“The United States and Somalia, 1977-1990” is Part 3 of the “Arms for the Horn,” a book about Great Power Competition or how the Cold War played out in the Horn of Africa, particularly from an American Foreign Policy perspective. 


U.S. Security Policy In Ethiopia And Somalia


Jeffrey A. Lefebvre

Pitt Series in Policy and Institutional Studies

University of Pittsburgh Press

PART III – The United States And Somalia, 1977-1990


The United States and Somalia, 1977-1990

CHAPTER 9: The 1977-78 Ogaden War and U.S. Arms Rebuff

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As U.S.-Ethiopia relations continued to decay in the spring of 1977, the Carter administration began to consider offsetting Washington’s impending loss of position in Ethiopia by moving into Somalia. Mogadishu had already begun exploring the possibility of having the United States replace Moscow as its main arms supplier. Somalia’s approach had captured the attention of Jimmy Carter, who had taken a special interest in the Horn of Africa. During his first few weeks in office, Carter spent hours in government briefings and diplomatic discussions with Anwar Sadat, Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and various European leaders about the maneuverings in the region, and read voluminous studies that he had ordered about the area. Thus he certainly understood the political and strategic implications of what was happening in the Horn as well as the potential for conflict between Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia and Somalia.

In March 1977 a memorandum sent by Vice President Walter Mondale to President Carter advocating a U.S. -Somali rapprochement was rebutted by the NSC’s Horn specialist, Paul Henze, who warned of the dangers of becoming involved in Somalia. Nonetheless, in early April, in the presence of a news correspondent for Time magazine, Carter instructed Vice President Mondale, “Tell Cy [Vance] and Zbig [Brzezinsky] that I want them to move in every possible way to get Somalia to be our friend.” Little happened until after Ethiopia had signed a second arms agreement with Moscow in May. The resulting fallout from this accord was that Mogadishu recognized a shift was occurring in Soviet policy and the White House became more interested in levering the Soviets out of Somalia. In June, a private backchannel was established between Jimmy Carter and Somalia’s President Siyad Barre.

On June 16, a few days after a secret White House message had been delivered through this private channel to Siyad Barre, the Somali ambassador met with President Carter and presented an urgent request for U.S. military assistance. The president informed the ambassador that although it would be difficult at the time to provide military aid, Washington would encourage its allies to help Somalia maintain its defensive strength. Apparently interpreting this response as a “forthcoming attitude,” Mogadishu made a specific request for arms on July 9. Six days later, President Carter approved a decision “in principle” to cooperate with other countries in helping Somalia meet its defense requirements. On July 25 the Somali ambassador was informed that the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States had agreed in principle to supply Somalia with defensive arms. The next day Secretary of State Cyrus Vance announced the decision.

It appeared briefly that the Carter administration had executed a bold diplomatic coup by at once establishing a foothold in Somalia and countering the Soviet position in Ethiopia without endangering broader, long-term U.S. interests in Africa. A week after Secretary Vance’s announcement, however, it became apparent that Washington had miscalculated Somalia’s ultimate intent when Somali regular forces were positively identified in the Ogaden. Several days before Vance’s arms announcement, and unknown to U.S. officials, Somali government forces had entered the Ogaden and were fighting alongside Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) guerrillas to help liberate the territory from Ethiopian control. Because of travel restrictions on American officials in Somalia, the U.S. embassy did not know what was going on. Besides the usual tensions along the border, there was no sign that something out of the ordinary might occur; Siyad Barre cleverly hid his attack by personally delivering the invasion orders to Somali units, traveling at night to remain undetected. Although U.S. intelligence analysts already suspected before Vance’s announcement that regular Somali forces were in the Ogaden with the WSLF, once the extent of Somalia’s attack was confirmed in early August, White House enthusiasm for helping Somalia abruptly ended.

Washington’s reaction was swift and, from Modagishu’s perspective, ultimately quite damaging to the Somali war effort in the Ogaden. At the State Department, it was assumed that because it had been made clear from the start that the United States would not give Somalia weapons to attack or destabilize its neighbors, in accepting the U.S. aid offer Mogadishu had understood and would abide by Washington’s terms. By their action, the Somalis showed that they could not be trusted. On August 4, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Richard Moose told Somalia’s ambassador that while the U.S. agreement in principle still stood, it could not be implemented under the circumstances. The Somali military delegation, which was in Washington August 5-9 to discuss U.S. military assistance, was informed that no American weapons would be forthcoming as long as Somali soldiers continued to fight in the area. To further emphasize its opposition to Somalia’s military adventure, the administration relayed a message to the Somali ambassador on August 18 that the United States also would not approve of third-party transfers of U.S. weapons as long as Somali forces were in the Ogaden.

The United States And Somalia, 1977-1990
Western Somalia Liberation Front guerillas mass together in Ethiopian Ogaden, united in a cry of victory, “Gwl”. The struggle continues with Ethiopians for the control of Ogaden, and the Somalian government turns a blind eye to the theft of nutritional aid packages sent to the refugee camps in Somalia from overseas . | Location: Ogaden, Ethiopia. (Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Despite Washington’s refusal to implement its arms offer, Somalia continued to press ahead in the Ogaden. In fact, Somali forces met with considerable success in the early going and by mid-September were occupying nearly 80 percent of the Ogaden. The political upheaval in Addis Ababa, along with the insurrections in surrounding provinces and the escalating civil war in Eritrea, gave Somalia an opportunity to exploit Ethiopia’s momentary weakness and seize the Ogaden. So long as the Somalis continued their invasion and military triumphs, arms discussions between Washington and Mogadishu were moot.

