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U.S. Losing Interest in Military Bases in Somalia : Port, Airstrip No Longer Are Key Part of Plans for Gulf of Aden Emergency

March 17, 1985|CHARLES MITCHELL | United Press International

BERBERA, Somalia — There is not quite a "For Sale" sign on the port and concrete airstrip at Berbera. But there are signs that Washington has lost interest in Somalia and the military facility that guards the chokepoint between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The Somali government still boasts of the strategic importance of Berbera as a great naval and air facility, inherited by the United States after the Soviet Union left in 1980. Moscow is now allied with neighboring Marxist-led Ethiopia.

At one time, U.S. diplomats talked of great plans for turning the 15th-Century Arab town into anything from a major fleet refueling stop to the headquarters of the Central Command, or, as it used to be known, the Rapid Deployment Force.

The force was set up under the Jimmy Carter Administration to act as an American deterrent in the event of a threat to the Persian Gulf oil fields.

Berbera once was considered a major part of U.S. military strategy in the event of war in the Middle East.

$600 Million in Aid

For that reason, the government believes, the United States has been kind to Somalia as an ally--supplying $600 million in aid over the past seven years in the Horn of Africa country.

But the Somali boasts of Berbera's strategic importance now ring hollow. The Americans have stopped talking. The Central Command set up headquarters in Florida and took with it the enthusisam for developing the town.

With only a few minor improvements--mostly on the civilian and not the military side--the "stragetic" airstrip and port of Berbera have been left pretty much as they were found after the departure of the Soviets.

A $100-million commitment made by the United States to improve Berbera when the 10-year access agreement was signed in 1980 has never been fulfilled. It probably never will be.

"Berbera is more a convenience than a necessity for the United States now. There are better facilities in Oman and in Mombasa, Kenya," one diplomat said. "It is a marriage of convenience only, but you won't see any great U.S. military buildup in Berbera.

'More Reliable Places'

"The decision is that it is not really a viable or reliable part of Middle East strategy. The U.S. is more established in more reliable places."

There are various reasons behind this apparent loss of interest--the inefficiency of the Somali army, its poor record of maintainence and discipline, a festering guerrilla war in the north that threatens to topple the regime of President Siad Barre, Barre's poor human rights record and the welcoming of the United States in more built-up and easily defended areas.

America's other allies in the region, including Kenya and moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, also pressured the United States into cutting back its military commitment to Somalia, which has a reputation as an aggressor encouraging a secessionist movement in northern Kenya.

Somalia also started the 1977-78 war with Ethiopia over the contested Ogaden region.

Diplomats believe the tide changed after joint Somali-U.S. military exercises in 1983. The exercises, Eastern Wind 83, failed dismally.

"The Somali army did not perform up to any standard," one diplomat said.

Somali Army Inefficient

The inefficiency of the Somali armed forces is legendary among foreign military men.

Last month, Somalia shot down one of its own nine functioning aircraft and last year accidently fired on two U.S. F-15 fighters during a mapping exercise near Mogadishu.

U.S. military officials in Somalia have grown disgusted with the performance of the Somali army and its inability to keep anything working.

"To make Berbera a workable base and Somalia, for that matter, a workable staging area, the U.S. would have to man it themselves; they cannot depend on the Somalis," the officer said.

The United States now considers military facilities in Oman, the island of Diego Garcia and in Kenya as more important and more efficient in the event of war in the Persian Gulf region.

Diplomats now say the whole reason for a U.S. presence in Somalia is as a counterbalance to the Soviet presence in Ethiopia.

"The logic is simply it is better to have a pro-Western Somalia than a pro-Soviet one," the diplomat said.

The amount of U.S. interest in Somalia, and in Berbera in particular, is typified by the lack of a large permanent U.S. military presence there.

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