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The sanctity of political boundaries is already violated by Abiy and Esaias; and the TPLF must emulate them.

The sanctity of political boundaries is already violated by Abiy and Esaias; and the TPLF must emulate them.  

By Melaku Teka 12-3-20

The roller coaster war that run from Nov 4 to Nov 28 in Tigray, Ethiopia, has been as   bloody as it can be. Arguably, we have seen one of the highest causalities in the history of Ethiopian warfare, adjusted for time factor. In this respect, not even the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000, claiming over 70,000 lives, matches the current one. In this war, causalities have run into tens of thousands in a matter of 25 days. The people of Tigray and the TPLF must therefore draw a lasting lesson from the evolving conflict, which this article tries to dwell on.

The current conflict has now entered a new chapter after the official declaration of full victory by the Ethiopian Federal government. Regardless of TPLF not conceding defeat, the conventional war that has been fought tooth and nail is now over in favor of Abiy’s allied forces. At least, it will be over very soon, if not already. Just last weekend, the Tigrean government-in exile has declared that the war will continue unabated, and that surrender is unthinkable. In relation to this, the same has also made it known that it will wage a war of a different character. Apparently, the future war will be inspired by guerilla and high mobility tactics.

To help me make a sound recommendation, I have zipped through the records of the war from the reports of the media.  Based on those, I have made assessments as a person who only stood by passively (but agitated) as things were played out in the open. I suppose this helps me to become as objective as I can be.

I like to begin by claiming that the TPLF has at best only been able to limit its damage, and has not achieved enough in the military, diplomatic, and media fronts. This, of course, does not mean that it will not achieve enough in the future, as the capabilities of the TPLF remains formidable. For now, let us limit the discussion to military matters in which case one can make valid observations from the way the war unfolded and where it got to so far. Towering above all is the fact that Tigrean forces put up a characteristic strong defence against a multiple of forces that enjoys clear numerical and fire power superiority – Eritrean, Ethiopian, and regional paratroopers.  Against all odds, they were exceptionally agile at making strategic and tactical moves, borne out by the apparent minimal casualties of combatants and civilians. All indications point also to the possibility that the TPLF underestimated the resource base of its enemy and its speed of mobilization. There is no denying that the rest of Ethiopia, as the warring side, is well-endowed with resources while Tigray finds its major shortcoming in those. Logistical supplies may possibly have run out for Tigray sooner than the war had started, regardless how well stocked it may have looked at the start.

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The predictably full-scale involvement of many forces against Tigray, Esaias’s army included, may not have been given full consideration by the TPLF. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that its leadership is known to be apt evaluator of situations. In fact, rigorous analysis of enemy’s strength and weakness has always been the hallmark of TPLF’s military leadership.  In particular, the fact that Esaias has been all along bidding for time to destroy the TPLF and humiliate its founders should have been viscerally understood. Similarly, the same leadership seems to have lost sight or had a denial of the level of animosity it picked up all along from the larger elite and populace in Ethiopia. The heightened sense of animosity towards the TPLF has been made possible by the barrage of venomous propaganda waged against it. The idealistic and persistent appeal of the TPLF to nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, for whom it claims to be the benefactor, to rally against a ‘unitary ideology’ of Abiy could not come close to counteracting this barrage.

Tigray is also hemmed in from all sides and sits within a hostile geography. Whether admitted by it or not, geo-politics has actually unnerved the TPLF, as has painfully transpired once the war started. The Sudan is no more the gateway it used to be, Eritrea has served as the launching pad for the attack, the Amhara region has always been waiting for opportune moments to turn territorial claims into reality, and the Afaris have  long  been cowed by Abiy’s veiled threats, hence they are no more friends they were. In fact, all indications are that geographic disadvantage is set to continue to afflict Tigray.

Modern-day warfare has to naturally adapt to new circumstances and is supposed to be fundamentally different from the type waged four decades ago by the TPLF. Since then, technology has advanced immensely; the GPS, satellite imagery, and the advent of the drone have made it easy to locate, chase and attack an enemy. The expanded reach and quality of infrastructure, roads in particular, have amply facilitated the swift movement of artillery and other military hardware. Generally, the nature of modern warfare, resource endowment, and new military technologies favor the Federal allied forces and not the TPLF. This is not to speak of the accumulated anti-TPLF and to some degree anti-Tigray sentiment harbored in Ethiopia, which is an important factor to sway the balance.

