Ethiopia’s dilemma: what to do with the military victory?

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Without a doubt, the counter-attacks of the Ethiopian armed forces can be characterized as a success: they achieved the goal of ousting TPLF’s invading troops from Amhara and Afar regions in a relatively short time and inflicted on them heavy human and material losses. Yet, this important victory landed Ethiopia in a real catch-22 situation, which is whether or not to pursue the insurgents into their own territory of Tigray. That the dilemma is real is shown by the fact that the government’s arguments for its decision not to enter into Tigray can be countered by equally valid arguments. Let us review them.  

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Government’s Arguments

The Prime Minister himself laid down the reasoning of the government in a written communiqué. While acknowledging that the decision is likely to disappoint many people who are angry at the crimes and destructions committed by the TPLF and understandably seek justice, strategic considerations targeting the long-term interests of the country explain the government’s position. The option of continuing the offensive into Tigray seriously put the acquired victory in jeopardy, with the consequence that it will ultimately turn it into a sure defeat.

To begin with, such a decision will reward the TPLF with the reasons it needs to prolong its control over Tigray. In light of the 40 years of relentless Ethno-nationalist indoctrination, the venture into Tigray will be perceived as an invasion, and this will give TPLF leaders the cause that enables them to reemerge as the defender of Tigray despite the severe setbacks they suffered. For many Tigreans, the choice will be between invaders with all the possible ill intentions and compatriots still defending the interests of Tigray, however reckless they may have been. In this case, the easiest guess is that Tigreans will prefer to be ruled by their own kin rather than by “strangers.” The continuation of the TPLF’s rule means, in turn, the prolongation of the state of war.

The decision to go into Tigray will no doubt achieve a quick victory, but it will not avert the recourse to guerrilla attacks. The purpose of these attacks is not to score a decisive victory; rather, it is to bleed slowly the army to death while also deepening the rift with the civilian population through attacks resulting in civilian causalities. In the long run, these attacks end up causing heavy human and material losses and irreparable animosity between the population and the federal government. In other words, the decision of the government is based on lessons learned from the immediate past. When this war began a year ago, Ethiopian armed forces achieved a quick victory and immediately engaged in the work of bringing back a normal life to Tigray. We know what the outcome was: viewed as invaders, the Ethiopian forces came under attacks from armed groups as well as from the civilian population, just as they became the objects of fabricated slanderous accusations of all sorts of crimes, including genocide. As the saying goes, “mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating.”

Another compelling reason for not moving into Tigray is that the TPLF is not alone in this fight. As is now unquestionably obvious, it has the full backing of powerful Western allies, including among high officials in the United Nations. These allies do not hesitate to provide military, diplomatic, financial, and media supports to assist the TPLF’s goal of regaining the hegemony that it lost in Ethiopia. Add to this the hostility of Egypt and Sudan over the construction of the Nile dam, and you have a scenario is unfolding before your very eyes similar to “David versus Goliath.” The inability of the TPLF to capture Addis Ababa and its subsequent military defeats in the Afar and Amhara regions have left these powerful allies with no other choice than to strategize for direct intervention in the conflict.

Given the status of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation, these allies must find a compelling reason that justifies intervention. Where else could such a justification be found but in the UN resolution conferring on member states “the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”? Clearly, the decision to advance on Tigray provides the opportunity to accuse the Ethiopian defense forces of crimes against humanity and genocide, be it through fabricated stories or through killings resulting from deliberate provocations by civilian groups. 

The decision not to cross into Tigray does not mean the cessation of all military confrontations. According to the announcement, it is the right and solemn duty of the government to take whatever measure is necessary each time it deems that there is a threat to national sovereignty and unity. But then, this provision does no more than confirm that the government is opting for what looks pretty much like siege warfare. The option has many advantages: it wants to force TPLF forces to surrender by cutting off the supply of weapons from outside, just as it avoids the exposure of government troops to guerrilla attacks and direct contact with the civilian population. Although siege warfare is time-consuming, it lowers the human and material costs by averting direct confrontation in open battle or house to house search for insurgents. It also forces the civilian population to ask whether continued resistance is worthwhile, whether it has any chance of success.

Reasons to Go into Tigray

Those who oppose the government’s decision ask us to consider whether the policy of isolating Tigray can really eliminate the fighting capability of the TPLF forces and break down the resistance of many civilian Tigreans. For them, far from being an emotional stand, pursuing the insurgents into their own territory is the logical continuation of their ousting from the Amhara and Afar regions. Without moving into Tigray and occupying some major centers of activity, TPLF’s defeat will never be consummated. Worse yet, it will give the distinct impression that the federal government is afraid to confront the insurgents directly, preferring instead to isolate Tigray, mostly for the purpose of cowardly aerial bombardments.

