By William Tucker
Geopolitically speaking, there are certain areas around the globe that are prone to conflict. While it is true that conflict of any kind is ongoing, there is a short list of competing nation-state actors that gather more attention than other conflict prone areas. The reason being is that these competitions that are under wider scrutiny have a habit of turning into something more catastrophic. That is, they often consume peripheral players in the region, and indeed the world. Perhaps most the most notable competitions are between Russia and the U.S., or perhaps between Germany and France. Nations such as China and Japan should not be ignored either. This is not to say that these competitions are static, or even completely linear; however these fault lines exist for a reason. One area that I consider to be of particular concern centers on Ethiopia, at least for the moment. This is not because Ethiopia is a great power, or that what happens in Addis Abba will shake the world; rather it is of concern because the chaos that emanates from the region can move beyond Africa. It is the type of chaos that some would seek to exploit, or perhaps, consume the attention and resources away from initiatives elsewhere. Indeed, even the most powerful nation in the world is limited in what resources it can apply to the Middle East and the rest of Asia. The destabilization of yet another region, in its entirety, may not be manageable by the U.S., or anybody else, thus resulting in a protracted conflict.
Before we get to the recent Ethiopian incursion it is important to discuss the current context that presents this concern. Eritrea and Ethiopia fought an extended conflict that finally ended in 1991, but the conflict was reignited once again in 1998 and didn’t end until 2000. Although the fighting was ended, the underlying issue was not. Ethiopia, along with many other nations, has accused Eritrea of supporting militancy in the surrounding region, thus providing the impetus for the recent Ethiopian incursion. What separates this instance from the war that ended twelve years ago is the offensive against al-Shabaab in Somalia and the recent splitting of Sudan.* While the nations in Africa’s horn have long been unstable, this recent situation presents a unique challenge. The African Union, with U.S. backing, has taken an aggressive role in Somalia. African nations such as Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia all have supplied troops to Somalia and the reigniting of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia may pull the strong Ethiopian presence away from Somalia should a more conventional conflict break out. For its part, Eritrea may well use its connections to militants in the region to relieve pressure from the Ethiopians. This could include the two Sudan’s and Somalia. Further undermining efforts would be the unstable situation in Egypt to the north and Yemen to the east. Yemen is a unique case because it is rather unstable, but also happens to be a popular destination for refugees escaping Africa’s violence.
Eritrea has responded to the Ethiopian incursion by stating that it will not fight back, but how could it not?** A nation-state, regardless of what prompted the military action, cannot sit back while an adversary enters its borders on multiple occasions. Popular unrest, even in a police state such as Eritrea, can force the government to respond to the Ethiopian incursion in kind. In any event, it is more likely that Eritrea will pull back and try to remove the incentive for Ethiopia to continue its countermilitancy operations in the short term. How Ethiopia would respond is unknown, but it would be tough for Addis Ababa not to take advantage of the opening and hit Eritrean backed militants hard. If that occurs it would almost be a guarantee that Eritrea would be forced to try and repel Ethiopian forces at the very minimum. All told, Ethiopian incursions are seen as necessary, but could spark a larger, more devastating conflict in a region, and its surrounding areas, that are as unstable as ever. With the Arab uprising, a standoff over Iran, and an escalating conflict stretching from Kenya to Libya, the U.S. and its NATO allies may not be able to step in and stabilize the situation.
*Militants supported by Sudan against border villages with South Sudan have not receded as some expected. The problem is that the two countries may have split, but it did nothing to remove the reasons behind the conflict to begin with. Eritrea has been accused of supporting Khartoum’s policies by aiding in smuggling weapons and other goods in violation of international sanctions.
**Eritrea has a interest in prolonging the militant conflicts in Somalia and the Sudans. Should the international community make headway, and possibly stabilize these two situations, that would leave Eritrea as the profound problem in Africa’s horn. With that could come more intense international pressure unless Eritrea could cut a deal. At the moment, that seems a bit far fetched.