US embassy cables: Eritrea attempts ‘charm offensive’ to woo Obama, Wednesday 8 December 2010 21.30 GMT

Monday, 09 February 2009, 14:53
S E C R E T ASMARA 000047
EO 12958 DECL: 02/02/2019
Classified By: Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen for reason 1.4(d)

 1. (C) SUMMARY: 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.

Senior officials invited the ambassador and his wife to spend a day on a family farm, the Defense Minister attended a representational event at the CMR, and Foreign Affairs officials tell us Isaias himself helped draft a white paper on re-engaging the United States. Post has bluntly told key officials that Eritrean support for Somali extremists precludes a more normal bilateral relationship and warned that an al-Shabaab attack against the United States would trigger a strong and swift American reaction. END SUMMARY.



Members of Eritrea‘s “American Mafia,” senior party and government officials who speak fluent English and have lived in the United States, have taken the lead in signaling Eritrea’s interest in improved relations. On February 7, for example, the ambassador and his wife were invited to spend the day on the family farm of Hagos Ghebrehewit, the ruling party’s economic director (and architect of Eritrea’s imploding economy). Hagos, formerly a green card holder, was Eritrea’s first ambassador to the United States. Also present were the minister of health (an American citizen), the current Eritrean ambassador to the United States, and the party’s political director, Yemane Ghebreab. 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.” The other guests chided Hagos, only half jokingly, for his inability to run an economy, noting that Eritrea’s Coca-Cola plant and national brewery were both shuttered.


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Defense Minister Sebhat Efrem attended a reception at the ambassador’s residence on February 2. This was the first Post invitation General Sebhat has accepted for almost two years. He and the ambassador discussed past military to military exchanges, training, and education. General Sebhat fondly remembers GIs from Kagnew Station who helped tutor his math and science classes as a young student; he said he hoped circumstances would permit a resumption of mil-mil relations. February 2 is also President Isaias’ birthday, yet General Sebhat chose to spend the evening celebrating Groundhog Day at the CMR.



Despite the clear signals by party and government officials of their interest in exploring a less antagonistic bilateral relationship, the ambassador on three occasions in recent weeks has delivered a very straightforward and simple message: Eritrean support for Somali extremists obviates closer ties and Eritrea will be held accountable for any al-Shabaab attack on the United States. The ambassador shared unclassified information with key Eritrean authorities (including the detailed NPR report of January 28 on al-Shabaab’s recruitment and training of Minnesotans) to reinforce the seriousness and urgency of the al-Shabaab threat. One senior official acknowledged limited Eritrean contact with al-Shabaab, but claimed the contact was “infrequent and indirect.” He added, “If there was anything we could do to prevent a terrorist attack on the United States, we will do it.” The ambassador warned that Eritrea was in a very perilous situation, as its support for al-Shabaab makes Eritrea at least partially responsible for al-Shabaab’s actions, yet Eritrea does not control it. “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.



Eritrea’s fundamental interest in re-engaging with the United States is to promote a “balanced” U.S. approach to its border dispute with Ethiopia. Isaias views everything through this lens. While we have delivered an unambiguously stark message on counterterrorism, we are uncertain how this will factor into Isaias’ opaque calculations. Among Eritrean and foreign observers, there is a growing consensus that Isaias is increasingly isolating himself and marginalizing all organs of government and the party. Can he and will he make a rational cost-benefit analysis on continued support for Somali extremists? Isaias might listen to the rulers of Libya and Qatar; we leave it to others to judge whether those messages would necessarily be helpful. Unlike the party, exiled opposition, or general Eritrean populace, the military’s officer corps has the wherewithal to precipitate a sudden change. We have seen no serious cracks in its loyalty, as the perceived external threat from Ethiopia trumps all else, but we will step up our efforts to cultivate cordial relations with key military leaders as circumstances permit. End Comment.



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