In refusing to finalize the war, is not the government putting in limbo its recent victories? The only way to guarantee the victory of the Ethiopian forces is to eliminate the TPLF, and this cannot be achieved without taking the war into Tigray. Without direct occupation, the TPLF will regroup and regain strength for further attacks. The government cannot prevent these attacks by means of targeted occasional incursions and airstrikes.  Anything other than outright elimination leaves the TPLF in control of Tigray, which control means the indefinite continuation of the war. Granting the TPLF the opportunity to retain the control of Tigray is a sure way of ensuring its full resurgence.

The consistent move after the recent victories is not to back down, but “to strike while the iron is hot.” What happened in the not distant past should serve here as a lesson. When Mengistu Haile Mariam withdrew from Tigray, he was under the belief that the TPLF will remain confined in that region so that he could focus on battling the Eritrean insurgents. We know what followed: The TPLF moved into Amhara territory and marched on Addis Ababa. We can even go further into the past: when Menelik refused to move into Eritrea to dislodge the Italian army, the consequence was that Eritrea served as a launching pad for the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

This is not to suggest that the situation of today’s Ethiopia is comparable to the two past events. Even a superficial analysis can easily pinpoint the outstanding differences that separate the past events from the current situation. Still, the parallel calls attention to the fact that the nature of the enemy matters when one wants to assess the possible efficacy of the policy of encirclement. In the case of Tigray, mere encirclement has little chance of yielding the expected surrender of the insurgents. Knowing the ideology of superiority and the hegemonic political goal of the TPLF, one can say for sure that it will never stop attacking Ethiopia by using whatever means and methods it has at its disposal. Both the ideology and the political goal invite war; we can even say that the TPLF needs to wage war in order to survive. So that, the condition for Ethiopia to have peace and concentrate on its development is the destruction of TPLF’s fighting power as well as ideology. And this destruction cannot even begin until the leaders are eliminated or forced to face a court of law.

Last but not least, not moving into Tigray has the deleterious effect of granting a de facto independence to Tigray, which will then be in the same situation as neighboring Somaliland. Isolating Tigray, cutting off its social, economic, and political ties with the mainland, is it not to act as though Tigray were no longer part of Ethiopia? If, as we all claim, Tigray is an integral part of Ethiopia, then there is no other way to ascertain it than to reinstate the authority of the federal government.

General Outcome

Clearly, each argument from both camps can be easily countered, but the general impression of an intricate dilemma cannot be dismissed. Thus, it can be shown that the arguments in favor of moving into Tigray underestimate the military, economic, and psychological impacts of prolonged guerrilla warfare on Ethiopia. It also overlooks the difficulty of finding the leaders unless the people of Tigray cooperate, which is far from being given, but also almost impossible to obtain in a prolonged guerrilla war. There is more: with the guerrilla war in full motion, the accusation of serious crimes and genocide will give TPLF’s Western allies the needed justification to intervene directly. One lesson we can learn from Menelik is that he refused to pursue the Italian military into Eritrea because he did not want to antagonize European powers by challenging the established colonial status quo.

The main weakness of the arguments in favor of not crossing into Tigray is the assumption that isolation and targeted attacks can seriously undermine the threat of the TPLF to Ethiopia’s stability and internal unity. The assumption overlooks the nature of the TPLF, the fact that the TPLF is the problem child of Ethiopia: containment will not dissuade it from engaging in repeated attacks into Amhara and Afar territories, nor will it prevent it from instigating and financing clashes in various parts of the country. The bare truth is that peace cannot descend on Ethiopia unless TPLF’s ideology and military structure are eliminated for good.

Even graver than the failure to significantly diminish the fighting capability of the TPLF is that the success of containment depends on whether or not it can create a rift between TPLF and the Tigrean population. The assumption here is that Tigreans will in time engage in a cost-benefit analysis leading them to the realization that they have sacrificed much but only to be left with losses. The war was not only useless, but it was a complete catastrophe in terms of human life, not to mention the loss of annexed territories. From this analysis, to holding the leadership accountable the path is wide open, all the more so as they do not see any possible improvement on the horizon.

Will this projected divorce between the Tigrean people and the TPLF occur? Only time will tell. But if it does occur, it opens the path for the Ethiopian armed forces to move into Tigray where they will be welcomed as liberators. Under this condition, law enforcement will become possible again: the leaders can be captured and brought to justice. It will also silence the international cabal supporting the TPLF by taking away all excuses for intervention. More importantly, such a condition will bring the war to its natural conclusion, namely, to a negotiated settlement with genuine representatives of the Tigrean people.

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