The Ogaden region, although inhabited mainly by ethnic Somalis, was territorially part of Ethiopia and had long been a source of contention between the two nations. In August 1977, border skirmishes erupted into full-scale war, with some 30,000 troops fighting on each side. Initially, the Somali incursion into Ethiopia met with success, and by October the Somali insurgents controlled all of the Ogaden except for the strategic towns of Harar and Diredawa. As the year progressed, however, the situation began to improve for the Ethiopians, mostly because of increasing aid from the communist bloc.
During the first few months of the war, the Soviet Union had also provided military aid to Somalia. However, Ethiopia was considered the greater prize in the African Horn region, and Somali leader Mohammed Siyad Barre feared Soviet abandonment. In October 1977 his fears were realized when the Soviet Union halted all military support to Somalia while greatly increasing supplies and troops to Ethiopia. In the Cold War context, Barre took the logical step. He officially broke ties with the Soviets and Cubans in November and expelled all their military personnel. He then approached the United States for help.
Although the American president, Jimmy Carter, was anxious to improve relations with Somalia, his reorientation of American foreign policy in January 1977 had led to a de-emphasis of traditional Cold War concerns in favor of such issues as regionalism and human rights. Instead of responding to the perceived Soviet threat, Carter insisted that the United States remain neutral and applied a policy that was based on these new principles rather than on traditional Cold War considerations.
Carter cited Barre's violations of human rights and pointed out that by invading Ethiopia he had violated both international law and the Cairo Resolution of 1964, which stated that the borders of African nations would be honored and maintained. Carter therefore refused to provide Barre with military aid, called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and, following his policy that "African problems should have African solutions," suggested that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) should host peace talks.
Although the OAU attempted to negotiate a peace agreement, it met with little success. Indeed, all the warring parties seemed dedicated to a military solution to the Ogaden conflict, but the extent of communist bloc support for Ethiopia combined with the lack of support for Somalia meant that Barre's territorial ambitions were doomed to failure. On 9 March 1978 he announced that all Somali forces were being withdrawn from Ethiopia.
Even though the war ended with Ethiopia maintaining its territory, the implications of the conflict for the Cold War were far-reaching. Brzezinski would later claim that American reluctance to actively oppose communist bloc involvement in the war demonstrated American weakness and encouraged Soviet aggression. Such a perception, he believed, led to the collapse of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II Treaty, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and ultimately the failure of détente.
Donna R. Jackson
Patman, Robert. The Soviet Union in the Horn of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.; Schraeder, Peter J. United States Foreign Policy toward Africa: Incrementalism, Crisis and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.; Westad, Odd Arne, ed. The Fall of Detente: Soviet-American Relations during the Carter Years. Oslo and Oxford: Scandinavian University Press, 1997.