Despite Somalia’s early battlefield successes, it was evident by mid-October that Mogadishu would not achieve the quick, decisive victory Siyad Barre had sought in the Ogaden. Soviet military aid, which had made the Somali invasion possible in the first place, had been reduced and then completely cut off in mid-October. The Somali offensive also faced logistical problems: the Somali National Army (SNA) and WSLF forces were operating along overextended supply lines and were beginning to run out of ammunition and spare parts. A stalemate ensued as the combined Somali forces were unable to seize the key Dire Dawa airbase or the strategically important town of Harar. Then in November, with the appearance of several hundred Cuban military advisers alongside Ethiopian forces and increased Soviet aid to the PMAC, the tide of war turned against Somalia. At the end of November, Moscow began a massive military airlift that within several months brought an estimated $1 billion worth of Soviet arms supplies and some 17,000 Cuban troops to Ethiopia. Although the situation was now becoming desperate for the Somalis, Siyad Barre refused to order his army’s withdrawal from the Ogaden, apparently believing he could now persuade the United States and other Western powers to intervene on his behalf. However, the Western powers had reached a consensus at a meeting in London on November 10 not to help Somalia, nor to meditate or take the matter to the UN Security Council, even though it then seemed likely that the Somalis would be expelled from the Ogaden as a result of the increasing level of Soviet-Cuban military support for the Ethiopian war effort.

Despite frequent and urgent pleas by Mogadishu and several of Somalia’s Middle Eastern friends for the United States to provide weapons after Somalia had ended its Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union and broken diplomatic relations with Cuba in mid-November 1977, Washington refused to become involved except to urge Somalia to withdraw from the Ogaden and seek a negotiated settlement. Perhaps the greatest temptation for the Carter administration to reverse its position arose in February 1978 as Ethiopian and Cuban forces were driving toward the Somali border, raising the specter that they might take the offensive into Somalia. While some top-ranking officials, most notably National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, considered various military options, the administration refrained from intervening beyond seeking assurances from the Ethiopian government that it would not send its forces across the border and keeping the pressure on Moscow to hold them back.

Despite Soviet-Cuban involvement in the war, the Carter administration refused to budge from its original position that Somalia had to disengage from the Ogaden and promise not to invade again before the United States would consider any request for military assistance. Repeated and desperate Somali requests for help were refused by Washington, as Barre continued to resist withdrawing his forces. On March 7, Ambassador John Loughran delivered a very strong and blunt message from the White House to Siyad Barre. Jimmy Carter told the Somali president, “Leave Ethiopia now, or take responsibility for further pointless bloodshed, face certain military defeat and sacrifice all hope of later American aid.” By this time 8,000 Somali troops had been killed, three-fourths of the tank force destroyed, half of the Somali Air Force was out of commission, and no help was on the horizon. Following a phone conversation with President Carter on March 8 in which Siyad Barre was forced to confront “the coldest kind of reality,” the Somali Army was ordered to withdraw from the Ogaden. By March 14 the Somali withdrawal was virtually complete, although WSLF guerrilla activity continued in the area.


Mogadishu’s decision to invade Ethiopia in the summer of 1977 was the product of a rational calculation based upon erroneous assumptions. Ethiopian forces were stretched thin at the time, combating insurgents in Eritrea and the Ogaden. Political upheaval in other provinces and in Addis Ababa itself, as the Dergue directed the “red terror” campaign against civilian opposition groups, provided a further cover by diverting the attention and resources of the Ethiopian military government from Somalia’s preparation for war. The instability resulting from Ethiopia’s revolutionary transition appeared to present a unique opportunity for Somalia to annex the Ogaden. Given the deteriorating political and military situation in Ethiopia during the late summer of 1977, the liberation of the Ogaden, as well as the emergence of an independent Eritrea, were likely scenarios.

But Somalia’s assessment was also premised on the belief that the Soviet Union would not take sides, or intervene in such a manner as to upset this scenario. Because Soviet influence in Somalia was so pervasive, it seemed unlikely that Moscow would risk its predominant political position and strategic assets for an unsure situation in Ethiopia. Moscow had provided Mogadishu with several hundred million dollars worth of arms over the previous five years and was involved in training the Somali armed forces and internal National Security Service. East bloc diplomats and advisers had easy access to senior members of the Somali government and were well informed on what was going on in Mogadishu. To give one measure of the intrusive Soviet presence, there were 3,000 Russians in Somalia— one for every 1,000 Somalis. Moreover, given the Soviet stake in the military base facility at Berbera, which gave Moscow the ability to control access to the Red Sea and to conduct surveillance of U.S. naval operations in the Arabian Sea, the Kremlin would refrain from taking any drastic action that might risk this investment. It also seemed unlikely that the Soviet Union would turn against a government with a pronounced commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology. Thus, even after Moscow had decided to arm both Ethiopia and Somalia if forced to choose sides, the Soviets were expected to choose the safe course and remain neutral or to side with its traditional Somali ally.

When the Somali invasion of the Ogaden began in late July, it was imperative that the Soviet Union maintain at least a neutral policy in the Ethiopian-Somali conflict, especially once the Carter administration made clear its unwillingness to supply U.S. weapons. The refusal of other Western states to supply arms meant that in the short term the Ethiopian-Somali War would be fought between Somalia’s Soviet-built military and Ethiopia’s U.S.-supplied and partially Soviet-armed military. Under the circumstances, the military balance seemed to favor Somalia. However, while Mogadishu seemed able to make an independent political decision to initiate war, its ability to sustain and wage war successfully depended heavily on Soviet support and cooperation. The Somali Aeronautical Corps (SAC), in particular, were extremely dependent upon the continued supply of spare parts, ammunition, and maintenance mechanics from the Soviet Union to keep in operation the sixty-six combat aircraft in the Somali Air Force, which included forty-four MiG-15s and MiG-17s and twelve MiG-21s. Moreover, in defecting to the Ethiopian side, the Soviets brought with them intimate knowledge of Somalia’s armed forces, order of battle, capabilities, and deficiencies.

As the primary arms supplier for both combatants, and with the United States on the sidelines, the Soviet Union could act as the sole arbiter of the conflict in the Ogaden. Unfortunately for the Somalis, Moscow elected to support only Ethiopia, and very forcefully, by closing the arms pipeline to Somalia on October 19 and by implementing an emergency arms airlift to Ethiopia and introducing Cuban ground forces at the end of November. Without Western military intervention, the outcome of the war was now a foregone conclusion. Siyad Barre had made an enormous political miscalculation in assuming (1) that the West would come to Somalia’s aid, thus supporting Somali aggression in the Ogaden, and (2) that Moscow would remain neutral.

