Neamin Zeleke (@NeaminZeleke)

Neamin Zeleke

Recent developments in Ethiopia should serve as grounds for strategic thinking and scenario planning for emerging threats as well as any eventualities. First, how did we get here? 

Government of Ethiopia’s declaration of cease fire

The declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by the government of Ethiopia was shocking as it was unexpected by most Ethiopians both inside and outside of the country. Indeed, the government did not prepare the public for the unfolding reality on the ground in Tigray region of Ethiopia and what emerged subsequently during the announcement of the unilateral ceasefire and the immediate return to Mekele of insurgents led by the TPLF criminal clique.  However, it could be argued that Ethiopia  has averted yet another national disaster since Nov 4 , 2020, when #TPLF, the former overlords of Ethiopia for twenty-seven years launched a flagrant  and brutal assault on multiple fronts against the Northern command. Their aim was to dismantle the Federal army in Tigray, take over the heavy weaponry, and march on Addis Ababa to overthrow the reformist government of PM Abiy Ahmed Ali. 

Indeed, the government of Ethiopia made the right decision regarding the army withdrawal from Tigray as the conflict continued to cost lives and drain the resources of Ethiopia to the tune of 100 of billion  Ethiopian Birr (2.5 billion USD) as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made it public along other costs of the conflict in Tigray. In the absence of conventional military confrontations and lack of adherence to any international conventions, it was not a surprise that the professional ENDF would face critical challenges against guerilla fighters of the TPLF that operated with almost complete backing by the local populace. Regardless of how much the Tigrayan public supports the TPLF and treated the ENDF as the enemy, the women and children’s suffering due to lack of food and medicine in the region has also become intolerable. Thus, for these and many other reasons, I applaud the government’s decision although the timing and the way the decision was carried out raised many concerns.

Insurgencies are “eating soup with a knife”

Most insurgencies throughout history have demoralized regular armies regardless of the ultimate outcome. Nonetheless, recent disenchantment and confusion across sectors of the Ethiopian public are understandable as it emanates from a lack of information from the government and perceptions created based on unrealistic expectation of an “ultimate and complete victory” in Tigray.  That was never possible and feasible. As an Ethiopian who felt betrayed by the attack against the soldiers of the northern command of ENDF and supported the war against TPLF as a response, I hoped TPLF would be defeated and weakened. Such objectives have been met. The TPLF of today is not the TPLF of yesterday. That being said, ENDF fought against TPLF in Tigray, the most homogenous region in Ethiopia. Thus, it is to be expected that when it comes to guerrilla warfare and insurgency, those fighting with the people’s backing will ultimately drain and tire the enemy.

One friend who read a recent New York Times article expressed that he is “shocked and depressed” by the sight of over 6000 soldiers, which the TPLF paraded on the streets of Mekele in violation of international conventions of handling POWs.  Of course, such numbers will be grossly exaggerated as, in addition to the thousands of missing refugees and the tens of thousands of missing prisoners, TPLF soldiers were also made to dress ENDF fatigues.   

Regardless, classic literature in insurgency and counter insurgency topics instruct us that these sort of guerrilla wars could go in any direction. Just ponder on the experience of USA in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq; the USSR in Afghanistan; French and subsequently USA in Vietnam, and the British in Malaya. All with technology, finance, and military superiority, with the exception and relative success of the British counter insurgency in Malaya, the other superpowers were grounded in these countries bleeding from thousands of cuts and unable to pursue years and years of counter insurgency. They finally had to succumb and leave these countries; perhaps, in somewhat “humiliating” conditions and narratives at the end.

It would be stating the obvious to recognize that what happens is a contest of will of opposing forces. The iron law of war through the ages is on display. In Ethiopia’s situation in the Tigray region, a possible scenario could have turned out to be a devastating and humiliating end with dire consequences for the rest of the country given the many layered and complex challenges in many parts of the country. Although the manner with which the government announced the “ceasefire” may have given the TPLF some window to exploit it for propaganda purposes painting it as a “military victory” which in fact, in most likelihood, turn out to be pyrrhic victory for #TPLF.  The government of Ethiopia made the right decision after coming to terms with the scale of the stronghold TPLF possesses over the Tigrayan people and its ability to organize sporadic and protracted  hit and run attacks. Such tactics employed by all insurgents often proved more effective than operations carried by divisions of well-trained army engaged in conventional/frontal warfare. 

Ultimately, such a warfare has an enormous demoralizing effect for a professional army like ENDF. It drains the regular army’s fighting spirit.  Therefore, it becomes a huge challenge to continue a protracted war in such situations where one does not know from where the next neat prick attacks by peasants and teenagers alike will pop up. It could be anywhere from behind, front, left or right. The lethal enemy, after inflicting damage, retreats to hide and  melt away among the people until the next mission. Small scale deadly attacks, piecemeal by piecemeal, exact  a huge toll on the army and its morale. 

As is the case in almost all cases of guerrilla movement and insurgency, the weapons and resources captured in any fight are used to strengthen the insurgents, a classic case of all guerrilla movements including from Ethiopia’s recent past in the 70s and 80s in both Tigray region and Eritrea.   

The US in Vietnam, and recently in Afghanistan, has suffered the worst casualties, spent trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives lost. And despite their world class fighting force, stealth, technical and financial superiority they won many battles, but lost the war and withdrew from most of them as staying engaged in a zero-sum sad game of war was not sustainable.  It is simply hard to win insurgencies without capturing the hearts and minds of the local populace.   As one student of insurgency and counter insurgency once lamented, it is like “eating soup with a knife”,not only complicated and but hugely complex and daunting exercise with all kinds of emergent behaviors whose outcome harder to estimate or predict for military commanders and planners alike than fighting a conventional war.

