“The 1982 Emergency Arms Airlift” is chapter 11 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

CHAPTER 11 - The 1982 Emergency Arms Airlift


The United States and Somalia, 1977-1990

CHAPTER 11: The 1982 Emergency Arms Airlift

CHAPTER 11 - The 1982 Emergency Arms Airlift
President Reagan meets with Somalian President, Mohammed Said Barre, in the Oval Office in the White House.

Almost two years would pass from the time the U.S.-Somalia arms-for access accord was signed until the first shipments of American weapons arrived in Somalia. This delay would not have been unusual given the normal lag in U.S. arms transfers between the date orders are placed and their delivery on a non-priority basis. Sophisticated weapon systems such as the TVS-1 air surveillance radar and Vulcan antiaircraft weapons, which were originally ordered by Mogadishu, required anywhere from eighteen to thirty months for delivery. U.S. officials had estimated that the first major U.S. arms shipments would not arrive in Somalia until 1983 or perhaps even 1984.


However, even if the ordering process were not so cumbersome, the United States was in no hurry to expedite Somalia’s arms requests. Within a week after signing the arms-for-access agreement with Mogadishu, U.S. policymakers were having second thoughts about the arrangement. Several days after the conclusion of the U.S. -Somalia deal, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Richard Moose was called to testify on Capitol Hill. In response to allegations that a large segment of the Somali Army was still in Ethiopia as the result of Siyad Barre’s latest probing action, Moose asserted before the House Subcommittee on Africa that no “significant body of Somali forces [was] in the Ogaden.” Although conceding that some Somali patrols continued to operate inside 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, Moose maintained that the Somalis were leaving the Ogaden and only a small residual force remained. Such a declaration was necessary to clear the way for Washington to begin processing Mogadishu’s arms requests. At the time the administration was planning to request that Congress allow the executive branch to reprogram $20 million in FMS credits for Somalia in the FY 1980 SAP budget. While Richard Moose felt uneasy testifying in favor of a deal he had grave misgivings about, the assistant secretary was placed in an even more awkward position when, following his appearance before the Africa subcommittee, CIA officials revealed in a closed executive session that three Somali regular battalions were still operating in the Ogaden. Mogadishu tried to control the damage by asserting that whatever Somali forces had been in the Ogaden previously either had been completely withdrawn or were being withdrawn. However, seven of the eight members of the House Subcommittee on Africa and fifteen members of the congressional black caucus now mounted a campaign to block the implementation of the agreement. While the Africa Bureau would not have been upset if the deal fell through, Pentagon officials lobbied intensely among members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations—which had the authority to block the reprogramming of the $20 million in FMS credits—to prevent the reversal of the agreement.

Still, there was too much at stake politically for the administration to forsake the Somali option and admit less than two months before an election that it had made a mistake and wasted eight months negotiating an unfulfillable strategic accord with Somalia. At the Africa Bureau, there was a quiet feeling of vindication for its warnings about dealing with the Somalis. Moreover, the responsible subcommittees on Capitol Hill seemed to be attuned to the Africa Bureau’s way of thinking. Although reprogramming of SAP funds for Somalia was approved at the end of September, it was done so only on the condition that no U.S. military equipment would be delivered until the executive branch provided “verified assurances” that no Somali regular army forces remained in the Ogaden. The administration was unable to give these “verified assurances” until early January 1981, just before Jimmy Carter was replaced in the White House by Ronald Reagan.

Surprisingly, given the globalist orientation of the newly installed Reagan administration, the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States did not rush into a full embrace of Somalia. Although the new administration viewed Mengistu “with a very cold eye” and rated the prospects for improved U.S. -Ethiopian relations as “very low,” it rejected the tough approach favored by some: imposing economic sanctions against Ethiopia, arming Somalia, and providing aid to the Eritrean insurgents. Because of the Africa Bureau’s preoccupation with southern Africa, the traditional policy review for the Horn was not undertaken until spring 1982. The new policy finally agreed to in July called for the United States to provide strong support for Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya, but to go slow on arming Somalia, to coordinate U.S. policy with that of Washington’s NATO allies, and to establish a dialogue with Ethiopia that would perhaps lead to improved relations. Until late 1983, the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa was involved in a circuitous diplomatic dance with the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry to arrange talks between high-ranking U.S. and Ethiopian officials, including possibly a meeting between President Reagan and Chairman Mengistu. Despite the best efforts of Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Wolde Goshu, the Ethiopian charge in the United States, Tesfaye Demeke, and U.S. embassy officials, the talks were postponed. However, in December 1985 the U.S. compensation claims were finally settled for $7 million.

Thus the broad outlines of Reagan’s policy toward the Horn of Africa seemed to one displaced official of the Carter administration and to Donald Petterson, U.S. ambassador to Somalia from 1978 to 1982, to be similar to those followed during the previous four years. President Reagan’s Africa advisers were willing to take a long-term view; they favored maintaining communication with Addis Ababa. Although global and regional strategic concerns remained important, long-term political rather than immediate East-West ideological considerations were to guide U.S. policy toward the Horn. Thus, Washington continued to declare its support for Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and to refrain, at least overtly, from stirring up the Somalis in the Ogaden or exploiting the Eritrean insurgency to put pressure on the Marxist-Leninist government in Addis Ababa.

Despite its globalist proclivities, the Reagan administration also kept the same restrictions on supplying weapons to Somalia as established by its predecessor. However, no attempt was made to establish a linkage between the transfer of U.S. arms and Mogadishu’s ending its political and indirect military support for the WSLF insurgents in the Ogaden. Administration officials were optimistic that they could monitor and control the situation in the Horn by proceeding with a modest and cautious “defensive” arming of Mogadishu. By avoiding a quick or large-scale influx of U.S. weapons into Somalia, Washington could see how sincere Mogadishu was about keeping its forces out of Ethiopia. U.S. policy toward Somalia, though for different reasons, was reminiscent of Washington’s arms transfer policy toward Ethiopia in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s—a “great stall.”