Moscow’s decision to defect to Ethiopia was evidently based on several factors. The military government in Addis Ababa seemed to be more committed than Mogadishu to Marxist-Leninist ideology; Ethiopia’s population was larger than Somalia’s; Moscow could gain an outpost on the Red Sea through continued Ethiopian control over Eritrea, as Soviet facilities at Aden and Socotra Island in South Yemen (PDRY) could replace Berbera. Given the recent defection to the West of Moscow’s other Arab clients in the Red Sea—Egypt and Sudan—and Somalia’s close ties with Cairo and Riyadh, the isolated and besieged military government in Addis Ababa would make a more dependent, and dependable client than Mogadishu. The fact that the Somali president had attempted to play off Washington against the Soviets openly, as well as behind closed doors, and that Siyad Barre continued to nurture close ties with the pro-Western governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, raised a great deal of suspicion and distrust toward Siyad Barre in the Kremlin. A Somali government subjected to the financial banishments and religious pressures of fellow Arab League members would not provide a very solid foundation for securing long-term Soviet interests in the region. Finally, Soviet intervention on behalf of Addis Ababa was in defense of the sacred OAU principle to respect other nations’ territorial integrity and might actually enhance Soviet relations in Africa.

Moscow’s decisive defection to Ethiopia in the fall of 1977 left Somalia particularly vulnerable and isolated. Mogadishu was being shunned by the Western powers. Even within the Arab League, Somalia’s cause was not widely supported; more militant and radical Arab states were inclined to back the revolutionary government in Addis Ababa. Mogadishu’s only recourse was to acquire weapons from moderate Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Egypt, as well as Iran, who feared Soviet penetration in the Red Sea region. However, they had only a limited capability to meet Somalia’s arms requirements, and their support did not provide the crucial political-psychological support that U.S. backing would lend to the Somali war effort. Consequently, the regional military balance that had allowed Mogadishu to gamble on war and then ignore the U.S. as well as Soviet calls for withdrawal had shifted back in favor of Addis Ababa and made a U.S. security connection even more critical for the preservation of Somalia.


When Somalia’s army was discovered in the Ogaden in August 1977, there was little question in Washington that this was overt aggression on the part of Mogadishu. Almost immediately a consensus emerged in the Carter administration that the United States would not provide weapons to Somalia as long as Somali regular forces remained inside Ethiopia. The State Department adopted what might be labeled an “interested observer” stance, viewing the situation as purely a local conflict that posed no direct threat to vital U.S. interests. While calling for Mogadishu to withdraw its forces from the Ogaden, Washington maintained a neutral distance by refusing to provide arms to either side.

The Carter administration had little difficulty maintaining a public posture of benign neutrality during the first phase of what was generally viewed as a local war between two Soviet client states. But below the surface, there was much uncertainty and division among top-ranking U.S. officials regarding the degree of threat posed to Western interests by the Soviet and Cuban presence in Ethiopia, the region’s overall strategic value in light of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the emergence of Africa as the newest East-West ideological battleground, the implications of the Horn’s location near the Middle East oil fields, and what course of action to follow. This schism within the administration, festering since late summer 1977, publicly surfaced as Cuban combat operations began to expand in mid-November. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in particular, felt that the Cuban military deployments had to be assessed in the context of U.S. -Soviet relations and that an American response of some magnitude was needed.

At the start of the Ogaden crisis, Brzezinski had remained in the background and supported the State Department’s low-key diplomatic approach. But as reports began to filter into Washington in the fall of 1977 of an increase in the number of Cuban military advisers in Ethiopia and as the massive Soviet military airlift got underway, Brzezinski became alarmed. These activities, coupled with the recent expansion of Soviet political-military influence in South Yemen, convinced him that the United States would have to confront the Soviet Union in a strong manner. The situation in the Horn had now become more than a border war.

In Brzezinskfs mind there were two critical challenges to U.S. interests at stake in the Horn. Soviet advances in the area represented a serious setback in Washington’s attempt to develop with Moscow some “rules of the game” for dealing with turbulence in the Third World. These activities might also serve to give domestic political opponents of SALT II ammunition with which to undercut the Carter administration’s arms control efforts. To blunt domestic attacks on SALT II and, at the same time send notice to Moscow of Washington’s extreme displeasure, Brzezinski proposed linking Soviet-Cuban activities in the Horn with progress on the arms control treaty and the reopening of U.S.-Soviet negotiations on the demilitarization of the Indian Ocean. The NSC adviser went so far as to argue that the United States should adopt a position of open hostility toward Ethiopia and uncritically support Somalia, possibly even exploiting the situation in Eritrea to tie Moscow down in a “costly and endless struggle.” Soviet adventurism had to be made costly, else it would weaken confidence in the United States and damage the administration politically.

Brzezinskfs belief that Soviet actions were part of a larger, well-defined strategy requiring an assertive U.S. response was countered by others in the administration who, even after the Soviet-Cuban intervention, saw no grand Soviet design and considered the Soviet Union’s actions in the Horn to be simply seizing an opportunity. The Department of State saw the Horn “as a textbook case of Soviet exploitation of a local conflict.”  Moscow would ultimately fail in Ethiopia and be ousted as it had been from Sudan and Egypt, and more recently Somalia. In the meantime, the United States would work with its European allies and African nations to bring about a negotiated settlement to the dispute and keep the lines of communication open to Ethiopia, and if possible, strengthen U.S. relations with Somalia.

Thus, the State Department believed that a combination of diplomacy, negotiation, Western restraint, and sensitivity to African nationalism could resolve this local conflict. Although it was recognized that Soviet activities would influence domestic U.S. opinions of the Soviet Union, the administration’s regionalists, proponents such as Cyrus Vance, UN ambassador Andrew Young, and Richard Moose at the Africa Bureau, as well as the president himself, sought to keep the conflict in the Horn from being viewed in an East-West context. Vance opposed Brzezinski’s suggestion of linking Soviet activity in the Horn with the SALT II talks, arms control, U.S.-Soviet economic relations or high-level visits; such links might adversely affect U.S. interests and do little to alter Soviet behavior. The two officials would also come into conflict in late February 1978 over the possible use of U.S. military forces in the region. Despite continuing bureaucratic clashes within an administration now divided over how to view the Soviet Union and conflict in the Third World, in early February the State Department had brought some cohesion back to U.S. policy by formulating a five-point strategy that called for the United States to (1) work with NATO to achieve a negotiated settlement, prevent an invasion of Somalia, and obstruct any increase in Soviet-Cuban influence in the area, (2) ensure that other friends in the area—Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan—understand and support these goals and urge them on Siyad Barre, obtain a Somali agreement to withdraw, (4) lay the diplomatic and political groundwork to help Somalia defend its territory, including the supply of defensive arms after withdrawal, and (5) keep pressure on the Soviets to stop Ethiopian and Cuban forces at the Somali border and support a negotiated resolution.

