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In Africa, a poisonous standoff

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THE UNITED STATES is expanding its military presence in the Horn of Africa in an attempt to counteract terrorist groups in the region. But military activity is not the way to achieve that goal. Instead, the United States needs to put more effort into solving the outstanding political dispute there: the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

American forces have established a network of outposts in Ethiopia and Kenya centered on a base in Djibouti. The United States has created an Africa Command to coordinate military activities. In January, US gunships blasted away at suspected Islamic terrorists in southern Somalia. These forays have continued as an Ethiopian force occupies Mogadishu, the Somali capital, to bolster the provisional government there.

The Eritreans, seeing a chance to make trouble, are supplying Islamic insurgents with weapons and military advice. Could Mogadishu become another Baghdad, with Ethiopians playing the part of the US troops in Iraq? The Ethiopians need to withdraw before that happens.

Some terrorists are no doubt lurking in Somalia, but the United States should not view the Horn strictly as a front in the war on terror. The inconclusive 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a greater threat to peace.

Settlement of the border comes first. An international tribunal, deliberating with the support of both countries, gave a section of land around the town of Badme to Eritrea in 2002. To an outsider, this scrubby countryside is hardly worth fighting over, but the Ethiopians have resisted pulling out, and the Eritreans have harassed the international force policing the cease-fire and sent troops into the neutral zone between the two armies.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, said in June that his country accepted the border in principle but wanted more talks on how to demarcate it. The United Nations Security Council last week extended the mandate of the international peacekeepers for another six months. It's time to resolve the dispute once and for all. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ought to make a settlement this year one of his top priorities.

The United States can help by putting more pressure on Ethiopia, a de facto ally and the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. It won't be easy. President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea is a particular problem -- authoritarian, increasingly repressive, and not afraid to go it alone, even though his people bear the consequence of isolation and perpetual mobilization for war.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea caused 100,000 deaths, the US State Department reckons, far more than the death toll from terrorism. A settlement between the two countries will make it easier to form a common front against the stateless sources of violence in the Horn.

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