One year after the arms-for-access accord was signed, U.S. military involvement in Somalia was minimal. Military construction had not even begun at Berbera. At the end of 1981, when the United States conducted the “Bright Star ‘82” military exercises in the region, the Somali component of this practice logistical operation involved mostly U.S. engineering and medical units. In contrast, mechanized U.S. infantry units were flown into Egypt, U.S. Special Forces were sent to Sudan, and 2,000 U.S. marines conducted an amphibious landing in Oman. There was little inclination to include Somali facilities or forces in U.S. contingency plans. In March 1982, Siyad Barre met with Ronald Reagan in Washington — the first direct meeting between the Somali president and an American president. His visit had a little visible effect on U.S. policy. The United States had already agreed to provide Mogadishu with over $45 million in SAP funding and to allow another $45 million in FMS cash sales during FY 1982. That spring the executive branch was planning to propose a security assistance package for FY 1983 worth over $55.5 million, plus a guarantee of $30 million in FMS cash sales.

Still, Somalia had nothing tangible on the ground to show in the way of American military support. While the procurement of U.S. weapons was secondary to the extended deterrent protection Mogadishu believed it had acquired through its security connection with Washington, it was difficult to project the impression that the United States was in Somalia’s corner when there was almost no U.S. presence in Somalia.

However, Washington’s “great stall” came to an abrupt end in July 1982. At the end of June, a mechanized unit of some 9,000 Ethiopian troops had crossed over into Somalia to support an operation by the Ethiopian-based Somali dissident force, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), to seize control of two Somali towns (Galdogob and Balanballe) in an area north of Mogadishu. When the Ethiopian forces first moved into Somali territory the American response was cautious. Washington was unsure of the magnitude of the threat or whether foreign forces were involved in the fighting. It was not until Mogadishu brought the situation to Washington’s direct attention in mid-July, as the fighting intensified, that the administration began to react.

On July 24 the State Department announced that the United States was airlifting weapons into Somalia to confront the Ethiopian-supported incursion. It was first reported that the United States had begun sending the sophisticated weapon systems—including air defense radar and Vulcan antiaircraft rockets—ordered under the 1980 accord. But according to administration officials, emergency military aid was limited to rifles, ammunition, and communications gear. Nonetheless, the circumstances had forced the United States to speed up the delivery of previously ordered equipment caught in the pipeline.

The reaction on Capitol Hill to the U.S. arms airlift and continued fighting in Somalia was to pressure the administration to develop a well-formulated policy toward the Horn—one that ideally would link U.S. military assistance to the total suspension of Somalia’s support for the WSLF. In an attempt to prompt the executive branch to reexamine U.S. policy, the House Subcommittee on Africa threatened to block future SAP funding for Somalia if the administration did not undertake such a review. Even with this legislative threat hanging over the administration’s head, near the end of August the United States reportedly airlifted another $5.5 million in emergency weapons and supplies into Somalia. Although the U.S. arms deliveries helped to stabilize the situation, the SSDF dissidents were able to maintain a position inside Somalia and sporadic fighting between Ethiopian and Somali forces continued into the spring of 1983. Nonetheless, Washington had responded to Mogadishu’s plea for arms in a positive, if somewhat restrained, fashion. U.S. arms were now on the ground in Somalia.


The threat of direct Ethiopian retaliation against Somalia became reality when Addis Ababa sent military forces across the border into Somalia to support the SSDF insurgents. Politically, the situation was embarrassing for Siyad Barre; the main rationale behind acquiring the U.S. security connection in the first place had been that it would act as a deterrent against such a contingency. Moreover, if Washington were to stand idly by and not respond to this Ethiopian aggression, the negative political repercussions in Mogadishu might topple Barre’s government. A forceful U.S. response was needed to solidify Siyad Barre’s tenuous political position and prove his astuteness in forging the U.S.-Somalia security connection.

Besides its potential political and military dangers, the Ethiopian-sponsored attack also proved a blessing in disguise for Mogadishu in that it forced the United States to get involved on the ground in Somalia. Siyad Barre had been frustrated by the deliberate slowness of the U.S. arms transfer process, in contrast to his experience with the Russians during the previous decade. It was not as if Washington could not respond quickly and effectively in a crisis. The speed with which the United States had wrapped Sudan in its superpower security blanket, by dispatching two U.S. airborne warning and control aircraft (AWACS) to the region along with $100 million in U.S. military assistance to Khartoum during the October 1981 crisis in Chad, was ample evidence of U.S. capabilities. However, Washington’s quick, dramatic response to events in Chad was also a source of irritation for the Somali president, who felt that Somalia deserved greater U.S. attention and support than Sudan, which officially was not part of the U.S.-Southwest Asia strategic defense network.

The perplexing question for Siyad Barre was not whether the United States could respond, but whether it would respond similarly in a crisis involving Somalia. Mogadishu seemed to need a Chad-like crisis involving Soviet-backed or Libyan-backed aggression to push the Americans into action. But Somalia did not want to provoke such a scenario, or even to be suspected of doing so, given the suspicions in the Washington foreign policy community toward Mogadishu. In fact, when in July the United States began its emergency arms airlift in support of Somalia, Congress tended to see Mogadishu’s relationship to the WSLF, rather than Addis Ababa’s support for the SSDF, as precipitating the crisis. Siyad Barre had good reason to be concerned about the intensity of Washington’s commitment to Somalia; many U.S. policymakers at the Africa Bureau and members of key congressional subcommittees still preferred the Ethiopia option in the Horn.

