Tiny Eritrea – a Gnat in Washington’s Eye

President Isaias Afworki of Eritrea has a reputation for being one of the world’s most congenial national leaders. Eschewing bodyguards, he governs from a modest villa, or “presidential palace” in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, where visitors are met by a smiling aide who ushers them inside. A comely woman secretary greets them at the door of the Afworki’s office.

A gracious host, Afworki often takes visitors on a barhopping tour of the city. Driving his own car, he flits from one establishment to the next, chatting with bar owners like old friends.

Afworki governs one of the world’s smallest and most impoverished countries (see map).

Eritrea is home to 4.5 million people, half of them Eritrean Orthodox Christians and the other half Muslims. Per capita income stood at $190 in 2002, but dropped to less than $130 in 2004, mainly as a result of Eritrea’s four-year-old war and border dispute with its much larger southern neighbor, Ethiopia.

So it was only natural that financial aid was on the agenda when Afworki began an official four-day visit to oil-rich Kuwait Saturday, October 2. The emirate has been less than generous toward Eritrea, providing only several hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid every year. This time, Kuwait was ready to fork over some big bucks. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Horn of Africa report there was a catch – Afworki was told in no uncertain terms he had to play ball over the hot issue of Sudan.

The aid offer, orchestrated by the United States, was part of a US plan to force Afworki to stop interfering in Sudan’s Darfur crisis, where more than one million people have fled their homes and up to 50,000 have been killed since rebels, claiming Sudanese leaders were oppressing blacks in favor of Arabs, began attacking government targets in 2003.

Our sources believe Afworki will make a show of disengaging from the conflict, hoping to cash in on Kuwaiti aid before Washington wises up to his tricks.

At a news conference Tuesday, October 5 in Kuwait’s Bayan Palace, the Eritrean leader said he hoped his visit would “consolidate strategic relations between the two sides so as to create a suitable atmosphere for investment”. But he lost his temper when challenged over Eritrea’s interference in the internal affairs of Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen and allegations that it provides sanctuary and training facilities for rebel groups from all three countries.


Free-and-easy backing for any rebellion


“These camps do not exist and we receive all of this information from the media!” he thundered to reporters, adding sanctimoniously: “Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen must resolve their internal disputes without exporting them abroad.”

But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Eritrea is helping them do just that. It is lavishing on the three rebel black African tribes of western Darfur – the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa – weapons, money and training, as well as providing them with sanctuary. Eritrea’s military support was a primary factor in the Khartoum government’s decision to enlist and arm the Arab Janjaweed militias accused of committing ethnic cleansing and genocide against Darfur’s black African population.

While high-flying diplomats like US secretary of state Colin Powell, British foreign secretary Jack Straw and UN secretary-general Kofi Annan drop in on Darfur briefly to voice shock and indignation at the slaughter and the plight of some 1.4 million refugees, the leaders of the two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), are sitting pretty in Asmara under Afworki’s wing. They wave the visitors off, safe in the knowledge that hundreds of rebel fighters have crossed into Eritrea for six-month training courses before heading back home to fight the Janjaweed.

Darfur is not the Eritrean president’s only stake in neighboring Sudan. Our East Africa sources add the safe havens, arms, funds and training facilities granted General John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which has been at the heart of the 21-year-old war between rebels in mainly Christian or animist southern Sudan – an oil-rich region — and the Islamic government in Khartoum.

Poor Eritrea also finds the resources to back a third rebel force, the Nubians of central Sudan who too are fighting the Khartoum government.


Vanishing centerpiece of Bush foreign policy pitch


It has taken the Bush administration two years to come to terms with the fact that the amiable Afworki is out to break Sudan up into fragments. It was all the harder to accept because it entailed giving up on the grand strategy cherished by the US president’s advisers through most of 2003 to make national reconciliation in Sudan and Libya’s surrender of its nuclear programs the key talking points in President George. W. Bush’s campaign for reelection.

(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly no. 142, January 23, 2004, “However Iraq Plays Out, Bush Campaign Banks on Trumps in Libya and Sudan”).

The plan was to play a Sudanese peace, the removal of Iraq and Libya as WMD threats and the exposure of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan‘s international nuclear black market to portray the president and his running mate Dick Cheney as the only leaders able to bring off feats that would make America and the world a safer place.

The plan began to fall apart when no WMD stockpiles could be found in Iraq.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi carried out his part of the bargain, but the international community was much slower to welcome him back to the fold and put Libya on the path of political and economic rehabilitation than Washington had hoped. No one could deny that the country is still run by two strongmen – Qaddafi and his son Sayef al-Islam – and therefore scarcely a showcase for holding up to the American voter as a shining example of the kind of democracy Bush has pledged to bring to the Muslim world.

As for the nuclear network, the US administration has not been able to establish that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has kept his promise to dismantle Khan’s underground organization because the Americans are denied access to details of its operation and customer list.

