First President Trump and now President Biden are on the back foot in the Horn.

In December 2020 President Trump ordered the withdrawal of nearly all US troops from Somalia by 15 January. The US had about 700 troops in the country helping local forces fight al-Shabab and Islamic State militants.

Under President Biden there was some thought about reversing this decision, but little indication that the 700 soldiers are going back to Somalia in force.

This has left the American role in the Somalia badly weakened – as the Military Times acknowledged in April 2021:

Three months after the completed drawdown, senior U.S. Africa Command leaders say that they are essentially doing the same work, but “commuting” from Europe and other East African countries to get it done.

“There’s no denying that the repositioning of forces out of Somalia has introduced new layers of complexity and risk,” Army. Gen. Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM’s boss, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “… our understanding of what’s happening in Somalia is less now than it was when we were there on the ground, physically located with our partners. So we’re working to make this new mode of operation work.”

Biden takes charge

Since coming to office President Biden has invested an enormous amount of time and effort to resolve the Tigray war – so far to little effect.

On 10th January President Biden made a phone call to Prime Minister Abiy. For a an American President to call an African leader is something of a rarity, but also an indication of weakness.

The frustration in the White House was revealed in a press briefing. The Biden administration has been working hard to end the Tigray conflict, but is failing to make progress.

As I think many of you know, we sent a Senator Chris Coons out to speak — as a personal emissary of the President — with the Prime Minister early in our tenure and named a very senior diplomat, Jeff Feltman, as our Special Envoy to help manage this crisis. 

This has, obviously, also been a major focus of time across our administration — from the President to the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and really to the entire national security interagency — with regular meetings among senior officials held on this topic. 

Background Briefing

China takes the initiative

While the United States has had to resort to apparently ineffective diplomacy to get its way, the Chinese have used other means.

  • In 2016 the Chinese acquired a military base in Djibouti – joining American, French and other foreign forces in the country.
  • Then, in November last year China added Eritrea to its growing list of countries that have signed up to its Belt and Road economic initiative.
  • In January this year Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, visited Asmara.

An article in the China Daily revealed in 2010 that Beijing had its eyes on the country: “Blessed with large deposits of precious minerals such as gold, silver, copper and zinc.” 

Isaias Zedong?

Wang held talks with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki who, after joining the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1966, received military training in China and is considered an “old friend” of the country.

confidential cable from the US Embassy in Asmara dated October 2009 and published by whistleblower platform Wikileaks the president is referred to as: “Isaias Zedong?” 

Erena published a useful insight into just what Isaias learned during his time in China.

Little is known about the fighters’ training in China, however, confirmedly they brought back with them the ‘germ’ of Communism (as it’s spitefully put by conservative ELF die-hards,) and subsequently worked to vertically shred ELF from head to feet by establishing the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, the pro-Marxist rival that succeeded in undermining ELF in the early 1980s. For ten years, Ramadan served as the EPLF Secretary-General, but his Assistant Secretary-General, Afwerki had unquestionable control of the military, intelligence, logistics, and finance of the organization leaving his senior with pathetic nominal powers.

Chinese influence was everywhere in the vanguard revolutionary organization from ideology to day-to-day working codes. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Army, EPLA, modeled after Mao’s People’s Red Army, was the striking force that defeated the Ethiopian army and secured the independence of the country in 1991.

The Red Dragon Model

After independence ‘Betsai’ (Comrade) Isias Afewerki, in a Mao-like power grab became the Head of the Provisional Eritrean Government in addition to his post as the chairperson of the EPLF and the supreme commander of the armed forces.
Taking China as a role model, he doesn’t allow the establishment of political parties; or the growth of a private sector as the party-owned companies wield absolute control over the impoverished economy. As in China, freedom of movement between towns and regions in Eritrea is not allowed without permission. Traveling abroad is only allowed after obtaining an Exit Visa from Immigration Department. Moreover, China and Eritrea share disgraceful records of suppressing private press and indefinite incarnation of journalists.
Kim Jong-un and Isias Afwerki have excellently copied the murkiest features of the Chinese experience. No wonder Eritrea wins the praises of China as an example for other ‘independent’ African nations.

In 2018 Prime Minister Abiy made peace with Eritrea, visiting Asmara and warmly receiving President Isaias in return.

This ended the “no-war, no-peace” stalemate that had existed since the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war on 1998-2000.

The United States played a role in bringing about a peace, but it is now reported by Reclaim Eritrea that the Chinese also helped bring the two sides together. Exactly what Beijing’s role was is not revealed.

Beijing also has investments in Eritrea. In 2018, China paid US $1.8bn to take over Nevsun’s gold and copper-rich Bisha mine investment.

Is it any wonder that the Chinese (working with the Russians) have been blocking any serious discussion of the Tigray war, or Eritrea’s role in it, at the UN?


President Isaias knows he has a firm friend in the Chinese. They have already provided drones to his ally, PM Abiy: weapons which have been critical in turning the war against the Tigrayans.

Beijing does not raise difficult human rights questions for President Isaias and is hardly likely to ask why he has held no free and fair multiparty elections, when no such elections are tolerated in China.

Will Eritrea, Ethiopia and the wider Horn now permanently turn away from Washington and towards Beijing?

It is too early to reach a firm conclusion. But the signs for the United States are not looking good.