The former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Herman J. (Hank) Cohen wrote an important article in African Arguments entitled “Time to Bring Eritrea in From the Cold.” For those involved in policy formulation and implementation in the Horn of Africa it is a “must read.”
In a few short and lucid paragraphs Ambassador Cohen reviews the sorry history since 1997 of the tangled relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with the complications posed by Somalia and al-Shabaab, the jihadist organization with ties to al-Qaeda, and the U.S. response. By 2008, the administration of President George W. Bush determined that Eritrea was a “state sponsor of terrorism” and imposed sanctions. Subsequently, President Barack Obama’s administration said that Eritrea allowed arms shipments to be delivered to al-Shabaab. In 2009, the administration sponsored a UN Security Council resolution (UNSC 1907) that in effect made Eritrea the international pariah it is today.
But, times change. Cohen recalls that “all available intelligence” indicates no Eritrean contact with al-Shabaab since 2009. Further, as Cohen points out, Eritrea is fearful of Islamic radicalism. There are signs of a warming in the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This confluence provides a special opportunity for a new approach to Eritrea with positive implications for the Horn of Africa. Normal relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea would be a win-win not only for both countries economically as well as politically, but also for the Horn of Africa region.
How to move forward? Specifically, Cohen suggests that a European member of the Security Council should propose the repeal of UNSC 1907, and the United States should agree to abstain. He also proposes a face-saving solution to the long standing border issues between Ethiopia and Eritrea, to be mediated by a neutral European nation.
Cohen shows that the benefits for U.S. policy would be significant. Normalization of Ethiopian/Eritrean relations would open the space for the United States and others to encourage better governance in both countries, and military cooperation between the United States and Eritrea could materially assist in the struggle against jihadi terrorism in the region.
Ambassador Cohen makes a compelling case for a rethink of U.S. policy in the Horn and he proposes a practical strategy for moving forward.