Siyad Barre could keep Somalia clear of the Ogaden by allowing the WSLF to wage the liberation struggle against Addis Ababa alone. But there were divisions within the Somali state that Ethiopia could exploit. After the Ogaden War, Siyad Barre began to rely increasingly upon his extended family clan to rule the _country. This policy alienated members of Somalia’s northern clans, who felt slighted by the government to the south. Intraclan division would result in the founding of the Somali Salvation Front (SSF) in 1979. Because of its narrow tribal base and links with Ethiopia, the SSF did not seem much of a threat at first. But the anti-Barre base in Somali society widened over the next two years. In October 1981 the SSF joined forces with the Somali Workers’ Party (SWP) and the recently formed Somali Democratic Liberation Front (SDLF) to form the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF).

The military capability of the newly formed SSDF was increased by the external assistance it received from Ethiopia, Libya, and South Yemen (PDRY). For several years before the 1982 crisis in Somalia, Addis Ababa had provided logistical backing and acted as a conduit for Libyan financial aid to the SSF, while the PDRY had provided a base for operations and training for the SWP. With the formation of the Tripartite Pact on August 19, 1981, Ethiopia, Libya, and the PDRY now had a formal mechanism to coordinate their policies and provide financial assistance, arms, military training, and base sites to support the SSDF’s destabilization campaign against Mogadishu.

Despite this outside assistance, the SSDF was hindered in its bid for political credibility in Somalia by its dependence on Ethiopia as a staging point for operations—a link used by Mogadishu to discredit the movement. Unlike the WSLF insurgents operating inside Ethiopia, the various components of the anti-Barre forces had been unable to establish an enclave within Somalia from which to conduct their activities. Addis Ababa, also, was walking a fine line in supporting these activities, as the Reagan administration might decide on a more confrontational approach toward Ethiopia. Still, in supporting the SSDF invasion of Somalia, Addis Ababa would place Mogadishu on the defensive, and consequently, the Somalis would have fewer resources and less time to support the WSLF. It would also punish Mogadishu for its long-running collusion with the WSLF.

Ethiopia’s military incursion into Somalia in summer 1982 placed Somalia on the defensive for the first time in their two-decades-long struggle. However, Mogadishu needed to win the public relations campaign and convince Washington that this time it was the victim, not the aggressor. Unfortunately, the United States had been more interested in monitoring the situation in the Ogaden than helping Siyad Barre deal with his foreign or domestic opponents. To get a response like that seen in Chad, Barre needed to incite globalist opinion in Washington.


The Reagan administration’s decision to airlift arms into Somalia was based on a belief that there was a radical plot to destabilize pro-Western governments in northeast Africa. When coupled with the actions of Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi in Chad and against Sudan, Ethiopia’s intrusion into Somalia appeared to be part of a stepping-stone pattern of Soviet-backed expansionism.” If this destabilization campaign was not blunted, it might spread throughout the region and ultimately threaten Western interests in north, west, and central Africa. Thus, U.S. policy was being driven by a globalist preoccupation with avoiding a domino effect in northeast Africa.

The Reagan administration assumed power in January 1981 believing it could deal effectively with Soviet threats in the Third World. The Reagan approach was premised on the assumption that “Soviet diplomacy [was] based on tests of will”—tests that since the Vietnam War the United States had largely failed. Moscow was engaged in probing actions to detect and exploit Western vulnerabilities: Angola, Ethiopia, and more recently El Salvador were prime examples. In these situations, the Soviet Union’s advantage stemmed from its capability and willingness to provide arms quickly and in large amounts to its Third World clients, while the United States was often late and hesitant.

Thus, arms transfers and threats would be crucial to Reagan administration foreign policy. In the mind of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, conflict was not the result of arms, “but more often of an imbalance of arms.” Providing arms to threatened smaller friends would send an important signal that the United States was prepared to defend its interests. This signal took on particular importance, as the Soviet Union was seen to be in an expansionist period. To make its intentions clear, immediately after taking office the Reagan administration informed the Soviets “that their time of unresisted adventuring in the Third World was over”_ and that the United States would not tolerate the mischief of Moscow’s proxies, Cuba and Libya. The administration undertook three actions to get this message across: (1) U.S. tanks and aircraft deliveries to Morocco, suspended by the Carter administration in 1980, were resumed to counter Soviet aid to the Polisario insurgents in Western Sahara; (2) Colonel Qaddafi was warned that the United States would oppose his campaign to destabilize the region; and (3) U.S. aid to Nicaragua was suspended owing to evidence of Soviet, Cuban, and Nicaraguan involvement in subverting the government of El Salvador.

The Reagan administration’s thinking with regard to the Horn of Africa was influenced by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat’s “two crescents policy.” One crescent ran through Iraq, Syria, the Yemens, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The other was in southern Africa. Moscow’s alleged strategy was to cut Africa in half, thereby isolating moderate Arab regimes, which would be caught in a vise between radical states under Soviet influence. Muammar Qaddafi and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), acting as Soviet clients, would destabilize the region through terror, thus allowing the Soviet Union either to manipulate the Islamic fundamentalist movement or seize control of Iran or the entire Persian Gulf. Proceeding on the belief that the Soviet Union and its radical proxies posed the primary threat to the moderate Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, and the Gulf sheikdoms) and Israel, as well as to the United States, Secretary Haig proposed the creation of a “strategic consensus” in the spring of 1981. The idea was essentially shelved, however, following the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981.

In the Horn of Africa and throughout northeast Africa, Libyan adventurism was seen as presenting the greatest security threat. The Reagan administration believed that Muammar Qaddafi was the driving force behind an anti-Western destabilization campaign in the region. In June 1981, Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs-designate, pledged U.S. support to African nations that wanted to resist “intervention” from Libya. The intervention of several thousand Libyan troops in the Chadian civil war earlier in the year had prompted the administration to request major increases in military assistance to Tunisia and Sudan. As relations between the United States and Libya continued to deteriorate amid charges at the end of 1981 that a Libyan hit squad had been sent to assassinate top-ranking U.S. officials, including the president, Washington’s primary preoccupation in northeast Africa was the containment of Libya.

