What the cables reveal about the world’s toughest places.
By now, you've read the WikiLeaked headlines, illuminating the inner workings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, or detailing the intractable regimes in Iran and North Korea. But what does Cablegate have to say about the world's forgotten conflicts -- the dimmer outposts of U.S. influence where Washington arguably has even bigger messes to confront? FP went through the archives with an eye to our 2010 Failed States issue to see what light the cables shed on these benighted places -- and whether the cables themselves may disrupt the often delicate balancing act of diplomacy. Here's what we found going down the rankings:
By now, you’ve read the WikiLeaked headlines, illuminating the inner workings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, or detailing the intractable regimes in Iran and North Korea. But what does Cablegate have to say about the world’s forgotten conflicts — the dimmer outposts of U.S. influence where Washington arguably has even bigger messes to confront? FP went through the archives with an eye to our 2010 Failed States issue to see what light the cables shed on these benighted places — and whether the cables themselves may disrupt the often delicate balancing act of diplomacy. Here’s what we found going down the rankings:
What we know: As far as countries’ governance goes, Somalia is the world’s closest approximation to anarchy. In recent years, the United States and its regional allies Kenya and Ethiopia have begun to fear that al Qaeda will take advantage of the lawlessness to establish safe havens to train foreign fighters and carry out terrorist attacks. There’s some proof that this is happening; members of the Somali Islamist militant group al Shabab publicly allied themselves with the terror network earlier this year. The group also claimed responsibility for a bombing in Uganda during the World Cup — the first al Shabab attack outside Somalia’s borders.
What we learn: The leaked cables regarding Somalia betray U.S. skepticism that foreign fighters are infiltrating the country, as they have Iraq and Afghanistan. While some foreigners are reported to have been spotted here and there, most of them come from the Somali diaspora. As an Aug. 9, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi notes, “Beyond the public support from al-Qa’ida videos encouraging foreign fighters to travel to Somalia, there is scant evidence of significant direct al-Qa’ida financial or military support for extremists in Somalia, or a foreign fighter pipeline from Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Perhaps even more interesting for Somalia watchers is a June 9, 2009, cable that describes the country’s conflict as a largely clan-against-clan turf war rather than a political or ideological struggle. This explanation conflicts with other popular accounts of the crisis, which tend to focus on religious extremism combined with the potent quest for wealth and security.
All this is not to say, however, that the U.S. government doesn’t think terrorists operate in Somalia; they’re just homegrown. In recent years, the United States has used intermittent airstrikes to take out the most notorious among them. For example, alleged terrorist Aden Hashi Ayrow, who was apparently referred to as “Somalia’s Zarqawi” by some extremists, was killed by a drone strike on June 1, 2009, a cable explains.
The curveball: In an attempt to shore up Somalia’s transitional government, the African Union and the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Mogadishu in 2007. The troops have struggled enormously, in part because there’s no peace to keep, but also because there aren’t enough of them to maintain an effective security presence. Countries have been extremely reluctant to send their soldiers into what is largely believed (even in the region) to be a deathtrap. The president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, offered a glimpse of the troops he’d pulled together for the mission in a meeting with the U.S. head of its African military command, recounted in a Dec. 1, 2009, cable: “ten or so of the former rebels, ‘since they like to fight so much’ [the president said,] are being sent off to support the African Union Mission in Somalia.”
MUSTAFA ABDI/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: After a few years off the front pages, 2011 will be a pivotal year for Sudan. As part of a 2005 peace agreement brokered by the United States to end the country’s decades-long north-south civil war, Southern Sudan will vote in January on a referendum deciding whether to secede or remain part of Sudan. Most observers believe that the south will vote overwhelmingly for independence from Khartoum. An equal number of analysts, however, warn that the northern government won’t let its southern half (particularly the lucrative oil deposits along the regional border) go without a fight.
What we learn: In advance of the referendum, both north and south Sudan have long been rumored to be undertaking an intensive military build-up. A series of cables document the extent of those arrangements in the south, whose regional government in Juba has been importing arms from Ukraine via the government in Kenya.