There was little incentive for the United States to stick its neck out on behalf of Somalia at this time. The threat to U.S. interests posed by the war in the Horn and Soviet-Cuban intervention was seen by most U.S. officials as indirect and minimal. Vital U.S. interests were not at stake. Washington’s main concern was to ensure that the Somali Army was not completely destroyed. To avoid that scenario, Somalia would have to get out of the Ogaden. It was obvious that Siyad Barre had failed in his bid to manipulate the threat perceptions of the United States by portraying the struggle in the Horn as a war against Soviet intrusion. Instead, Washington and most of the rest of the world saw it as a local conflict in which Somalia was the aggressor.


Perhaps one of the most pivotal events of the Ogaden War, one that would have a long-term impact on U.S.-Somali relations, occurred on November 13, 1977, when Siyad Barre renounced the 1974 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. In one swift stroke, Barre terminated Soviet use of the base facilities at Berbera, ordered all Soviet military advisers to leave the country within seven days, reduced the size of the embassy staff, and broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Barre apparently hoped that this move would open the way to U.S. support and encourage friendly Middle Eastern states to come to his aid. While he succeeded in acquiring increased Arab and Iranian support, in the short term this action had no perceptible effect upon U.S.-Somali relations.

Siyad Barre first began to question the Soviet commitment to Somalia following Cuban President Fidel Castro’s March 1977 visit to the region, during which Castro proposed the creation of a Confederation of Socialist Republics to be composed of Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Somalia. However, Castro “underestimated the force of Somali irredentism and Ethiopian imperialism.” Mogadishu would only agree to the idea if the Ogaden was returned to Somalia and Eritrea was allowed to enter as a separate state. Addis Ababa immediately rejected the Somali suggestion. But it was Somalia, not Ethiopia that was viewed by the Russians and Cubans as the obstacle to this plan. As a signal of displeasure, Moscow signed a second arms agreement with Ethiopia in May, and Havana withdrew 400 Cubans from Somalia that summer.

Soon after Siyad Barre launched the Somali invasion of the Ogaden, it became apparent that Soviet sympathies would lie with Ethiopia. At the end of August 1977, Barre paid a state visit to the Soviet Union to persuade Moscow to modify its policy in the Horn. He received a cool reception and failed to gain an audience with Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Moreover, the Soviets refused to decrease arms shipments to Ethiopia or increase the flow of armaments to Somalia. As a further indication of Moscow’s tilt toward Addis Ababa, the government-controlled Soviet press began showing obvious favor toward the Ethiopian position in the war, referring to the “Somali Invasion” of Ethiopia’s territory.

While relations were deteriorating with the Soviet Union, the Somalis either deluded themselves or were led to believe that the United States was prepared to step in and take Moscow’s place as Mogadishu’s principal arms supplier. What would become a source of great misunderstanding and produce bitter feelings of betrayal on both sides was a message sent in June by Jimmy Carter to Siyad Barre by means of Dr. Kevin Cahill, a longtime personal friend, and the physician to the Somali president. The secret back-channel communique reportedly stated that because the United States had little reason to be nice to the Ethiopians, “Whatever the Somalis do in the Ogaden is their business.” The message purportedly went on to offer Mogadishu a quid pro quo whereby if Somalia dropped its territorial claims to northeast Kenya and Djibouti, Washington would “consider sympathetically Somalia’s legitimate defensive needs.” Although the State Department countered that U.S. approaches to Somalia had always been cautious and that the Somalis knew the United States would not incite or condone aggression in the region, not surprisingly Siyad Barre read the most into this message. Thus the Somalis argued that the Carter administration had given them the green light to invade the Ogaden and had then abandoned them.

Even if the United States had followed through with the July 25 agreement in principle to supply Somalia with arms, U.S. military analysts felt there were too many variables weighing against the United States’ ability to affect the outcome of the war short of massive and immediate arms transfers. Somalia’s military dependence upon the Soviet Union for spare parts and supplies was too great to be overcome in a short time. A quick change from Soviet to U.S. arms would not be feasible technically, particularly in the midst of a war. In the view of U.S. diplomats, Mogadishu had lost an opportunity to lessen its dependence on Moscow by invading the Ogaden. Once the tide had turned against Mogadishu, there was little Washington or any other outside power could do to salvage the Somali position.

Siyad Barre’s expulsion of the Soviet military presence from Somalia in November was a desperate gamble designed to gain outside support. Barre reasoned that the continuation of the treaty might inhibit others from coming to Somalia’s aid. By breaking with Moscow, he could then present the argument that he was resisting the Soviet attempt to destabilize the Horn; the argument, however, was not very convincing as long as the treaty remained in force. Moreover, Mogadishu’s treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union was of little value if Moscow insisted on supplying arms to the enemy camp.

Although the Somali people welcomed the break with Moscow because of the Russians’ individual behavior and their association with the less liberal aspects of Barre’s regime, it was a high-risk move that could prove very damaging. There was no guarantee that the United States would now alter its policy and replace the Soviets. Any hope of the Soviet Union reversing its policy and swinging its support back to Somalia would be foreclosed. Because only the Soviet Union could impose a regional solution at this point, and one that was acceptable to Somalia, the rupture in military relations made this scenario rather unrealistic. Still, in order to hedge its bet, if only slightly, Somalia refrained from breaking diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.

If Siyad Barre had taken the Americans at their word he might have been less inclined to take such a gamble. In October, the Somalis had approached the United States and offered to abrogate the Soviet treaty and end all military ties with Moscow in return for U.S. cooperation and friendship. The Carter administration responded that while the United States wished to cooperate in meeting Somalia’s legitimate defense needs, Washington would be prepared to provide defensive arms only if Somalia’s forces withdrew from the Ogaden. Nonetheless, after the Somalis expelled the Soviet military mission and broke relations with Cuba in mid-November, they submitted a new request for arms. The United States again refused, advising Mogadishu to accept OAU mediation, seek a negotiated peace, and to give assurances that Somalia would respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors.

