The Ogaden War: The Lasting Impact of the Cold War Conflict

A memorial to Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers involved in the Ogaden War. It was built during Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime. The statuary was donated by North Korea.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Moore

By Nick Kimble

For the past thirty years, the international community has perceived the Horn of Africa more as an issue than a region. Problems range from security concerns regarding a “failed state” and terrorism to humanitarian concerns about access to food and resources. However, the world has not always viewed East Africa this way. The change in perception is rooted in a Cold War proxy conflict in which the United States and the Soviet Union played a significant role, negatively transforming the region’s image for decades.

While Ethiopia largely avoided colonial occupation, the primary region of people considered “Somali” were divided into areas under French, Italian, and British control between the 1880s and 1950s. When Somalia established itself as a country, reunifying these regions was a primary objective. The new nation of Somalia did not reacquire French Djibouti, but it claimed areas in Kenya and Ethiopia as rightfully theirs. After a failed invasion of Kenya in 1963, there was significant tension within the Somali political scene for unification. A 1969 left-wing military coup by General Siad Barre, inspired by a similar socialist movement in South Yemen, set the stage for a new conflict. 

The United States was mired in a war in Vietnam and, guided by the prevailing “Domino Theory,” feared that Africa would succumb to the communist doctrine. When the Derg, or Provisional Military Administrative Council, ousted Emperor Haile Selassie’s administration and declared a new socialist government in Ethiopia five years later, America felt they were losing the region permanently.

Along its western border, called the Ogaden, a wedge of Ethiopian land drove a wedge between the north and south of Somalia. Somalia intended to incorporate this territory to cut off Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea and seize control of its major airfield. Additionally, many Somalis felt that they had close ethnic ties to the nomadic peoples living in the Ogaden region. An annexation would safeguard these ethnic Somalis while enlarging Ethiopia’s boundaries despite the ongoing carnage. As it became clear that Somalia would invade, Cuba’s Fidel Castro pushed for peace between the socialist regimes in Somalia and Ethiopia, especially after witnessing the recent collapse of the socialist Arab League.

Siad Barre invaded on July 12, 1977. By the month’s end, it had taken over 60 percent of the Ogaden region. Allies operating within Ethiopian territory had helped the invaders, particularly the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), who quickly destroyed Ethiopian divisions and military equipment. International sentiment, however, did not support Somalia. While the Soviets had sent supplies to aid the Somalis, they endorsed the Ethiopians instead, sending General Vasily Petrov to Addis Ababa as a consultant and military advisor. In addition, the Soviets deployed a sizable airlift of weapons and supplies to support the Ethiopian defense after the Soviet General allegedly expressed shock at the condition of the Ethiopian weaponry. Subsequently, the United States supported Somalia, bringing the Cold War to East Africa.  

The war was initially going well for Somalia despite international opposition; its MiG-21 aircraft successfully controlled Ethiopian airspace and advanced up to the outskirts of Dire Dawa. However, these advantages would not last. After attempting to broker a truce, the Soviets abandoned Somalia, supporting Ethiopia’s cause wholeheartedly but refraining from dispatching military soldiers. Ethiopian help started paying off, and the defenders steadily regained air superiority. 

Ethiopia controlled 10 percent of the Ogaden by September. With air supremacy now theirs, Ethiopian jets could attack Somali armor forcefully while the wet season halted Somalian advances. Internal strife between the WSLF allies and the Somali National Army severely hampered its development. However, the central turning point in the conflict occurred during the Battle of Harar, which lasted from October 1977 until January 1978. A massive recruiting campaign had increased the number of Ethiopians, and a militia of 100,000 men joined the fight. In addition, 1,500 Soviet Military Advisors and 16,000 Cuban soldiers stood at their sides, preparing to end the war.

By August 1977, the Soviet Union had started to officially and firmly back Ethiopia. To pressure Barre into a peace deal that would allow it to continue its connections with Ethiopia and Somalia, the Soviets drastically cut off their supplies to Barre. The Somali president was incensed by the Soviet Union’s continuous backing of Barre’s adversaries, and in November 1977, he removed all Soviet advisors from Somalia. Barre thought that the new Washington administration’s sudden and urgent influx of armaments would result from this departure. 

Carter’s national security staff approached the Horn crisis with wildly different ideas about the value of détente and U.S.-Soviet competitiveness in East African affairs. The policy disagreements and power battles between National Security Advisor of the United States Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance hampered an influential and effective solution to the crisis. Brzezinski thought that the Soviet Union had quickly advanced its Marxist goal in the Third World by taking benefit of American vulnerability in the post-Vietnam era. 

Vance, on the other hand, aimed to take advantage of the détente with the Soviets to make progress in essential areas like weapons control. In addition, Vance resolved not to make the mistake Henry Kissinger had made by dismissing the nationalist nature of revolutionary campaigns, which he thought had led to a pointless and reputation-damaging engagement in the Angolan civil war. 

To avoid offending Barre, whom Brzezinski thought may be forced out of the Soviet orbit, the National Security Council reverted to a more onerous Vance-supported proposal. Barre interpreted this and other U.S. communications as an endorsement of his war and a forewarning of upcoming military support. Opportunistic blindness caused “the administration just could not move beyond the Cold War mindset,” historian Louise Prentis Woodruff later observed.

In January 1978, the exhausted, beaten, and shattered Somalis surrendered. Siad Barre’s situation was already dire and about to grow far worse. The Ethiopians began their offensive in February 1978. Ethiopian and Cuban forces pushed the Somalis back throughout the Ogaden area and undid the advances made the year before. The alliance broke for the northeast, sending a column of Cuban and Ethiopian soldiers through the treacherous terrain separating Jijiga from the Somalian border. 

With support from Soviet helicopters and a brutal Cuban artillery barrage, the Ethiopians captured Jijiga in under 48 hours, granting Somali troops control of the route which leads to the two most significant cities in the disputed Ogaden area, Harar and Dire Dawa. The Soviets could evaluate their interests in light of Somalia’s irresponsible actions during the Battle for Harar.

All Somali troops had left by the middle of March, and Ethiopia had regained control of all abandoned areas. The battle had ended. Soldiers from Cuba and Ethiopia had won a fight in the Horn of Africa by marching together. Meanwhile, the war was a resounding defeat for Siad Barre and his dictatorship. On March 9, 1978, Siad Barre issued a withdrawal order. An estimated 60,000 individuals perished in the conflict, including 15,000 Ethiopian military, 20,000 Somali soldiers, and 25,000 civilians. Along with personnel, the military had also lost over 200 tanks, 11 helicopters, and 28 aircraft—losses they could not afford. In addition, the war uprooted 500,000 of Ogaden’s ethnic Somali population.

Moreover, when counted, the communist nations of the USSR, Cuba, North Korea, and East Germany had abandoned Somalia. Continuing relations with China and Romania would not be enough to alleviate the rising isolation of Somalia in the international arena. At the same time, an attempted coup d’etat in April 1978 threatened to end the Barre rule. 

Yet Barre, whose ears were still ringing from the Ogaden’s slaughter, was not about to cede his position of authority easily. His Red Beret special military teams carried out horrifying atrocities against rebel tribes, sparking a bloody civil war in Somalia that has left countless people dead and countless others in utter misery. The aftermath of those brief months in 1977 and 1978 is this devastated nation and the tragic death toll witnessed in the Horn of Africa. 

Nick Kimble is a writer for the Realist Review. He studies International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. He is a Harvard Public Policy Leadership Scholar. He has a research background on East/West African Affairs and has won a distinction award from Stanford University on his policy memo on how the United States can strengthen relations with Kenya.






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