A Republican congressman says he believes it is time for the U.S. to reach out to Eritrea and forge a military partnership to fight terrorism.
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) submitted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would encourage the U.S. secretary of defense to enter into negotiations with appropriate Eritrean government officials with respect to future security cooperations on the war on terror, the security of the Red Sea region, confronting Iranian proxies in Yemen and other national security priorities of the United States.
Although the amendment was declined, Rohrabacher said he may try to push for cooperation with either a future amendment or standalone bill.
“I think it’s time for us to reach out to Eritrea and take them up on some of their offers, and do things that would be good for us and good for the order of the world in a sense they would be opposing radical Islamic terrorists,” Rohrabacher told VOA in an interview this week.
Currently, the United States has no military-to-military cooperation with Eritrea, and at the Eritrean Government’s request, the U.S. has suspended providing any bilateral assistance. The bilateral trade between the two countries is also very minimal.
Congressman Rohrabacher believes U.S. policy towards Eritrea needs to change as it is colored mostly by its neighbor and longtime enemy, Ethiopia.
“We should not be just hanging our hats on the side of someone like the Ethiopians and just letting them direct what our policy is,” he said.
“Eritrea is in a very strategic location, and it is working with people that I think are very responsible people in terms of the war against terrorists.”
According to the State Department, U.S. interests in Eritrea includes reconciling ongoing disputes with Ethiopia and Djibouti, urging progress toward a democratic political culture, citing and addressing human rights issues, promoting economic reform, and encouraging Eritrea to contribute to regional stability.
But Congressman Rohrabacher knows it is the U.S. who encouraged Ethiopia to disregard the implementation of the border ruling in exchange for “some sort of defense related deal” on Somalia.
As for the human rights, Rohrabacher believes the U.S. will have very few African allies if it allows concerns about human rights to dictate its partnerships on the continent.
“Very few of them have a human rights record and a record of [an] honest government that would be acceptable for the United States,” he said. “So we should be basically figuring out what is in the interests of our country, and does that government even meet the minimum standards of being in a relationship with us.”
In a report released last year, Bronwyn Bruton, Vice President of the African Center of the American think tank Atlantic Council, advice the Trump administration to re-think its relation with Eritrea.
Given the high stakes in the Horn of Africa, and very low level of effort that would be required to set the stage for a much better relationship in the future, it is surely in Washington’s interest to try.
“Washington has a strategic interest in repairing relations with Asmara, and the change in administration offers a convenient opportunity for a reset in relations,” states Ms Bruton in her report.
Historically, the U.S. does have military links with Eritrea. From 1943 to 1977, the U.S. Army operated the Kagnew Station in Asmara. There, the army intercepted radio messages from other countries during the Cold War.
Additionally, the U.S. considered partnering with Eritrea in 2002 when the then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the country and met with President Isaias Afwerki.
Nevertheless, Eritrea has already pivoted successfully toward new alliances in the Gulf and hosts a vast military base operated by the United Arab Emirates at its port city of Assab, from which the UAE conducts missions in its war against al-Qaeda and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
* VOA news contributed to this story.