With the United States refusing to fill Moscow’s shoes in Somalia, Mogadishu was forced to rely upon weapons acquired from international arms merchants and Arab sources. Although prohibited by the United States from passing on any of its U.S. arms to Somalia, Saudi Arabia reportedly supplied sixty French AMX tanks, and the shah of Iran sent British-made Chieftain tanks. Egypt provided over $30 million in arms aid, which was especially beneficial, as both Mogadishu and Cairo had once been Soviet arms clients.” The Somalis did continue to make arms presentations to the United States and asked pro-Western governments in the Middle East to make appeals on their behalf but to no avail. Barre was so desperate that he even hinted at renewing military ties with Moscow, an unrealistic hope, given the Soviet role in killing thousands of Somalis. Siyad Barre was ultimately forced to recognize that the Somali cause had failed to win international support and that victory was unattainable.


Somalia’s invasion of the Ogaden created a dilemma for the United States. While the Carter administration wanted to help Somalia and counter Soviet penetration of Ethiopia, the State Department placed a high priority on keeping communication lines open to Addis Ababa. American officials believed that the strict preconditions originally placed upon arms transfers to Somalia and the suspension of the offer, coupled with public support for preserving Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, would demonstrate to Chairman Mengistu that the United States was not seeking to confront or destabilize his regime. On the other hand, because of the rapidly increasing Soviet influence in Ethiopia, the United States had little incentive to help Ethiopia’s war effort and needed to hedge its bets by keeping the door open to Somalia. To avoid having to choose publicly between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu, and perhaps permanently alienating one of the two parties, the Carter administration imposed an embargo on arms transfers to both sides for the duration of the war.

Washington’s arms embargo, of course, provoked friction with Somalia, which claimed to be adversely and unfairly affected by this action. The Somalis felt that the U.S. embargo hurt Somalia more than Ethiopia because the Soviet Union had been slowing the delivery of weapons to Mogadishu. Moscow’s decision to plug the Somali arms pipeline in October resulted in the effective strangulation of Somalia’s war-making Capacity and destroyed any hope of military success in the absence of U.S. intervention. There was little sympathy in Washington for this argument: if the embargo damaged Mogadishu to a greater extent, so be it; it was the Somalis who had started the war in the first place.

What was more surprising and disconcerting to the Carter administration was the hostile reaction in Addis Ababa to this decision. Following Somalia’s invasion of the Ogaden, the State Department recommended that the U.S. position on arms transfers to Somalia be fully explained to Chairman Mengistu in order to keep open the lines of communication. Mengistu was informed that the United States would refuse to supply even defensive military equipment. Neither would it permit its allies and friends to provide U.S.-made weapons to Somalia until the Ogaden affair was resolved. The State Department believed that this contact with Mengistu might prove fruitful in the short term as well as the long run. There was some evidence that the Ethiopians were unhappy with the Soviets, particularly for continuing to supply arms and technical assistance to Somalia. As a sign of possible reconciliation, the Ethiopian government had ordered the media to stop attacking “American imperialism” and calling the United States the primary enemy. While Mengistu’s overtures may have simply been a ploy to acquire greater leverage with the Soviets, the Carter administration felt the situation was worth exploring.

During September 1977, discussions took place between U.S. and Ethiopian officials on a variety of issues ranging from economic relations to military issues, although it was the latter subject in which Addis Ababa was now most interested, as Somali forces continued to advance in the Ogaden. While the State Department claimed in mid-September that there were no plans to resume arms shipments to Ethiopia, a series of meetings had been held earlier that month between high-ranking Ethiopian officials and two U.S. envoys – Paul Henze, a staff member of the NSC, and Richard Post, director for East African affairs at the State Department – concerning the arms question. Mengistu hoped to obtain $40 million worth of U.S. weapons that were on order or in the pipeline when Washington halted deliveries the previous June; these included eight F-5E fighters, fourteen M-60 tanks, forty-five trucks, fifty armored personnel carriers, three swift patrol boats, and armament for four others, and antitank missiles. Ethiopia was particularly interested in acquiring the F-5Es (or at least spare parts for them), which had performed well against Somalia’s Soviet-made MiG-21s. Because Ethiopia owed the United States $30 million for arms bought on credit that still left a balance of $10 million they wished to claim.

In pursuing these discussions with Ethiopia, the Carter administration hoped that Addis Ababa would in return strike a more balanced policy between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, while the request was still under review, the Soviet Union began making large-scale arms deliveries, and Cuban troops started to arrive in Ethiopia. With Ethiopia even more firmly in the Soviet fold and given the lingering human rights question, the United States embargoed arms to both sides. The Carter administration now moved to tighten its embargo of arms exports and stop the “trickle of military equipment”—mostly spare parts— going to Ethiopia from the United States. Although Washington permitted the delivery of twenty-three trucks and tractors and $400,000 worth of “nonlethal spare parts,” in February 1978 the administration blocked the shipment of two patrol boats and $5 million worth of other military equipment, including jet engines and artillery parts, cleared for delivery in June 1977. The State Department also suspended export licenses for thousands of military items in U.S. warehouses bought by Ethiopia the previous year “to avoid fueling the flames” of war.

However, the embargo was not airtight. Israel reportedly provided cluster bombs, napalm, and spare parts for Ethiopia’s F-5 jet fighters and sold Soviet arms presumably captured from Arab forces in 1973. Tel Aviv continued its counterinsurgency training in Eritrea, and Israeli pilots were allegedly flying combat aircraft in Ethiopia. Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin had even sent a message, which Jimmy Carter rebuffed, urging the United States to help Ethiopia repel the Somali invasion. While the administration publicly criticized Moscow for fueling the war, little was said about Israel’s involvement in the conflict and its illegal circumvention of U.S. arms transfer restrictions. Washington’s stance was no doubt affected by domestic political concerns and the belief that as long as Israel continued its support for Ethiopia, the United States might maintain some limited influence with Addis Ababa.