The transit route first came to light in September 2008, when a weapons shipment was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The tanks aboard were said to be going to Kenya, but documentation suggested they may actually have been headed for “GOSS” (the Government of Southern Sudan). The suspicions were never substantiated and the cargo was delivered to Mombasa, Kenya. But an Oct. 8, 2008, cable confirms that the “33 Ukrainian T-72 tanks and other ammunition and equipment” aboard the seized vessel were indeed headed for Juba:
Since last year, Kenya’s Ministry of Defense has indeed played a major role in assisting the Government of South Sudan receive arms shipments from the Government of Ukraine. When the shipments are off-loaded at the port of Mombasa, they are transported via rail to Uganda and then onward to Southern Sudan (ref C). Military officials have expressed discomfort with this arrangement, however, and have made it clear to us that the orders come “from the top.” (i.e., President Kibaki)
The United States government raised the issue with the government of Ukraine, documented in another cable from November 2009, saying that the arms sales represented “deliberate Ukrainian government actions that are contrary to U.S. philosophy on [weapons] exports.”
The revelations stand to raise tensions in East Africa in the coming months. While support for Southern Sudan has long been forthcoming from Sudan’s neighbors Kenya and Uganda, it has rarely been so explicit.
The curveball: Sudan’s neighbor, Uganda, blames Khartoum for paying and harboring Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal rebel group that has waged the longest-running insurgency in Africa. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer in September 2007 that “Sudan, Sudan, Sudan, Sudan” was behind the rebellion’s longevity. “[Museveni] said that even if the Khartoum Government could not supply the LRA at previous levels, he believed it was in constant touch with the LRA and smuggling supplies.”
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: In May 2008, Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe lost a democratic election for the presidency but refused to leave office, throwing the country into chaos. An emergency mediator, then-South African President Thabo Mbeki stepped in to broker a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and the poll’s winner, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. After tortuous discussions, the new government was finally formed in February 2009. Under its purview, the country stabilized and the economy finally halted its freefall into negative growth rates. Yet while Zimbabwe may be marginally better off than it was a few years ago, the governing alliance has been fraught from day one. Prime Minister Tsvangirai has pulled out of the government numerous times in protest of his exclusion from key decisions, and to this day, Mugabe remains the ultimate powerbroker.
What we learn: In early 2007, a year and a half before the presidential election was held, an exiled Zimbabwean businessman told the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa that he had an idea to sideline Mugabe: a power-sharing agreement. According to the leaked cable, the businessman explained his “idea to shift executive power from President Mugabe to a ‘technocratic’ Prime Minister. To get Mugabe to accept the deal, Mugabe would remain President until 2010 with some power over the security apparatus, but the Prime Minister would run the economy and get the country back on its feet.” The U.S. embassy in turn suggested that he continue to float the idea and mentioned possible mediators, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Interestingly, this is almost exactly what happened during later power-sharing discussions.
But not all of the Embassy’s predictions come true. Another cable signed by Amb. Christopher W. Dell proclaims that the “end is nigh” for Mugabe. He explains that, while coherent, Mugabe has made a series of irreversibly bad decisions. Dell forecasts the end of the strongman’s rule to come either through democratic elections, or through a series of catastrophic events, including palace coups, military coups, or popular uprisings.
Most interestingly, Dell cautions his colleagues in Washington against relying on Tsvangirai, describing him as flawed and indecisive. “[Tsvangarai] is the indispensable element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa character: Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country’s recovery.”
Add this to the list of awkward conversations that the State Department is having with erstwhile allies. Tsvangirai today is a staunch friend of the West in a country that has long been a pariah. As Mugabe has continued to decry the pernicious influence of Western democratic reforms, Tsvangirai has toured European capitals and spent extensive time in Washington trying to convince the United States, the World Bank, and the IMF to take embattled Zimbabwe off the aid blacklist.
The curveball: Robert Mugabe continues to manipulate the Kimberly Process, a mechanism intended to help certify that diamonds are “conflict free.” A series of leaked State Department cables recall the smuggling routes and the players involved in Zimbabwe’s diamond trade. Another ominously predicts government takeovers of the mines and mining communities, which would displace up to 25,000 Zimbabweans.