A response to a Libyan-backed or Soviet-backed threat to Somalia seemed all the more likely, given the administration’s new willingness to use arms transfers vigorously and without apology as an instrument of diplomacy. Under Ronald Reagan, arms transfers would not be restrained for the sake of restraint. Chester Crocker had argued that the Carter administration’s active but disarmed diplomacy, because of its reluctance to commit resources at a time when African security issues had come to the fore, had resulted in missed opportunities to gain friends in Africa and win the respect of adversaries. Unaffected by the so-called Vietnam syndrome—reluctance to pledge American aid or put U.S. credibility on the line in the Third World—the Reagan administration was “quite prepared to send arms to friendly governments.”

Thus Ethiopia’s attack on Somalia was “just the kind of test the Reagan administration welcomed” to prove that “the United States could be counted on and to demonstrate to Ethiopia that [Washington’s] restraint in arming Somalia [should not] be construed as a sign of weakness.” To create maximum publicity to make this point, eight U.S. military air transports arrived at Mogadishu airport at midday with the July consignment of arms, and Washington allowed the Somali government to announce the impending U.S. airlift. Despite Ethiopia’s threats to break diplomatic relations, the Reagan administration went ahead with the emergency arms airlift. Siyad Barre, of course, contributed to the perception that U.S. credibility was on the line by depicting the joint Ethiopian-SSDF incursion as part of a Soviet-backed plot to threaten the survival of a pro-Western government: accusing the Russians, Cubans, East Germans, South Yemenis, and the Libyans of directing this military aggression.


While the Reagan administration was prepared to assist Somalia repel what it viewed as a Soviet-instigated attack by the Ethiopians and SSDF, Siyad Barre would not be able to blackmail the Americans into overreacting by threatening defection to another arms supplier. In the first place, Mogadishu had no other choice when it came to the two superpowers, given the Soviet investment in Ethiopia. Second, the conflict in Somalia was overshadowed by the ongoing war between Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. With a major personnel change taking place at the Department of State in early July, as George Shultz replaced Alexander Haig as secretary of state, coupled with these developments in the Middle East, it was not surprising that the U.S. response was delayed and temperate in its execution.

A prompt and positive U.S. response was necessary for political and psychological purposes rather than for any impact it would have on the ground. Between 1979 and 1983, Somalia imported $580 million worth of arms, of which only $30 million came from the United States. So in the short term, even after the United States got involved on the ground in Somalia, U.S. weapons would make up only a small portion of what the Somalis added to their arsenal. During this period, Mogadishu’s two most important sources of supply were Italy and China, who delivered $410 million and $50 million worth of arms, respectively.

However, unlike the situation in 1977-1978, when the world’s attention was focused on the Horn, this latest in a series of border clashes went largely unnoticed. Somalia’s arms and financial supporters had become too involved in their own affairs to be of much help to Mogadishu. The fall of the shah of Iran was a particularly hard blow; the Iranian arms connection had proven especially useful, though futile, during the 1977-1978 Ogaden War. Given the implacable hostility toward the United States of the new Islamic government in Teheran, the Iranian option was closed after Somalia agreed to become a part of Washington’s Southwest Asia base network. Then in October 1980, having failed to score a quick victory over Iran after crossing the Shatt al-Arab the previous month, Iraq ceased oil shipments to Somalia—shipments that had totaled $17 million per month on a concessionary sales basis. Baghdad’s decision may also have been affected by its displeasure with Mogadishu’s pro-U.S. alignment, fearing that Somalia might be used as a staging area by the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) for unwanted interference in Middle Eastern affairs. This concern was not wholly without foundation; even high-ranking Saudi officials believed that the RDF was more likely to be used to seize rather than defend the oil fields.

The outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf also diverted the attentions of Saudi Arabia, which had been so instrumental in building the anti-Soviet consensus in the Red Sea region at the end of the 1970s. Between early February and late May 1981, Riyadh became involved in forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Then, at the end of the year, an Iranian-backed plot to overthrow the government of Bahrain and destabilize the Saudi kingdom was uncovered. The Horn of Africa receded further into the background as the Saudis became increasingly absorbed in trying to prevent an Iranian victory over Iraq. In the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia was most concerned with the situation in the Yemens, where fighting had broken out in March 1982 between the Saudi-supported North Yemeni (YAR) government and the radical, PDRY-backed National Democratic Front (NDF) insurgents. Thus, the situation in the Horn was little more than a distracting sideshow for the Saudis.

Mogadishu’s long-term relationship with Egypt was both a blessing and a bane at this time. Siyad Barre’s support of the Camp David peace process and the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty ensured that Israel would not oppose U.S. arms transfers to Somalia. But Riyadh’s decision to join ranks with sixteen other Arab countries and the PLO, and to cease economic assistance to Egypt, as well as break off diplomatic relations with Cairo following the March 1979 Baghdad Conference, meant that Mogadishu would not be able to depend upon Egyptian aid. Moreover, in the spring of 1982 Egypt became absorbed with the diplomatic initiatives of Riyadh and Baghdad to bring Cairo back into the Arab fold and to persuade President Mubarak to send Egyptian troops to Iraq. Security issues at the southern end of the Red Sea were not at the top of Cairo’s agenda, either.

Thus, between September 1980 and July 1982 the Persian Gulf War completely overshadowed what was transpiring in the Horn of Africa. While between 1979 and 1982 Mogadishu had been able to purchase several hundred million dollars worth of arms, mostly from Italy, Siyad Barre needed the psychological support of an interested outside backer on the ground in Somalia. But on the very day (July 14, 1982) that Somalia informed Washington of the Ethiopian incursion, Iran launched a major counteroffensive against Iraq. Moreover, on June 6 Israel had invaded Lebanon, a move that American policymakers struggled to resolve throughout the rest of the summer. Now, virtually ignored because of the Persian Gulf conflict and Middle East situation, Siyad Barre was in no position to threaten defection to another arms supplier.