Routed #TPLF converted its tactics into a peoples’ war/guerrilla warfare. 

The government’s law enforcement operations achieved  its primary objective of  breaking the backbone of 200,000 strong regular special forces and military. It killed and captured of most of leaders of the TPLF criminal clique. The capability which the TPLF acquired by looting the heavy weaponry of the Northern command as a vital instrument to march to Addis and overthrow the government is no longer a  threat to Ethiopia as most of it has been either destroyed by Ethiopian Airforce or captured by ENDF. 

The mop up operations, however,  turned out long drawn and elusive. Add to that people were told information in a manner that did not reflect the reality on the ground. The degraded TPLF bandits were not only on the run, but they melted within the active embrace of the populace to  actively recruit and organize the peasants, the youth, and child soldiers alike as fodders for the insurgency raging in Tigray region that led to the current situation.  TPLF was waging people’s war/guerrilla war which follows an altogether separate logic from that of conventional or positional warfare in which they were routed in mere 3 weeks. Counter-insurgency operations has its own separate logic and having requisite capabilities which the ENDF was either not expecting it or was just ill-prepared in terms of training, leadership, and strategy. Scholars of Counter insurgency have written a distillation of best practices and lessons. The primary lesson being that it is not limited to military operations but to be effective, it must depend on other success factors. Economic, social, political, and propaganda toolkits and human resources should have been deployed to isolate the TPLF from the people.

They were several  indicators that something was wrong with the interim government in Tigray set up to administer, rebuild and rehabilitate Tigray region. It is clear from the recent outcome that the interim government failed to live up to its mandate. There were sabotages by significant elements of the Interim administration of Tigray. One such indicator was the charges made by the anti-TPLF Tigrayan Journalist Araya Tesfamariam. In his various interviewers where he expressed his frustrations about the situation in Tigray. For instance, regarding the media, a key element to win the heart and minds of the people of Tigray was missing. The opposite was true . As in the international arena, the TPLF waged a massive campaign of disinformation among the people of Tigray that the “…Abiy’s army has committed genocide, systematic rape of Tigrayan women, and systematic withholding of humanitarian aid to starve the people of Tigray , etc.. ”.  Joseph Gobbles dictum  Tell a lie again and again it comes the truth has been an instrument of deception and manipulation to shape bother International and Tigrayan people’s perception , contrary to the facts on the ground which are complex and nuanced. According to him and other sources, the Tigray media and the Interim govt were institutions heavily infested with TPLF operatives and supporters. Even when they are not strictly TPLF members or supporters, they shared a mindset not much different from TPLF.  Individuals like Abraha Desta, Andom Gebre Selassie  and many others come to mind.  For constitutional or political considerations, the Federal govt left matters to these kinds of people leading the Tigray region. Thus, the apparent lack of a robust plan (or just bad planning) and action to win the hearts and minds of the people of the Tigray region and efforts to isolate the people from the insurgents were not there. 

What is more is that the TPLF’s ideological stronghold over the people of Tigray has been almost total and deeply ingrained with 47 years of propaganda, false constructs, and narratives which the youth and elite alike believe wholeheartedly and express in more than one way. Moreover, for the past three years since 2018 June/July to Nov 2020, when they prepared and launched the brutal multifront lightning strike on Northern command units, the TPLF was in an all-out mass agitation day in and out against the government of Ethiopia and Prime Minister Abiy. TPLF convinced Tigrayan people that they were under clear and present danger from the “Unitary”/Ahadawi Abiy led govt and that the “Tigrayans are already new victims throughout Ethiopia” and “targets of persecution”.  

One thing is for sure, the recent events that unfolded in Tigray and amongst the Tigrayan diaspora is the fact that it is no longer realistic to separate the TPLF from the majority of Tigrayans, as a result, of 47 years of propaganda by the liberation front that referred the region’s people, “golden”, “gallant”, “exceptional”, etcetera… a thinking quite like the fascists. 

Threats that need preparedness and mitigation

For all the foregoing reasons, it is paramount that we put things in perspective to adjust to the new situation and press on to mitigate the threats. There should be no doubt that degraded TPLF, which is now deeply entrenched in the Tigray region, still integrated with its yet another false narrative of a “victory” poses an existential threat which must be checkmated with all the capabilities and tools of both the Federal and Amhara and Afar regional governments . Given the economic and ecological imperatives Tigray region cannot sustain itself under present conditions beyond humanitarian aid. To thrive, either the TPLF must regain the power it had for 27 years or will exploit all gaps and pathways to weaken Ethiopia. With its fascistic mindset which has reenforced by its false sense of victory, the TPLF leadership without a doubt will embark on planning and organizing its forces to take over Wolkayit and Tsegede to gain access to Sudan to boost a direly needed war machinery and to strengthen its military capability. The  stepped-up machinations of international, regional, and international actors–both governments and non-state actors- inimical to the Ethiopia’s stability and national interests compounds the threat posed by TPLF.  

It then becomes imperative to employ all tools of strategy and statecraft, from military, intelligence, diplomacy, economic resources to the maximum to ensure that all scenarios of threats posed by TPLF, and its internal and external allies and potential allies, are mitigated and checkmated. It needs a.) a 360 degree, an all-around clear eyed and realistic strategic assessment, b.) robust intelligence, and c.)  scenario planning with iterations based on changing circumstances and intelligence from best to worst case scenarios by security, military, and diplomatic experts both from academia, practitioner, and policy makers of the government of Ethiopia.