted by both Washington and Beijing.
During the Ogaden crisis, Cold War attitudes pushed American decision-makers into a series of choices that ignored the inconvenient nuances of regional politics, and encouraged destabilizing behaviors by would-be partners for the sake of gaining an advantage against the Soviet threat. Paradoxically, this zero-sum, threat-based conceptualization of U.S. interests degraded the American strategic position in the Horn and simultaneously threatened progress on wider détente-era priorities, such as strategic arms control. In the new competition with China, similarly opportunistic zero-sum strategies will be at best expensive and at worst dangerous for U.S. interests — and potentially devastating for the nations caught in-between.
Sam Wilkins is an active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces officer. Sam previously served as a Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha Commander in Somalia and Nigeria and as an Infantry Platoon leader in Afghanistan. Sam is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and is currently a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, Johns Hopkins SAIS, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.