Washington’s response to the fighting in Somalia was quite temperate despite the involvement of Ethiopian forces. Ten days passed between the date of the Somali request (July 14) and the first arms delivery (July 24). In this instance, the Reagan administration did little more than try to stabilize the situation. Some critics in Congress feared that Somalia might use the incident to expand the conflict into Ethiopia. In any event, given U.S. options elsewhere, there was no reason to rush blindly to Somalia’s aid.

Washington’s cautious approach reflected a declining interest in Somalia as a strategic asset. It was questionable whether Somali facilities would be needed to execute U.S. military options in Southwest Asia. The port and air facilities at Berbera would be only marginally useful in most contingencies. Moreover, the United States could conduct military operations from other sites in the southern Red Sea area and contain radical influence in northeast Africa without running the political risks associated with Somalia.

However, not all U.S. officials were suffering from buyer’s remorse. At the Pentagon the U.S.-Somalia arms-for-access arrangement a real bargain; in relative terms, U.S. security assistance (or the rent paid to Mogadishu) amounted to “peanuts. Moreover, the United States was getting a lot for those peanuts. Berbera’s location at the mouth of the Bab al-Mandab and across the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian Peninsula, not to mention its 15,000-foot concrete runway and natural harbor, and Mogadishu’s position on the Indian Ocean near the main sea lanes, were ideally situated to support the deployment of the RDF, sea control operations in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and long-range reconnaissance missions in peacetime. While some critics noted that Berbera was too distant from the Strait of Hormuz (1,350 miles) to be of significant value in supporting Persian Gulf military operations, it was more than 1,000 miles closer to the Persian Gulf than Diego Garcia and Mombasa. Moreover, if the United States chose to sealift supplies into the Persian Gulf, Berbera would be less prone to sea lane or choke-point disruption than Egyptian military facilities.

But Berbera was also very vulnerable to attack. Directly across the Gulf of Aden, the Russians maintained access to South Yemen’s port of Aden. Five hundred miles to the east, the Soviet Union was building a base on Socotra Island (PDRY). Berbera was less than 150 miles from the Ethiopian border. If a Persian Gulf conflict were to escalate horizontally and superpower client states were to come under attack, Berbera would be one of the least defensible facilities.

Moreover, there seemed to be little reason to run political risks in Somalia, given the growing redundancy of U.S. bases in Southwest Asia. While Somali military facilities gave the United States greater flexibility, they were not indispensable. Long-range Pentagon military construction plans allocated only $24 million (out of $1.25 billion) to repair oil storage and other facilities at Berbera. Somalia fell a distant fifth behind Diego Garcia, Egypt, Oman, and Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya in dollar amounts requested by the Reagan administration for the region. Lt. Gen. Ernest Graves, director of the International Security Assistance Agency, put the situation into perspective in testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1981: “Berbera is important to us but considering the complex of bases we have in the area, it may not be as (important) as it was in the Russian network.”

The Carter Doctrine initially called for the United States to acquire base-access rights in three host countries — Somalia, Kenya, and Oman — to support U.S. naval deployments and the RDF. Of these three agreements, the military sites in Oman, especially at Masirah Island, were considered most valuable, owing to their strategic location near the Strait of Hormuz. But Oman’s forward position also meant it might come under attack and be rendered inoperable early in a conflict. Relying on Oman was also politically risky; it would be susceptible to the pressures of Iran and other GCC members against its military relationship with the United States.

To expand its flexibility, in late 1980 the United States accepted Anwar Sadat’s offer allowing U.S. forces to use Egyptian military facilities for deployment operations. American military construction at Ras Banas, Egypt, on the Red Sea was expected to total over $522 million through FY 1985, making it the second most expensive project in Washington‘s Southwest Asia strategic network behind Diego Garcia. Among the onshore facilities, Ras Banas was to become the centerpiece for U.S. military planning: it could serve as a rear staging area for Persian Gulf operations and as a potential forward staging site for other Middle Eastern-North African contingencies. Flexibility was further enhanced by Egypt’s willingness to allow deployment of U.S. forces at its military facilities before committing them to combat or before the outbreak of hostilities. The military utility of Ras Banas would be complemented by the political benefit of dealing with Egypt, a more independent-minded Middle Eastern state.

Following the events in Iran and Afghanistan, the United States accelerated military construction at Diego Garcia and the transformation of the island into a “major logistical support base.” For FY 1981-FY 1982, a military construction budget of approximately $370 million was authorized to expand the base. Although Diego Garcia was the most distant of the Southwest Asia facilities, it was the only one under direct U.S. control. However, political issues threatened to complicate U.S. strategic planning involving the island base: legal controversies over the sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago and the fate of the displaced Ilois inhabitants as well as the movement to demilitarize the Indian Ocean or declare the region a nuclear-free zone. Nonetheless, U.S. military planning for Southwest Asia continued to revolve around Diego Garcia. It could become even more important if, as some analysts suggested, the United States were to rely more heavily or exclusively upon maritime prepositioning and capabilities to secure U.S. interests in the region.

Somalia’s declining political-strategic importance in the U.S. security calculation was affected most directly by the United States’ decision to rely on Sudan for securing its interests in the Horn of Africa. The Carter administration had set this policy in motion by providing $65.4 million in security assistance in FY 1980 and by authorizing $82.3 million in SAP funds and approving $43 million worth of FMS cash sales to Khartoum for FY 1981. U.S. emphasis on arms transfers and military support for Khartoum grew even more during the Reagan years. During FY 1982, the United States provided Sudan with SAP funds and approved FMS cash arms purchases valued at almost $300 million. In early 1982 the administration proposed an FY 1983 SAP-FMS cash package worth more than $270 million.