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: Pakistan has been called the most dangerous country in the world: It’s likely home to Osama bin Laden, its northern tribal areas serve as a refuge for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters fleeing U.S. operations in Afghanistan, its military and intelligence services have a history of usurping policy and civilian rule (not to mention collaborating with Islamist extremists as proxies in a cold war with neighboring India), the government is corrupt and weak, the economy is moribund, and Islamabad has nuclear weapons. Still, Pakistan is a valuable U.S. ally, and Washington has been trying its hardest to convince the military to buck up in the fight against extremists in Afghanistan since the first days of the U.S. invasion.
What we learn: Pakistan boasts the only cable released so far in which the term “failed state” is mentioned outright. Luckily for Islamabad, it’s a rebuttal of that idea. In a February 2009 backgrounder cable written for former Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, the embassy writes, “This is not a failed state. Pakistan has solid albeit weak institutions, a robust if often irresponsible media, established although under-equipped police forces, an increasingly strong civil society, and a population with a proven resiliency to withstand everything from earthquakes to kleptocracy.” Of course, the caveat shortly follows:
Although we do not believe Pakistan is a failed state, we nonetheless recognize that the challenges it confronts are dire. The government is losing more and more territory every day to foreign and domestic militant groups; deteriorating law and order in turn is undermining economic recovery. The bureaucracy is settling into third-world mediocrity, as demonstrated by some corruption and a limited capacity to implement or articulate policy.
Elsewhere in the cables, it is clear (and has been well-reported) that Pakistan continues to be an inscrutable ally, as frustrating as it is vital. Yet there is good news as well. In one of the more recent cables, dated Feb. 10, 2010, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates remarks to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner about “the dramatic changes that had taken place [in Pakistan] over the past year. It was astonishing that President Zardari had remained in power and that the Pakistanis had conducted such effective COIN operations.” Gates continues, “one can never be an optimist about Pakistan, but that the changes had been striking.” Kouchner is noted having concurred that the changes were “‘nothing short of a miracle.'”
Of course, yet another caveat follows the good news: Just days after the positive report from Gates, a cable signed by U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson reminds visiting FBI Director Robert Mueller that “In the midst of this difficult security situation, Pakistan’s civilian government remains weak, ineffectual, and corrupt.”
The curveball: Prior to the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, China took Pakistan’s suggestion to hold up U.N. Security Council sanctions against Jamaat-ud-Dawah, an alias for the Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) that later carried out the attacks, according to an August 2009 cable. LET continues to operate freely on Pakistani territory, the cable reports, despite Indian and international demands that they be shut down. A Dec. 30, 2009, cable noted these ties specifically: “Some officials from the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continue to maintain ties with a wide array of extremist organizations, in particular the Taliban, LeT and other extremist organizations. These extremist organizations continue to find refuge in Pakistan and exploit Pakistan’s extensive network of charities, NGOs, and madrassas.”
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: Cote D’Ivoire is the only country with two presidents. After the opposition won a long-delayed presidential election last month, the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo simply decided not to go. He’s named a cabinet and even taken the oath of office — while his rival, election winner Alassane Ouattara, has set up his own rival government in a nearby hotel.
What we learn: Oddly enough, last year, Cote D’Ivoire’s president, Laurent Gbagbo, actually wanted to face Alassane Ouattara in a run-off election. Apparently, Gbagbo believed that he could win, thanks to the support of key ethnic groups, according to a State Department source quoted in a June 2009 Abidjan Embassy cable. Now, 18 months later, Gbagbo seems unable to accept the truth: He lost to Ouattara.
The 2009 cable, entitled “Elections in Cote D’Ivoire: the Myth and the Reality,” explains the various reasons that Gbagbo was reluctant to hold the election in the first place. (The presidential poll held this year was originally scheduled for 2005, and had been pushed back every year thereafter.) “There will not be an election unless President Gbagbo is confident that he will win it,” the cable reads. The trouble was that the president’s party held a minority of voter support, and he would need a coalition with a smaller party to win. Interestingly, the cable notes, “Reliable sources indicate that Gbagbo has tried since at least 2007 to cut a deal with Alassane Ouattara, president of the RDR, but has not succeeded.” Having failed, the report continues:
Gbagbo recently told a well-placed source that he wants to face Alassane Ouattara in the second round (no one expects a winner to emerge from the first round) because he (Gbagbo) believes that the ethnic groups who traditionally support the PDCI [a third party] will vote FPI [Gbagbo’s party], rather that support an RDR leader [Ouattara] who has links to the rebellion.