Despite Washington’s public stance of neutrality in the conflict, Addis Ababa contended that U.S. policy still had the effect of rewarding the aggressor state. American protestations that the suspension of the aid offer and halt to third-party arms transfers to Somalia were designed to force a Somali withdrawal did not impress Addis Ababa. Washington had done little to control, and seemingly had encouraged, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to take advantage of the more liberal policies of other Western states and make third-party arms transfers to Somalia. Reports surfaced that U.S.-made M-48 tanks, originally sold to Iran, had reached Somalia by way of Oman. Washington’s refusal to publicly condemn the Somali invasion on the grounds that the Carter administration wished to maintain the leverage to persuade Somalia to withdraw seemed a lame excuse. American actions or inaction were cited as evidence by Mengistu as affirming U.S. hostility.

Concerned that Addis Ababa might be on the verge of breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States and was preparing to invade Somalia, in mid-February the administration sent David Aaron, deputy assistant for national security affairs on the NSC, to meet with Mengistu and explain the U.S. position. Mengistu assured Aaron that Ethiopia would not invade Somalia. Carter’s envoy convinced Mengistu that the United States was not supplying weapons to Mogadishu; he added that it was doing all it could to discourage third-party arms transfers to Somalia and favored a return to the territorial status quo in the Horn. Consequently, for a short time after Aaron’s visit, U.S.-Ethiopia relations took a turn for the better.

The U.S. strategy during the Ogaden crisis was designed to keep the communication lines open to all parties—Western allies, the Soviets, Ethiopians, Somalis, interested Arab states, and even Israel. In implementing the U.S. arms embargo, the Carter administration wished to avoid being accused by either side of playing favorites. It would also play down any cold war or “linkage” aspect of the crisis. The Americans also hoped to placate Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, the shah of Iran, President Nimeiri of Sudan, and Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid—who had all expressed similar concern about American passivity in the face of Soviet military successes in the Horn—by winking at third-party transfers of non-U.S. -origin weapons to Somalia. In so doing, and in not pressuring Israel to end its support for Ethiopia, the administration sought to have it both ways by keeping its options open with respect to Ethiopia and Somalia. Meanwhile, as the administration waited to see how the situation in the Horn would unfold, in late 1977 the United States announced a $92 million sale of six C-130 transport planes and a $75 million sale of a squadron of F-5 fighters to Sudan; in early March 1978, it agreed to expedite the delivery of twelve F-5s purchased with U.S. credits to Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya. Despite Carter’s pledge of a year before to decrease foreign military sales, the United States was now using arms transfers to achieve maximum flexibility in the region.


What remains somewhat perplexing is Siyad Barre’s belief that the United States would supply Somalia with arms, especially after Somali forces invaded Ethiopia. Following Somalia’s aggressive intrusion, the Somalis claimed, “[the Americans] let us down badly by misleading us.” Assistant Secretary Richard Moose countered that U.S. assurances to provide military aid “were not of such a nature that a prudent man would have mounted an offensive on the basis of them.” While U.S. officials denied. that the secret White House message delivered to Siyad Barre in June 1977 was meant to encourage Mogadishu to mount an offensive, it was admittedly ambiguous enough that the Somalis might have got the impression that if they dropped their territorial claims to parts of northern Kenya and Djibouti, then the United States would not care what they did in the Ogaden. But on what basis did Siyad Barre assume that the United States would support Somali aggression in the Ogaden?

Siyad Barre may very well have misinterpreted Carter’s personal message and misjudged the new administration’s commitment to an active policy of containment, assuming that a Somali attack against a Soviet client state would be welcomed in Washington. Certainly, the Americans had expressed a willingness to provide arms before the outbreak of hostilities. In early July 1977, Secretary of State Vance had stated that the United States would “consider sympathetically appeals from states which are threatened by a buildup of foreign military equipment and advisers on their borders in the Horn and elsewhere in Africa.” While this was not an invitation to invade, Barre may have thought that the United States still would consider Somalia’s request for arms under war conditions, since Somali actions could be justified on the basis of global containment, or rollback.

However, the Somali president also seemed to have been struck personally by President Carter’s commitment to human rights. In his January 1977 inaugural address, Carter had declared, “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute; . . . the powerful must not persecute the weak, and human dignity must be enhanced.” In speech after speech, President Carter and administration officials pledged to press the cause of human rights abroad with renewed vigor. Carter viewed human rights not only as a matter of reducing the incidence of summary executions or torture of political prisoners, but as a policy that “involved the promotion of democratic principles such as those expressed in our Bill of Rights, the right to emigrate and reunite families, and protection against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or ethnic origin.” Carter recognized that there would be cases in which oppressed people would be able to obtain their freedom “only by changing their laws or leaders,” though the administration did not define what actions it would take in support of revolutionary activities.

Siyad Barre may well have deluded himself into believing that Carter’s human rights policy spoke to the cause of the Somali peoples. Were not the Somalis of the Ogaden oppressed people? Political boundaries prevented the Somali nomads from moving freely across the Ethiopian-Somali border and separated them from their families. For decades Addis Ababa had implemented laws that either directly or indirectly discriminated against the Somalis, their language, and their religion, making them second-class citizens in Ethiopia. The Somalis believed that their policy to liberate the Ogaden by force was not simply aggression, but support for the revolutionary activity to obtain freedom for the Somalis.

Whether or not Siyad Barre truly believed that the United States would support Somali military actions in the Ogaden on the basis of Carter’s human rights policy, he sought to rationalize Somalia’s invasion and acquire U.S. weapons on these grounds. The State Department, which raised no dissenting voice against the president’s human rights policy in general, feared that it might be used by Barre to persuade Carter to revoke his August 1977 decision not to provide arms to Somalia. To avoid such an occurrence, especially in the aftermath of the back-channel diplomatic blunder of the previous June, the State Department ensured that all messages between Washington and Mogadishu passed through formal channels.

