May 10, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, discusses an additional wrinkle in the complex dynamics of the crisis in the Horn of Africa, the activities of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Ethiopia.

Last month the ONLF launched an attack on an oilfield being developed by a Chinese firm in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State. During the subsequent fifty-minute firefight between the ONLF fighters and Ethiopian soldiers guarding the oil workers, nine Chinese and sixty-five Ethiopians were killed. Seven other Chinese workers were kidnapped before the ONLF fighters withdrew. The prisoners were subsequently released after the government of the People’s Republic of China reacted strongly against what it called an “atrocious” attack and immediately dispatched a delegation to Addis Ababa to undertake what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explicitly termed “rescue efforts” (as Dr. Pham noted, “the official communiqué in Beijing mentioned ‘rescue’ but did not say anything about ‘negotiations to secure release’”).

According to Dr. Pham, “despite [the ONLF’s] open admission of its role in the most spectacular attack within Ethiopia since the fall of the Marxist dictatorship in 1991—to say nothing of the toll of thousands of lives which ONLF ambushes and raids against Ethiopian military and civilians have exacted since 1984—the Ogadeni militants amazingly do not figure in official U.S. terror lists.” Instead, the group operates openly in the United States and, in fact, last year the deputy chairman of the ONLF, Mohamed Ismail Omar, visited Washington and was fêted on Capitol Hill by then-Congressman Mark Kennedy (R-Minnesota), whose district includes a sizable ethnic Somali population, as well as accorded a meeting at the State Department with then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Y. Yamamoto (now the U.S. ambassador in Ethiopia).

Dr. Pham argues that while the ONLF does not pose a direct threat to the United States, “this does not mean that current U.S. policy of de facto agnosticism with regard to a clearly effective militant group demonstrably capable of violence is any less misguided.” On the contrary, he notes, “as America seeks to reach out to partners new and old in Africa with the stand-up of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), we cannot afford to be perceived as exclusively concerned with groups which might impact us while ignoring the real challenges faced by our allies,” and concludes:

The ONLF attack is reminder of how far the fires in the Horn of Africa are from being extinguished. It is also underscores the need for the U.S. to forge strong ties with partners in the region to monitor, disrupt, and ultimately destroy terrorist networks in there as well as contain the instability emanating from what is left of the former Somalia. To achieve these strategic objectives, however, America needs to take its allies’ national interests—including those of the Ethiopian government which, for all its faults, is one of our staunchest allies in the Horn—as seriously as it wants them to take its security concerns.

To read the full text of Dr. Pham’s article, “Additional Sparks Fly in the Horn of Africa,” click here.