Sudan’s emergence as Washington’s leading SAP recipient in sub-Sahara Africa in the early 1980s was in part a reward for the stands taken by the Nimeiri government on global and regional issues. President Nimeiri’s support for the Camp David accords and Egyptian-Israeli peace process, his adoption of a forceful anti-Soviet, antiradical stance in the Red Sea region, and his moderating influence in the Horn of Africa had impressed both the Carter and Reagan administrations. In supporting Sudan, the United States also demonstrated an acute sensitivity to Egypt’s traditional concerns about preventing threats to the How of the Nile waters and the need to secure its southern buffer zone. Cairo’s concerns gave a more ominous meaning to Libyan interference in Chad and Sudan in 1981-1982. As for the Horn itself, exercising the Sudanese option offered a way to counter Soviet influence in Ethiopia without having to arm Somalia. Moreover, arming Sudan, and Kenya as well, would not be so provocative politically within the African regional context.

From a strategic point of view, there was little reason for the United States to rush to Siyad Barre’s aid in July 1982, given the marginal utility of Somali military facilities. Washington had no interest in picking up where the Soviets had left off and turning Somalia into a major overseas military site. There were other more attractive locations, geographically and politically, from which to choose in the region. Egypt and Oman were nearer to areas where U.S. forces might be deployed in a crisis. Diego Garcia and Kenya, in serving as rear staging sites for the RDF, offered political security not available in Somalia. While Washington did wish to keep Somalia out of Moscow’s hands and provide some insurance against potential military contingencies, in the final analysis, Somalia’s strategic marginality justified a cautious response.


By 1982 Somalia had virtually collapsed economically and politically. As a result of the continuing guerrilla conflict in the Ogaden, Somalia was confronting a mounting refugee problem. Addis Ababa had adopted what appeared to be a policy of depopulation to suppress Somali dissent in the Ogaden. However, the refugee crisis tended to exacerbate existing political and economic problems. The economy had stagnated, government institutions were in a state of paralysis, and Siyad Barre had tribalized Somali politics in order to survive in power.

After assuming power in 1969, Siyad Barre continued to cite the revolution to legitimize his government. Power lay in the hands of the Somali president, who headed the Supreme Revolutionary Council and controlled Somalia’s only legal party, the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP). Individual liberties were subordinated to the needs of the state and tight controls were placed on civil and political rights. Open criticism of the government was not permitted, and dissenters risked arbitrary arrest. There were “unsubstantiated” reports of torture; political dissenters were not always accorded fair trials; and some civilian government officials overthrown in 1969, including a former prime minister, were political prisoners. To carry out this repression, Siyad Barre had created (with Soviet and East European assistance) a pervasive security apparatus, the National Security Service (NSS).

In 1979 a new constitution was adopted that confirmed existing state institutions, provided some guarantees of individual rights, and called for the establishment that December of a people’s assembly with tightly circumscribed functions. Even after a parliament was elected in 1980, the real authority continued to be in Siyad Barre’s hands. In October 1980, Barre declared a state of emergency and suspended constitutional guarantees on the grounds of domestic economic inefficiency, corruption, and external threats. At the time the Somali Salvation Front (SSF) was carrying out sporadic bombings in Mogadishu, and the government was trying to cope with hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who had fled the Ogaden. The state of emergency remained in effect, and Barre ruled through presidential decrees, until February 1982. Nonetheless, U.S. officials did not feel that Barre’s declared state of emergency was accompanied by any additional repressive measures.

While the Reagan administration did not seem appalled by the human rights situation in Somalia, by 1982 the State Department was becoming concerned about Siyad Barre’s exclusionary clan politics. Although all major Somali clans were represented in the government, the military, and the SRSP, Siyad’s small Mareehan clan enjoyed disproportionate representation and political influence. Siyad also had the support of the Ogaden clan, which like the Mareehan were strongly represented in these institutions. The Dulbahante clan completed the triumvirate of Siyad’s core support, collectively known as the “MOD connection.”

Clan rivalries, inherent in Somali’s sociopolitical landscape, were exacerbated by Siyad Barre’s manipulation of clan divisions and interests. Although opposition to Siyad’s rule extended across clan lines, only the Majeerteen and Isaaq dissidents fielded active resistance units. Operating in the northern border area of Somalia was the Somali National Movement (SN M), an Isaaq-based clan group founded in London in 1979 that moved its headquarters to Addis Ababa in June 1982. The Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), a Majeerteen-based clan group, was responsible for the June 1982 border incursion. This intrusion prompted Siyad Barre to declare a state of emergency in the central region under attack, conscript recruits for the armed forces, and confiscate property for the war effort.

While the Reagan administration seemed most concerned about Siyad Barre’s manipulation of clan rivalries and the external threat posed by a heavily armed, Soviet-backed Ethiopia, the U.S. Congress began to focus attention on the human rights situation in Somalia. Between November 1981 and March 1982, a series of hearings were held before several sub-committees of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs concerning the implementation of congressionally mandated human rights provisions, in which Somalia figured prominently. In a statement submitted by Congressman Toby Moffett, which drew upon recent reports by Amnesty International, Siyad Barre’s government was described as showing a “blatant disregard for the needs and rights of its citizens.” He advised the United States to “think twice before aligning [itself] with that government.” It would be “folly” to depend upon such an inherently unstable repressive government; by helping “the unpopular, opportunistic and corrupt Barre regime,” the United States would “be repeating the mistakes [it] made in propping up such tyrants as Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua.” Siyad Barre was a notorious opportunist who had “no real love for the West, and [could not] be relied upon as an ally.” The United States would be wise to “move slowly and carefully in dealing with a government which may be overthrown by a growing opposition, or which may abandon us to any power which makes a better offer.”

While those voicing human rights concerns on Capitol Hill certainly appeared sincere, Siyad Barre and the Reagan administration may have detected a hidden agenda: using this issue to keep U.S. weapons out of Somalia. To ensure that Barre understood what was happening, in January 1982 the U.S. ambassador in Mogadishu reminded the Somali government of Washington’s commitment to human rights and congressional interest in the status of Somalia’s political prisoners. In February, on the eve of his visit to the United States, Siyad released several prominent political prisoners, including former Prime Minister Ibrahim Egal. During Siyad’s stay in Washington, the administration expressed its support for the release of political prisoners and urged continued progress in this regard. However, in June, Barre ordered the arrest and investigation of one of the released prisoners and six other high-ranking government officials for crimes against the state.