Gbagbo apparently miscalculated his appeal. The result today is a government torn between two camps — and soon potentially at war. Cote D’Ivoire was expelled from the African Union and the regional West African grouping ECOWAS earlier this week. The United Nations, the United States, and France have all called on Gbagbo to step down. But so far he’s not budging.
The curveball: Among Gbagbo’s new cabinet ministers is another character who appears in WikiLeaks: Charles Blé Goudé. Put under U.N. sanctions in 2006 for inciting violence against the United Nations, Goudé’s re-emergence is depicted in a leaked 2008 cable which noted that the former rebel leader was trying to re-introduce himself into civilian life à la warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor (a worrying model considering that Taylor is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes). But it’s clear why Gbagbo would want him as an ally: Goudé can “easily motivate and mobilize” youth from formerly militant camps, which “raises concerns about Gbagbo’s genuine commitment” to peace. Fittingly, Goudé is Gbagbo’s new youth minister.
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: Kenya surprised everyone in 2008 when the aftermath of its presidential election erupted into street violence. After weeks in which ethnic militias roamed the streets of Nairobi and the broader Rift Valley, a power-sharing government was finally cobbled together by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Since then, the country has ambled toward an internationally sanctioned series of political reforms meant to prevent the recurrence of such violence. This August, voters approved a widely praised new constitution that includes many of the institutional reforms that the international community was pushing for post-election violence. Still, other confidence building measures — such as the prosecution of key organizers and perpetrators of the election violence — have yet to move forward.
What we learn: The U.S. embassy is working forcefully to push forward the reform agenda, an August 2010 cable notes. The strategy is one of slow and steady progress, mixing engagement with the Kenyan government with outreach to Kenyan citizens. As the ambassador’s cable notes, “While the culture of impunity and the grip of the old guard political elite on the levers of state power and resources remain largely intact, hairline fractures are developing in their edifice which — if we continue to work them intensively — will develop into broader fractures and open up the potential for a peaceful process of implementation of fundamental reforms.”
But while the cable lays out the basis of a reform agenda, it is not entirely optimistic that institutional and personal hurdles can be surmounted. First, it mentions a redacted individual who “blocks progress on high-level investigations and has ties directly to State House.” Another example involves alleged Kenyan government ties “with the ‘kwe kwe’ death squad responsible for extrajudicial killings.”
Calling out corruption within the Kenyan government isn’t likely to make Washington’s job any easier. But Nairobi has experience with WikiLeaks blowing the lid on big scandals. The self-described whistleblower released a secret report in 2007 detailing the blockbuster corruption within the government of former president Daniel Arap Moi.
The curveball: China is moving into Kenya, building roads and drilling oil, but a cable also notes that “90% of the ivory smugglers detained at JKIA [Jomo Kenyatta International Airport] are Chinese nationals.” China is also “providing weapons to the GOK [government of Kenya] in support of its Somalia policies and increasing their involvement with the Kenyan National Security and Intelligence Service (NSIS) by providing telecommunications and computer equipment.” There is no elaboration on which Somalia policy in particular China is fond of, but Kenya serves as the hub for the anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden and is one of the only countries that has offered to prosecute captured pirates in court.
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: In late 2009, Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua vanished to Saudi Arabia, where he was said to be receiving medical treatment for a long-suffering heart condition. In the interim months, as it became less clear what the president’s condition actually was — or if he would recover — the Nigerian government grappled with the question of who would run the country in his absence. After months of uncertainty, the president eventually returned to Nigeria. But he died just days later and Vice President Goodluck Jonathan at last definitively assumed office.