And now the Darfur crisis turns up at a highly inopportune moment. The campaigning president had hoped that by resolving the long-running Sudan conflict in the south he would demonstrate to the African-American voter that he was sensitive to Africa’s woes even while fighting global terror and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, Washington was on the verge of pulling Sudanese president Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir and rebel leader Garang into a final peace accord after years of patient diplomacy, when the head of one of Africa’s weakest, poorest and smallest countries stepped in to gum up the works. The slightest disagreements at the negotiating table generated threats delivered by a Garang aide from the safety of Asmara on the lines of: “The only alternative to a comprehensive peace deal is comprehensive war.”


It’s not personal; Afworki likes America


The Eritrean president is fond of boasting that he is one of Washington’s best friends in Africa. He has opened his country to a US military presence, primarily in Eritrea’s two main ports, Assab and Massawa, the largest natural deepwater harbor on the Red Sea coast. He would be happy for the United States to set up more bases in Eritrea.

But he believes that his meddling in the turbulent affairs of his vastly superior neighbors, Sudan and Ethiopia, is the key to Eritrea’s survival.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s East Africa experts, Afworki’s strategy is not short on logic. His bedrock ambition is to weaken rival Ethiopia, whose population is 73 million people, albeit with a per capita income of barely $100. Ethiopia’s leader, Meles Zenawi, is Afworki’s third cousin but ideologically they are at odds. While Zenawi is a committed Marxist-Leninist, Afworki is a disciple of George Habash, founder of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Eritrean president, now a firm friend of Israel, worked closely with his cousin in the 1970s and 1980s. Now they are at each other’s throats, locked in a long-running border dispute.

Afworki believes Eritrea can prevail against its outsize neighbor, Ethiopia, but only if Sudan is first dismantled and partitioned. An independent Christian state carved from Sudan in the oil-rich south would then seek an outlet to the Red Sea. This would vastly improve Eritrea’s own position in the Horn of Africa. To achieve this goal, Afworki is even willing to provoke the ire of his US friend.

After catching onto the Eritrean president’s game, Washington has been leaning on him hard to pull his sticky fingers out of the Sudanese conflict, only to discover another unwelcome interloper has joined the Darfur imbroglio: France has begun furnishing the SLA and JEM with weapons and money with a view to sabotaging both the US and Eritrean maneuvers in Sudan.

At that point, the Bush administration turned to Sudan’s northern neighbor, Egypt, with a demand to shoulder some of the burdens of Sudan’s proliferating conflicts and unwanted meddlers. Egypt has after all a permanent stake in the country through which the Nile sources flow.

Only too happy to abandon his doomed efforts to bring rival Palestinian groups together and mediate a Palestinian-Israeli truce ahead of an Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip (See separate article: “Cairo No Longer Cares About Gaza”), Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his advisers switched their sights to Africa. This is anyway the diplomatic arena where Cairo has always felt most comfortable.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, a large contingent of Egyptian military officers arrived in Khartoum recently to try and revive government negotiating tracks with the various Sudanese rebel groups, starting with Garang’s SPLM.

For its part, Washington is again radiating optimism over the chances of Egypt’s intervention in Sudan and its new strategy for buying Afworki’s withdrawal from Sudan’s disputes ultimately ending Sudan’s multiple civil wars.

Wednesday, October 6, Afworki returned to Asmara with a pocketful of US-backed Kuwaiti aid pledges against a promise of his own to help defuse strife in Sudan – provided the Kuwaitis paid up in full.

But our sources are skeptical about any money payments extinguishing Afworki’s deep urge to fan the flames in Sudan.

In addition to its historic border dispute with Ethiopia, Eritrea also lays claim to the Red Sea Hanish island chain and its territorial waters, a claim disputed by Yemen on the opposite coast. (See attached map) Fighting over the islands has died down in recent months, but expected to revive soon.

The strategic importance of the Hanish archipelago is its potential as a chokepoint for sea passage between the Persian Gulf (and Indian Ocean) and the Red Sea (and Suez Canal), and its proximity to the Saudi coast.

Looking south, Afworki also sees neighboring Djibouti as a threat to his plans to turn Eritrea into the dominant nation of the Horn of Africa. He wants Assab and Asmara to take pride of place on the Red Sea rather than Djibouti which also hosts US air force and naval bases. But he has stopped short of making any military moves against this neighbor.

The Eritrean president’s intense dabbling in his neighbors’ troubles has not made him immune to the same treatment.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Intelligence sources, Saudi Arabia is supporting and funding Eritrean opposition groups, some of whose activists have crossed the Red Sea and live in the Saudi port town of Jeddah. The Khartoum government is also supporting a minor-league terrorist splinter calling itself the Islamic Jihad of Eritrea.

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