What’s Happening in Ethiopia?

By David Isaly

A satellite image of smoke rising from Mekelle, Ethiopia, on October 20
Image Credit: Copernicus Sentinel-2 Imagery, @defis_eu/Handout via REUTERS

On October 8th, the Ethiopian government launched a new offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in northern Ethiopia, accompanied by heavy airstrikes along the frontlines. The operation has failed to achieve any meaningful gains so far, compelling the government to expand its air campaign on October 18 to the TPLF’s regional capital of Mek’ele. 

However, the government has failed to advance on any front. As of right now, it looks like the TPLF will enjoy continued success against the Ethiopian government and its allies.

The TPLF has dominated Ethiopian politics since the fall of the Soviet-backed government in 1991, but was essentially ousted by Abiy Ahmed and his Oromo Democratic Party in 2018. Fighting in Tigray began almost a year ago, after the TPLF held separate elections and won a landslide victory.

The central government declared the elections illegal and began preparing for a military operation. On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian government, supported by Eritrean troops and Amhara militias, launched an invasion into Tigray in order to subdue the TPLF. 

Government forces managed to capture large swaths of territory, including the regional capital, Mek’ele, by the end of the month. However, the TPLF regrouped in the mountainous countryside and launched a massive counter-attack across Tigray this past summer. By the beginning of autumn, the TPLF had recaptured Mek’ele and advanced into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. There was a slight pause in the fighting as Abiy Ahmed prepared for elections, which he then won earlier this month.

The government’s overall position is rather weak, as it has become clear that the TPLF is strong enough to defend its territory and even advance into neighboring regions. This weakness has led the government to resort to brutal tactics to starve and demoralize Tigray’s defenders. 

Indeed, the UN estimates that 7 million people in Tigray require urgent assistance because of food insecurity. Both sides have committed massacres, but the government has likely killed far more. Government forces have also used rape as a weapon against the people of Tigray, which is a serious war crime. Though Abiy Ahmed is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, his forces continue to commit heinous war crimes against Tigray’s civilian population.

One may wonder why government forces are so ineffective when the odds seem to be stacked in their favor. This is likely due to three factors: military structure, terrain, and manpower. 

The TPLF has a structural advantage over government forces because the TPLF has essentially one chain of command, while government forces have multiple overlapping command structures. The TPLF’s structure is more efficient, as it is not affected by the redundancies of mixing irregular and regular forces from two different national armies.

Besides the fact that the TPLF knows the area better, northern Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain is favorable to conventional insurgents or defenders alike. This factor is what allowed the TPLF to regroup during the winter and spring. It withdrew from Mek’ele last November without much of a fight, knowing that it could just retake it later.

Location and relative size of Ethiopian terrain
Image Credit: CIA World Factbook

Finally, government forces are spread across multiple fronts both within Ethiopia and outside it. Alongside its recent offensive in northern Ethiopia, the government launched an offensive in Oromia against separatists that have fought the central government for decades. 

On top of that, there are Ethiopian troops in Somalia, further stretching government forces. That does not mean that the government is necessarily undermanned, but that it does not have the necessary number of troops to crush the TPLF, which at the onset of fighting had over 100,000 fighters.

If an agreement is not reached between Abiy Ahmed’s government and the TPLF, fighting will continue. It seems unlikely at this point that such an agreement will be made any time soon. Even if the government were to push the TPLF back or even take Mek’ele, its fighters would just fall back and regroup in the countryside like they did at the very beginning of the war. 

Regardless of airstrikes, government forces do not seem to possess the necessary capabilities to defeat the TPLF in detail, which would be required for a military victory.

David Isaly is a recent graduate from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he specialized in domestic and international security with a strong focus on the Middle East.

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