War by proxy, but not the one we think

The price of allowing the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea to fester

What happens if you leave a dispute to fester? A dispute, moreover, that clamours for speedy closure and to which there is an obvious, if unpalatable, solution? The war in Somalia offers an answer. Sadly, the dispute never just "goes away". Baulked of resolution, it finds alternative means of expression, eventually spurting into new life in ways and places no one ever expected.

The dispute in question is the disagreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, neighbours in the Horn of Africa, over their 1,000km border. While many analysts have rightly noted that Somalia is the setting for a proxy war between the United States and radical Islam, in the shape of the Union of Islamic Courts, there's been less comment on the second, equally ugly proxy conflict being fought on Somali soil. That is the war for regional dominance between the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, whose tanks recently escorted Somalia's weak transitional government into Mogadishu.

"For the Ethiopians, this isn't about Somalia at all," an Ethiopian government official commented shortly before the shooting started. "Somalia is irrelevant. This is all about Eritrea."

It went virtually unnoticed at the time, but back in April 2002 the international community was given the chance to decide whether realpolitik or respect for the law should dictate future dealings with African nations. An international boundary commission in The Hague had delivered its findings on where the frontier between Eritrea and its former master Ethiopia lay. The two countries had lost up to 90,000 soldiers fighting over that line but finally agreed to go to arbitration.

When the findings were announced, they came as a nasty shock to everyone but Eritrea. Although Ethiopia had won the argument over several disputed settlements, Badme, the symbolically important village where the war had started, went to Eritrea. Tricky thing, the law. It doesn't always come up with the decisions that politicians want.

There's no doubt in my mind that, had the west seriously signalled to Ethiopia at this point that defying the boundary commission would not be tolerated, Meles would have installed those cement pillars faster than you can say "pariah state". Diplomats like to present themselves as powerless in the face of Ethiopia's famous obstinacy. It's an argument I have never accepted. Ethiopia's government, which receives an annual £1bn in aid, relies on donors to feed its hungry, build its schools and provide clean water. Throw into the pot Ethiopian ambitions of seeing Addis Ababa crowned as Africa's diplomatic and political capital, and you have a perfect scenario for applying pressure. Not inviting Meles to sit on Blair's Commission for Africa would have been a start.

But the Ethiopians understood early that they were never going to be punished for violating international law. Since Haile Selassie, the giant Ethiopia has always been regarded as the regional power to be placated, regardless of its human-rights record or foreign policy - neither of which bears scrutiny today. That cynical principle has now been set in stone, as Washington's "war on terror" returns western policy in Africa to the simplifications of the cold war.

So, for nearly five years now, Ethiopia has refused to honour a ruling it originally agreed would be "final and binding". Failure to demarcate has done more to destroy Eritrea than war ever could. Nervy and paranoid, Isaias has crippled his economy by keeping his militarised society on permanent alert.

Apart from the odd flurry of diplomatic activity and a series of increasingly panicky warnings from Kofi Annan, the international community was content to close its eyes and wish the problem away. Rather than grasp the nettle of Ethi opian intransigence, it preferred to spend more than £500m maintaining a UN buffer force on the border - an obscenity, when you think what that money could do in that part of the world.

I was one of those who warned that if it allowed the Ethiopians to cock a snook at the law, the west would bear ultimate responsibility for the inevitable new war that would ensue. In the event, I got my geography wrong. Eritrean-Ethiopian hostility was transplanted to an innocent third party: Somalia.

Baulked over the border issue but determined to needle Ethiopia, Isaias got his revenge by playing the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" game. Eritrean training, weapons and military expertise all helped turn the Union of Islamic Courts, whose irredentist agenda challenges Ethiopian sovereignty, into a formidable fighting force. That force is now on the run. The Ethiopian army's determination to wipe out the UIC's remnants is far more about teaching the Eritreans a lesson they won't forget than it is about establishing the framework for a stable Somalia.

With breathtaking cynicism, two leaders who were once rebel allies chose one of the world's most fragile societies as the venue to pursue their unresolved contest. They should know better. But the west - and Washington in particular - has also behaved truly shoddily. Had Ethiopia been forced by its foreign backers to demarcate in 2002, relations with Eritrea would inevitably, haltingly, have normalised, and a modus vivendi have developed. Instead, both leaders nursed their toxic grievances, and the poison of their rivalry infected the region.

Boils left unlanced always eventually rupture. With hindsight, decisions that felt at the time like realpolitik look nothing short of asinine. Today, the Eritrea-Ethiopia border issue is still in limbo and international law is still being violated. Until that matter is settled, we can expect many more of these proxy wars.