As a result of this political repression and exploitation of clan rivalries, Siyad Barre faced growing opposition. Barre became the symbol of all that was wrong with Somalia. He was seen as being nothing more than a clan leader using divide-and-rule tactics and repression to perpetuate his own rule and the interests of his clan. By the end of 1981, ridding Somalia of Siyad Barre had become the focus of editorials and articles in the American-based journal the Horn of Africa. Both the SNM and the SSDF were committed to the violent overthrow of Siyad Barre’s clan-based regime. Thus, Mogadishu’s security agenda, at least temporarily, had been diverted from pursuing irredentist claims in the Ogaden to waging a counterinsurgency campaign inside Somalia to ensure the survival of an authoritarian regime.

Therefore, Siyad had to be careful not to push the United States too hard on the military aid issue; the Americans might decide to stay clear of the deteriorating situation in Somalia. Barre’s repression of religious leaders and civilian demonstrators in the north, as well as the use of arms to suppress dissent among Somali clans along the Ethiopian border, had edged Somalia closer to the brink of full-scale civil war. Moreover, the deposition of Siyad Barre would not necessarily harm U.S. interests. By remaining on the sidelines, the United States could perhaps maintain its position in Somalia after Barre passed from the scene. A passive U.S. response to the Ethiopian intrusion might even cause the collapse of Siyad’s government or prompt the Somali military to act against him.

Thus, a positive U.S. response to Somalia’s July 1982 arms request carried an important symbolic political meaning for Siyad Barre. American support in this situation would help to bolster Barre’s position, at least to the extent that it would create the impression that his continuation in power was a vital prerequisite for U.S. aid to Somalia. Even if the United States had no interest in helping Siyad survive politically, to maintain influence in a post-Barre Somalia, the United States would need to make some gesture of support for Somalia’s territorial integrity. Still, Siyad could not ask the Americans for too much; if be scared them away, he would be left facing alone what was, in essence, a threat to his rule.


When the Ethiopian and SSDF forces invaded Somalia, a significant change in attitude had occurred among some high-ranking and mid-level analysts in the Defense and State departments regarding the arming of Somalia. Although the Reagan administration recognized that it had inherited a very delicate situation in Somalia, there was a growing confidence that Mogadishu could be controlled. Because the situation in Somalia was deteriorating, and the balance of forces in the Horn of Africa heavily favored Addis Ababa, Mogadishu would apparently be highly dependent upon the United States. The military imbalance in the Horn would deter another Somali invasion of Ethiopia and would also allow Washington to contain the Somalis.

American policymakers premised their optimistic assessment upon the notion that the modest “defensive” American security assistance program planned for Somalia would come nowhere near matching what the Soviets had been doing in Ethiopia. Somalia could not pose an offensive threat; it was no match for Ethiopia’s army, now stocked with over a thousand tanks, artillery pieces, and several dozen modern combat aircraft. The United States could only “do band-aids for Somalia” with the money it was giving Mogadishu. At best, U.S. aid might make future Ethiopian ventures into Somalia more costly. In fact, given what the Soviet Union was doing in Ethiopia, some Pentagon officials believed that U.S. aid for Somalia was inadequate.

American military officials intimately involved in overseeing the Somali SAP felt that it would be some time before Mogadishu possessed the military capability to pose a threat to anyone in the region. It would take three to five years to have some impact on the ground and five to ten years to cause a major turnaround in the program. Defense Department analysts saw such a gap between Ethiopia and Somalia that they felt there was nothing the United States could do in the next five years to cause Ethiopia to fear Somalia’s conventional capability. American officials did not expect a repeat of the 1977-1978 Ogaden War. Not only were the Somalis incapable of successfully waging war, but also there was no opportunity, as there had been during the tumultuous years of the Ethiopian revolution.

As a result of Somalia’s weak military posture in the region, the Reagan administration was less leery of placing arms in Somalia. It was believed that Mogadishu’s actions could be controlled in the short run. Moreover, the longer the United States maintained a political-military foothold in Somalia, according to one line of reasoning, the better chance it stood of preventing the Somalis from going back into Ethiopia—or, for that matter, Kenya or Djibouti. If the United States could keep the Somali Army out of the Ogaden for a generation, the Somali irredentist problem in the Horn might solve itself. But to acquire this longer-term leverage over Mogadishu, the United States would have to start putting arms into Somalia.

Critics argued that once American weapons arrived, it would be impossible to extricate the United States from a difficult situation in Somalia without suffering some negative political fallout. It would be easier to withhold or withdraw U.S. support before the United States started using Berbera or putting arms on the ground. If Ethiopia attacked or bombed Berbera and the Americans defended themselves, they risked being drawn into fighting Somalia’s war. Skeptics at the Africa Bureau and on Capitol Hill believed that the United States should delay the transfer of arms to Somalia as long as possible to test the seriousness of Mogadishu’s pledge to stay out of the Ogaden. Thus, the main argument in Washington against arming Somalia was the risk of suffering a foreign policy humiliation by abandoning an arms client in the face of certain defeat by a Soviet-backed state.

What was largely absent from this debate was a concern for the implications of sending arms to a Somali government engaged in suppressing human rights and waging a counterinsurgency war. Instead, the possibility that Ethiopia and Somalia might fight a protracted, proxy guerrilla war while refraining from sending their forces across the border, was foremost in the minds of U.S. officials. The decision to send arms to Somalia implied that as long as these weapons were used to stabilize the situation inside Somalia and not to extend the fighting into Ethiopia, Washington would not question their use.