What we learn: It wasn’t just Nigerians who wondered who was in charge during Yar’Adua’s long convalescence. According to leaked State Department cables, the U.S. ambassador held a meeting with Jonathan on Feb. 24, 2010, when he was still acting president of Nigeria (and Yar’Adua was still alive.) In the discussion, Jonathan admitted that “everyone is confused” about who was running the country. He blamed the uncertainty on a small cadre close to the ailing president, led by Yar’Adua’s wife, Turai, who was restricting access to the president. Jonathan described how he would attempt to manage regional tensions if succession was necessary and the ambassador urged him to “be his own man,” to which Jonathan replied: “I was not chosen to be Vice President because I had good political experience,” he said. “I did not. There were a lot more qualified people around to be Vice President, but that does not mean I am not my own man.”
President Goodluck Jonathan’s office released a statement on Dec. 9, however, refuting the account of the meeting in no uncertain terms:
“[W]hat is served up is an unfair account severely impacted by selective perception and individual expectations. For instance, how can it be said that a man who had been a Deputy Governor, an Acting Governor, a governor, a Vice President, and then Acting President could have described himself as “lacking in administrative experience”…. This only goes to show that the report itself is a souped up version of the standard conversation that takes place in such meetings. We find this account as wholly unfortunate, and we are only employing the best of diplomatic finesse in that statement!”
The curveball: In a series of cables regarding the country’s proposed oil-industry reform law, Shell oil tells U.S. diplomats that it has eyes in the Nigerian government: “Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.” A separate cable discussing Nigeria’s instability and its importance to the United States — both as the most populous country in Africa and a major U.S. oil supplier — warns that “Nigeria has the possibility of becoming the next Pakistan within 25 years.” Needless to say, that’s not intended as a compliment.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
What we know: Burma’s soccer scene is fairly abysmal — its national league was created by the ruling junta in 2009 in what opposition press speculated to be a gimmick to win public favor before the November 2010 election. But its fans are world class. During the World Cup earlier this year, they turned out en masse to watch the England matches live — apparently after listening to so much BBC’s Burmese service, it’s become a nation of British soccer supporters.
What we learn: Turns out, the junta leader himself is a soccer junkie as well. A June 2009 cable takes us on a journey through the colorful business dealings of a junta regime crony named Zaw Zaw, who happens to be chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation. Zaw Zaw is a patron of the sport, owning a team called Delta United for which he is building a $1 million stadium to be finished in 2011. And the man clearly knows to whom he owes a favor: “Contacts confirm that Zaw Zaw hired Senior General Than Shwe’s grandson to play on the team.”
That grandson, we learn in another cable, seems to have remarkable sway over Than Shwe’s decisions — at least when it comes to soccer:
“One well-connected source reports that the grandson wanted Than Shwe to offer USD 1 billion for Manchester United. The Senior General thought that sort of expenditure could look bad, so he opted to create for Burma a league of its own. In January, Secretary-1 reportedly told select Burmese businessmen that Than Shwe had “chosen” them to be the owners of the new professional soccer teams. XXXXXXXXXXXX said the owners are responsible for paying all costs, including team salaries, housing and transportation, uniform costs, and advertising for the new league. In addition, owners must build new stadiums in their respective regions by 2011, at an estimated cost of USD one million per stadium.”
Curveball: Various diplomatic cables debunk the rumors that North Korea may be aiding Burma in creating a nuclear program. While far from conclusive — they refer to vague rumors of nuclear ambitions and long airport runways that are seemingly inexplicable — the cables certainly make clear that Foggy Bottom is keeping tabs on what would be an alarming predicament indeed.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
What we know: Not much. Other than strongman Kim Jong-Il’s public statements, his aggressive military action, and the recent revelations of a secret nuclear enrichment program, knowledge of the world’s quintessential pariah state is mostly guess work gleaned from fleeing refugees, a handful of head-scratching analysts, and the South Korean press.
What we learn: That everyone else is guessing too. But perhaps what’s more useful in the leaked State Department cables regarding North Korea is not information on the inner-workings of the country itself — but the complexity of the regional dynamics. How various neighbors view the stability of the state is particularly interesting.
In a February meeting with the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, Chun Yung-woo, expressed the rather apocalyptic view that “China would not be able to stop North Korea’s collapse following the death of Kim Jong-il (KJI).” He argues that Beijing lacks the influence that it claims and that Kim Jong-Il’s death will bring near certain chaos — no matter what China does.
