The Washington Post reported Tuesday that “the Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.” There are to be four bases, one each in Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, and the Seychelles (we could add to this list a fifth, namely the CIA presence in Somalia, as reported by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation). Of these bases, as some readers know, two are not new at all: the base in Djibouti has been used by French and American forces for years, while drones have been operating from the Seychelles since at least 2009. The really new news for the greater Horn of Africa, then, is the base in Ethiopia.
The Washington Post gives a few more details:
One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.
[A] former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.
The BBC emphasizes the backlash that drone strikes have caused in Yemen, but basing drones on the continent of Africa entails political risks there as well. As Wired‘s Danger Room notes, building bases in Africa undermines earlier US government assurances to African leaders that the US would not seek a larger military foothold on the continent. Other African countries looking at Ethiopia could begin to feel more uneasy about long-term US intentions in Africa. Within Somalia, drone strikes could kill major terrorists – but they could also hit civilians, inflaming anger against the US, weakening support for the US-backed Transitional Federal Government, and even driving recruits toward the Shabab rebel movement.
The new base could also negatively affect Washington’s relationship with Ethiopia. If the Ethiopians “were not all that jazzed” about drones for the past four years, they may become quite angry if drone strikes kill civilians or stir up anti-Ethiopian resentment in Somalia and in the Ogaden region. Ethiopia’s government is of course happy to receive US military assistance and to strengthen its relationship with Washington, but the negative aspects of a widening drone war may loom larger than the benefits after a while. The idea of Ethiopia playing Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan, with all the tensions that relationship entails for the two countries and for the US, is a troubling scenario.
Basing drones in Ethiopia is a logical extension of current US policy in the region (and part of a larger projection of US power throughout the western Indian Ocean, as Danger Room writes). This policy continues to carry significant risks, however, not only of causing a backlash inside Somalia but also of straining relations between the US and various African governments, starting with Ethiopia.