Thus, when the U.S. ambassador to Somalia, John Loughran, returned to Washington in mid-November and attempted to deliver a personal, emotion-laden message to Jimmy Carter from Siyad Barre, the State Department blocked his way. Coming in the wake of the Soviet expulsion from Somalia, the Africa Bureau was concerned that the tone and content of Barre’s message might lead the president to make promises he could not keep, or the State Department would not want him to keep. After being in Somalia for almost three years, Ambassador Loughran was somewhat suspect, in State Department eyes, of being too sympathetic to the Somali perspective. Although the situation in Somalia had been difficult for Loughran, given the restrictions placed on U.S. diplomats and the occasional harassment by Somali security forces, the ambassador had developed a mutually respectful relationship with Siyad Barre and a deep appreciation of Somali history and culture. For three weeks Loughran tried unsuccessfully to gain a private audience with President Carter. At the end of November, Ambassador Loughran finally returned to Somalia with, in the words of Siyad Barre, “no good news.”

Siyad Barre essentially tried to link Somali aspirations in the Ogaden with the guiding liberal principles of U.S. policy. While Washington was prepared to assume a defensive posture in the Horn based on the containment of Soviet influence, armed rollback premised on human rights was an entirely different matter. However, Barre wanted to believe that the United States would not only welcome Somalia’s defection to the Western camp but also support the achievement of its national objectives in the Ogaden. The Carter administration’s containment and human rights themes provided the rationales for Somalia’s defection from the Soviet camp and attempted realignment with the West.


At the beginning of the Carter administration, the primary responsibility for formulating U.S. policy in the Horn was returned to the Africa Bureau. Its reassertion of bureaucratic predominance on African issues was supported by many of Jimmy Carter’s top-ranking political appointees, who shared the bureau’s general inclination not to view every African crisis in terms of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. Consequently, the Carter administration moved away from its predecessors globalist obsession to focus on the regional causes of conflict in the Third World. For Africa, this perspective was summed up by the slogan “African solutions for Africa’s problems.”

The re-emergence of the Africa Bureau as the decision-making center for U.S. policy toward the Horn dealt a serious blow to Siyad Barre’s efforts to forge a security connection with the United States, owing to the inherently pro-Ethiopia, anti-Somalia biases and assumptions of the State Department’s Africanist community. In this line of thinking, Ethiopia was considered the key to the Horn. Even after the Dergue had terminated military relations with the United States, the Africa Bureau continued to premise U.S. policy upon the notion that Ethiopia was the most important country in the region. The best policy path lay in mending old fences with Addis Ababa rather than in constructing new ones with Mogadishu. To keep communication open with the Dergue, and at the same time maintain a common basis with the Ethiopians, the State Department insisted that the United States oppose giving any direct or indirect indication of support for Somali irredentist claims. Although the Carter administration did not expect the United States to regain the position it held in Ethiopia before the revolution, in time Ethiopian nationalism, coupled with Moscow’s inability to walk the fine line between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu, would allow the United States to reestablish some measure of influence and presence in Ethiopia.

In striking contrast to the Africa Bureau’s favorable view of Ethiopia was the generally negative perception of Somalia. Despite Dergue’s horrible record of human rights abuses and Mengistu’s embrace of the Soviet Union, Somalia was seen as the pariah of Africa. The OAU Charter principle calling upon African states to respect the colonial-imposed borders of the continent, in effect, had established the Somalis as the “bad guys” of Africa. A policy mindset had developed during the early 1960s at the Bureau for East African Affairs that U.S. policy needed to be geared toward deterring Somali aggression in the Ogaden and elsewhere in that corner of Africa. American military assistance to Somalia might be construed by other African nations as U.S. support for territorial dismemberment. The consequence of such a policy would be the collapse of the U.S. position in the Horn, East Africa, and possibly elsewhere in Africa.

Washington’s harsh assessment of Somalia was reinforced by the memory that it was Mogadishu that had invited the Soviet Union into the Horn in the early 1960s. Somalia had entered that relationship of its own accord and, for a decade and a half, had served Soviet interests and acted as Moscow’s closest friend in sub-Sahara Africa. Now, when Somalia expressed a sudden desire to realign itself with the West, one had to ask what the Somalis were up to. Over the years, Mogadishu had never been able to shake this negative image. In 1975, at the invitation of Somalia, a joint congressional-Pentagon-State Department mission visited the newly built Soviet base at Berbera. However, the Americans had come away feeling that the Somalis had not been as forthcoming or open as they should have been; indeed, they had tried to pull the wool over their eyes. Mogadishu’s secretly sending its forces into the Ogaden, while at the same time conducting arms negotiations with the United States, only confirmed Washington’s initial impression of Somali deceit and reinforced the pro-Ethiopia slant of the Africa Bureau. Rather than winning any converts at the Africa Bureau, this behavior confirmed the perception of Somali cunning. The Somalis simply could not be trusted.

The Africa Bureau’s predilection for salvaging relations with Ethiopia and keeping Somalia at arm’s length posed the greatest obstacle to the formation of an arms relationship between Washington and Mogadishu. Jimmy Carter had created problems when he decided to circumvent the Africa Bureau in communicating with Siyad Barre, by means of Dr. Cahill. At the time, the Africa Bureau showed little interest in pursuing the Somali option, having rejected it once before in 1975 when Saudi Arabia had offered financial inducements to Mogadishu. Somalia’s invasion of the Ogaden later that summer gave the Africa Bureau a pretext for closing down Carter’s private line to Barre and reestablishing its hands-off policy.

In the latter part of 1977 and into 1978, the Africa Bureau, aided by Secretary of State Vance, defended its hands-off policy from assaults by Zbigniew Brzezinski and some Middle East specialists in the State Department. Throwing the credibility argument back at Brzezinski, State voiced a concern that the more commotion Washington made about Soviet activities in the Horn, the more it would make such activities seem like a Russian success story. Brzezinskfs outspokenness on an issue the State Department felt the United States could do little about only damaged U.S. credibility in the region. Moreover, U.S. diplomatic appeals to gain African censure of East-bloc activities in the Horn had failed because few African governments were willing to condemn the Soviet-Cuban military role undertaken on behalf of territorial integrity.