Beijing, unsurprisingly, tells it differently: In a June 17, 2009, meeting with the U.S. Charge D’Affaires, a redacted Chinese official “cautioned that U.S. experts should not assume North Korea would implode after Kim Jong-il’s death. He said that PRC analysts concluded that the regime would still function normally and discounted strongly any suggestion that the system would collapse once Kim Jong-il disappeared.”
But as tensions heighten with an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang, these vastly different interpretations provide insight to the repeated failure of the six-party talks (of which China is a key member) to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
Curveball: Everyone wants to know if Kim Jong-Il is ill — how ill, and what’s the matter with him. While mention of a stroke in 2008 comes up several times in the cables, it’s not clear what else is the matter with the dear leader, despite speculation that his condition may be one reason he is naming a successor, his son Kim Jong-Un. One particularly frank guess comes from a Sept. 26, 2008 cable:
“Regarding Kim Jong-il’s (KJI) purported ill health, xxxxx admit they have been unable to divine what has actually happened, noting such information is “top secret” even to North Koreans. xxxxx claims that KJI has a long history of recreational drug use that has resulted in frequent bouts of epilepsy and contributed to his poor health overall. xxxxx recalls hearing an unconfirmed report that, in the last several weeks, a team of five Chinese physicians traveled to Pyongyang, perhaps to tend to KJI. xxxxx cautions against reading too much into what he considers “pure speculation.” Even if KJI suffered some medical emergency, illness “does not necessarily mean he is dying or has lost political control, or that regime collapse is somehow imminent.”
What we know: Back in 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama received an unexpected congratulation on his inauguration from the reclusive president of Eritrea. After years of demonizing the United States (which is allied with Eritrea’s arch enemy, Ethiopia), President Isaias Afwerki seemed to have a change of heart. As he said in a speech in May, “putting behind previous injustices, Eritrea [is] ready for constructive engagement with the Obama Administration, in consideration of the experience we had acquired over the past 20 years and the promise of ‘change’ by the new administration in Washington.”
What we learn: A February 9, 2009, cable from the U.S. embassy in Asmara elaborates on Eritrea’s charm offensive to win the new American administration over:
“Senior Eritrean officials in recent weeks have signaled their interest in re-engaging with the United States in areas of mutual interest. They have done so by loosening restrictions on Embassy Asmara (REF), by engaging in more diplomatic interaction with embassy personnel, by ending the daily anti-American diatribes in state-owned media, by sending congratulatory letters to President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and by authorizing over $100,000 to support ongoing U.S. medical volunteer programs such as Physicians for Peace.”
According to the cable, the impetus for the rapprochement comes from “Eritrea’s ‘American Mafia,’ senior party and government officials who speak fluent English and have lived in the United States.” The efforts even involved an invitation from Afwerki to the U.S. ambassador to join senior officials at one of the president’s country homes. The meal was apparently memorable: “Lunch was served in a rocky gulch beneath a thorny acacia tree. The ambassador and his wife were treated to grilled sheep innards served with honey and chili sauce (but no silverware), washed down with a sour, semi-fermented traditional drink called, aptly, ‘sewa.'”
Unfortunately for Eritrea, the United States regarded the overture as a bit ridiculous and replied that Asmara would see normalized relations only after it stopped providing arms to Somali insurgent groups. “‘Based on recent history, how do you think we would react to a major al-Shabaab terrorist attack against the United States?’ the ambassador asked. This seems to have driven home the point to our Eritrean interlocutors.”
The curveball: Eritrea’s famously reclusive and paranoid dictatorship is portrayed on numerous occasions in the cables. President Afwerki is described as “unhinged” and his country as a virtual Leninist state. On another occasion, the Ethiopian chief of intelligence describes the Eritrean president this way:
“Isaias was a recluse who spent his days painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry work. Isaias appeared to make decisions in isolation with no discussion with his advisors. It was difficult to tell how Isaias would react each day and his moods changed constantly.”
PETER MARTELL/AFP/Getty Images
Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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