For the most part, Africa Bureau officials were still not confident about the U.S. military role in Somalia. Africanists at the State Department still hoped to salvage something in Ethiopia. Despite the Soviet bear hug of Addis Ababa, U.S. military aid to Somalia would endanger more important long-term relationships with Ethiopia and Kenya. While Addis Ababa’s opinion might not have mattered so much in Washington, Nairobi’s view of the Somalis was important and quite well known: “We know our neighbor. . . . As soon as the weapons are delivered, they’ll be in the Ogaden.” Comments by Somali defense officials to their U.S. counterparts did little to dispel the notion that Somalia posed a threat to its neighbors. One Somali military official derisively dismissed Kenya’s paranoia by observing that one Somali soldier was the equal of ten Ethiopian soldiers, and one Ethiopian soldier was equal to ten Sudanese soldiers, and one Sudanese soldier was equal to ten Kenyan soldiers—the Kenyans were afraid of everything. While the boast that one Somali soldier was the equal of 1,000 Kenyan soldiers may have amused Pentagon officials, it was not the sort of anecdote to inspire confidence in Somalia at the Africa Bureau or on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. decision to implement the emergency airlift in July 1982 was based on the belief that by making an arms commitment to Somalia, through the 1980 arms-for-access accord, the United States had already placed its credibility on the line. What gave this argument greater legitimacy and momentum was Addis Ababa’s accelerating move toward the radical camp as a result of its associations with the Soviet Union, and more recently with the PDRY and Libya. Some administration officials outside the Africa Bureau began to question whether it really made a difference what happened to U.S.-Ethiopia relations. If Addis Ababa did not like what Washington was doing in Somalia that was “too bad for Ethiopia.” Besides, Ethiopia now appeared to be threatening Somalia’s security by supporting Somali dissidents, so why should Washington hold back on arms shipments to Mogadishu. With the concurrence of the State Department, the U.S. charge in Addis Ababa, David Korn, warned the Ethiopian government following the arms airlift to Somalia that summer that “if fighting continued, the United States would move to arm Somalia beyond anything contemplated up to that time.”

Even before the June 1982 Ethiopian incursion, some officials at the Defense Department and the State Departments Policy Planning Staff felt that the United States needed to be moving ahead in Somalia. Mogadishu should be rewarded for supporting Washington’s Southwest Asia strategy. As an additional rationale for moving ahead, Ethiopian-backed aggression and Addis Ababa’s alignment with radical forces in the region actively engaged in undermining U.S. interests posed a threat. Given Somalia’s long-term military vulnerability, the United States could move forward with its plan to arm Mogadishu “defensively” and not get its fingers burned in the process. Simple arithmetic and a bit of optimism suggested that the United States could control Mogadishu’s irredentist ambitions. The United States established a kind of crude balance: Somalia would not be armed to such an extent that it could threaten Ethiopia, while Addis Ababa knew aggression against Somalia would result in increased U.S. arms transfers to Mogadishu.


There was a twofold purpose to Washington’s “great stall” policy toward Somalia between August 1980 and July 1982. It offered the opportunity to test Siyad Barre’s sincerity in promising to keep the Somali military out of the Ogaden. Until Washington felt more confident about Somalia keeping its ambitions in check, the stall also precluded what the critics feared would be an irreversible security commitment whereby U.S. credibility would be placed on the line prematurely in a very uncertain situation. Thus, until the l982 crisis, the slow-moving U.S. arms transfers process allowed Washington to buy time.

Ronald Reagan’s decision to end the “great stall” was predicated upon a determination to blunt radical advances and the destabilization campaign against pro-Western states in the region. The availability of alternative base sites in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, and Diego Garcia, coupled with the fact that Somalia could not threaten to defect to the Soviet Union, allowed the United States to respond in a somewhat tempered manner. However, the administration felt compelled to accelerate the delivery of U.S. military equipment to Somalia because of its own globalist obsession with containment and maintaining U.S. credibility in the region, not because of any overriding strategic rationale. Given Washington’s perception of the situation; the administration convinced itself that something had to be done to contain what was viewed as a Soviet-backed radical challenge. Moreover, after the charges hurled by the Republicans at Jimmy Carter over the desertion of the shah of Iran, the Reagan administration was not going to be accused of abandoning a state the United States had signed a military agreement with and which was now under siege by radical forces. Besides, since Reagan had taken office, the Somalis had kept their word and stayed out of the Ogaden. So it was time for the United States to fulfill its obligation and reward Mogadishu for good behavior.

Except for a slightly speeded-up timetable, the United States did not do anything not already planned for Somalia. Siyad Barre had a weak hand to play vis-a-vis the United States, given Somalia’s vulnerability to external attack and the externally supported internal challenge to Siyad’s rule. Although Somalia had no trouble obtaining arms from non-U.S. sources, in contrast to the Ogaden War of 1977-1978, Mogadishu’s traditional Middle Eastern friends showed little interest in the affair. Their concern with the Persian Gulf conflict and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon highlighted the importance of having a superpower backer that could respond to simultaneous crises. Mogadishu could take some satisfaction in the Reagan administration’s increased SAP funding for Somalia at this time. However, because for three years the Somalis had been unable to alter the basic negative perception of them on Capitol Hill and among working-level officials at the State Department, Siyad Barre had little choice but to accept what the Americans were willing to offer during this crisis.

As a result of this crisis, Washington was forced to begin placing arms in Somalia. Until the Ethiopian incursion, U.S. policy was based on the assumption that Ethiopia and Somalia would engage in a proxy destabilization campaign in which their common border would be respected. This low-intensity struggle was a fact of life that might continue indefinitely. But so long as Ethiopia and Somalia kept their military forces on their own side of the border and U.S. weapons did not find their way into the hands of the WSLF, there was no reason to do anything out of the ordinary. However, now that Ethiopia had violated Washington’s tacit rules of behavior, there was no longer any reason to hold back arms from Somalia. Ethiopia’s military encroachment was taken as a signal that it was time for the United States to meet its security obligation to Somalia. Moreover, the administration believed that by carefully increasing or decreasing the flow of arms into Somalia, U.S. policy could deter aggression by either Somalia or Ethiopia.

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