Washington’s Africa specialists felt that the Ogaden conflict had to be dealt with as a purely local issue in order to minimize American losses in credibility and influence. In pushing for a Somali withdrawal from the Ogaden, the State Department argued that the sooner Ethiopia brought the war to a decisive conclusion and reasserted control over the area, the sooner Washington could get back into the influence game and play a constructive role in the Horn. Supplying arms to Somalia would only gain short-term influence for the United States in a losing situation and result in the burning of diplomatic bridges to Addis Ababa. The long-term political costs not only in Ethiopia but throughout Africa, of fueling the war in the Ogaden by arming Somalia were simply too great.

The Africa Bureau’s influence in this battle was enhanced by the policy consensus that had emerged on Capitol Hill. On February 3, 1978, the House Committee on International Relations published a monograph recommending that the United States, given current conditions, should not provide direct or indirect military assistance to Somalia. Three days later, the House Armed Services Committee issued a report warning of the negative effects of the United States shifting its policy in favor of Somalia. Relations with other African nations, most notably Kenya, would be jeopardized if Washington continued to pursue the Somali option. Thus, no one of influence on Capitol Hill or in the Department of State wished to embrace Somalia’s cause.

Despite this general policy agreement between the State Department and Congress, Zbigniew Brzezinski made one final bid in February 1978 to persuade Jimmy Carter to do something more in the way of direct military action in support of Somalia. As the combined Ethiopian-Cuban force began its sweep through the Ogaden toward the Somali border, the administration sent a message and a presidential envoy, David Aaron, warning the Ethiopians not to enter Somalia. The administration also pressured Moscow, through the Soviet ambassador in Washington, to hold the Ethiopians back. Nonetheless, at a February 10 meeting of the Special Coordinating Committee (SCC) and again on February 21 at another meeting of senior foreign policy and national security officials, Brzezinski argued that the United States had to back its verbal message with a tangible show of force. The NSC adviser recommended that the president deploy a U.S. aircraft carrier task force off the coast of the Horn. Such a tangible demonstration of American concern and resolve would ensure that the Somali border would not be transgressed and would enhance U.S. credibility among its skeptical allies.

Brzezinski’s demand for a show of force was opposed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Defense Secretary Harold Brown, as well as by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Vance felt that such an action would draw the United States into a situation where the administration would be forced to put its prestige on the line and to take unnecessary military risks on behalf of a Somali government that had shown itself to be “no great friend of ours.” The Somalis had brought this on themselves by invading Ethiopia. Even if the Ethiopians should cross over into Somalia, Vance believed that the United States should refrain from introducing U.S. forces into the area. Secretary Vance reported to the president on February 22 that he felt confident the Ethiopians would show restraint and not cross the border. According to Vance, Addis Ababa had too “many other problems, not the least of which was the growing civil war in Eritrea.”

Defense Secretary Brown agreed with Vance that the potential negative consequences of a military show of force outweighed the advantages. Besides, what was the taskforce supposed to do? There was no clearly defined mission. Moreover, if Somalia were invaded and Siyad Barre over-thrown, such an eventuality would be viewed as a failure of the U.S. task force to do its job. That failure would impair the credibility of using such a ploy in future crises elsewhere. Unless Washington was prepared to use the task force, its bluff could be called. Brown summarized the dilemma confronting the administration at a February 23 National Security Council meeting: “If we know the situation will come out all right in Somalia . . . then we might deploy the carrier and take credit for success in preventing an invasion. . . . On the other hand, if we do not know [how] the situation will come out or do not intend to use the aircraft carrier in Somalia, then we should not put it in.”

Washington’s reluctance to embrace Mogadishu after its defection from the Soviet camp reflected the inherent bureaucratic bias against Somalia in Washington. While Middle Eastern issues constantly intruded and affected U.S. policy in the Horn, U.S.-Somalia relations were also held hostage by the Africa Bureau’s Ethiopian imperative. This bias was reinforced by events. The fact that Ethiopia did not invade Somalia was considered a victory for American diplomacy. The lesson to be remembered from this episode was that one could never be too cautious in dealing with the Somalis.


The conclusion of a security relationship between the United States and Somalia would be no easy task. Both states had been in league with each other’s principal adversary for a number of years and drew assumptions based upon their previous experience. Mogadishu believed that the United States would seize any opportunity to counter the Soviet Union, given the perceived strategic stakes at risk in the Horn. Washington considered Somalia to be the principal cause of the security problems in the region and recognized that Mogadishu merely used outsiders to advance its irredentist interests. Given a different turn of events in Ethiopia, arms discussions between Washington and Mogadishu would not even have taken place.

Siyad Barre was playing a losing hand in believing he could draw the United States into a security relationship on his terms, namely, to acquiesce to, if not support, Somalia’s seizure of the Ogaden. The dependence of the Somali military offensive on receiving outside superpower support, instead, allowed the United States to dictate the terms of any potential arms relationship between the two sides. By burning his bridges to Moscow, Barre was left with no alternative but to seek American help. The Somali president’s great mistake was to believe that on the basis of the U.S. policy of global containment and an ill-defined human rights policy, he could draw the United States into a conflict that fit neither of these criteria. When U.S. aid failed to materialize, Barre was left with no choice but to withdraw from the Ogaden.

Conversely, the United States was dealing from a position of strength in resisting Mogadishu’s manipulative maneuvers to acquire U.S. military assistance. Because the conflict in the Ogaden was not viewed as posing a direct threat to vital U.S. interests, Washington was under no pressure to react. In keeping the lines of communication open to Ethiopia and strengthening ties with surrounding states such as Kenya and Sudan, the United States could still retain its influence in the area without running the political risk of maintaining a Somali arms connection. Moreover, except for some members of the NSC and Arab specialists at the State Department, there was minimal support for the Somali option in Washington. Under the circumstances, there were simply too many unacceptable risks associated with entering into an arms arrangement with Somalia.

Through the end of the Ogaden War, the conclusion of a security relationship between Washington and Mogadishu was of greater value to Somalia than to the United States. Washington had little to gain politically or strategically by entering into an arms partnership with Mogadishu at this time. For Somalia, such an arrangement was the key to a long-sought national objective and, for a short time at the end of the Ogaden War, national survival. But for a breakthrough in the U.S.-Somalia diplomatic stalemate to occur, either Somalia would have to alter dramatically its policy toward the Ogaden, or Washington would have to reassess the relative cost-benefit trade-offs stemming from a close political-military association with Mogadishu.

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