Over all, one cannot discount the value of external developments in the rest of the country or the horn to improve the chances of success for the TPLF (confrontations from Egypt, increased intensity of conflict in the rest of Ethiopia etc.). Whatever the case, TPLF’s political agenda is likely to continue unappealing to the rest of the country. 

Another factor in the grand scheme of things is the cost of modern warfare on civilians. The plight of civilians will increase substantially compared to the past, which will in turn continue to heavily upset the TPLF. The much-enhanced firepower of modern warfare coupled with the fiery desire of the Federal government to achieve quick victory will result in more civilian casualties and sufferings.

In short, limited mobility, a state of siege, and considerable animosity from a large populace combine in a cruel way to make success vastly elusive, if not impossible, for the TPLF. However, to be fair to it, the TPLF as a warring party, has at least three clear-cut advantages: experience of war, entrenched societal culture of resistance, and unconditional support from its population. Hence, the basic question I desperately raise is as to what strategy the TPLF must follow given its strengths and weaknesses, and those of its foes. In other words, what is the best approach the people of Tigray and the TPLF must take henceforth?

In my humble opinion, the killer strategy to speak to all these factors is for the TPLF to broaden the catchment area of the war. This strategy will immensely help build a much larger rearguard with a view to maneuvering around and ensuring a greater latitude for surprise attacks. As a strategy, it will help it to exploit its built-in advantages in addition to facilitating the achievement of several lofty objectives in a simultaneous manner. First, if Esaias’s forces are successfully attacked and defeated in Eritrea, Abiy will lose critical support, making it much easier to bring him down to his knees. Second, as mentioned above, this strategy will lend the capacity for surprise attacks to the Tigrean forces. Third, the infrastructure and the terrain in Eritrea are not as conducive as are in Tigray, thereby reducing the ability of the Federal forces to put to use a critical advantage in artillery and logistical backup.

Expanding the war theatre to Eritrea will also have the objective of realizing a long-awaited victory over Esaias’s regime, thereby helping Eritreans free themselves from repression, arbitrary rule, and social dislocation.  Not only that, but it could also usher in the creation of a new state of Eritrea plus Tigray, bringing the two Tigrigna speakers together in a nationhood. They were kept separate by the action of a European colonialist and the alleged conspiracy of the ruling class in Ethiopia. By the way, if by some remote chance, Eritrea could be federated back to Ethiopia, that will be even more exciting and  a much greater trophy.

The formation of the new state, which I call ‘Tiger Republic’ (‘Tig’ from Tigray and ‘er’ from Eritrea), is more than ever a strong possibility given that a critical subjective condition for it is now met. There is a fast-evolving sense of oneness and fraternity amongst the ordinary peoples of Tigray and Eritrea. This has been most evident during the temporary opening of borders in late 2018, and the war under discussion. Eritreans in the Diaspora and those sheltered in Tigray have openly empathized with the people of Tigray. A large number of Eritreans have expressed dismay over the war on Tigray, unleashed by Abiy and Esaias in a concerted manner. The Eritrean Diaspora called for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and the ending of atrocities committed on civilians.  In fact, this is the single most important revelation of the current war.

I have no doubt in my mind that the despotic rule of Esaias will end shortly, if the TPLF and Eritrean opposition forces could operate in coordination. The complementarity to be achieved from combined forces, and the keen sense of cause with which the two will pursue this mission, will certainly ensure the downfall of Esaias, and will force Abiy to sit around the negotiation table. In this respect, it is important to remember that it was the coordinated operation of the EPLF and the TPLF that accelerated the defeat of the Derg.

I conclude by calling for the TPLF to stop being too idealist and to rather teach itself lessons in pragmatism. So far, over-emphasis on ideology and theorizing has done it more harm than good. As a military force, the TPLF must, sooner than later, expand its area of operation to Eritrea by taking genuine interest in the opposition force from Eritrea.

Already, Esaias and Abiy have shortchanged the sanctity of sovereign territories in favor of the will to destroy the TPLF. They have fought against the people of Tigray as allies, and have, in so doing, violated a long-established political principle of sovereignty. The precedent is, therefore, fully set by them, and the people of Tigray and the TPLF need only to emulate this. After all, the objectives the TPLF would achieve by expanding its war territory are noble in and of their own.




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