[Published with permission from the Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis journal]
By Gregory R. Copley
Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs
The US Administration of Pres. Joseph Biden, functioning through the State Department, on December 23, 2021, doubled down on its support for the Ethiopian marxist rebel militants, the Tigré (Tigray) Popular Liberation Front (TPLF).
The US terminated Ethiopia’s eligibility for benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) citing its disapproval of the war in the Tigré region. This was the significant State Dept. response to the reality that the TPLF forces it supported had been finally driven out of the Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia, where it is now documented that they had committed extensive humanitarian atrocities. A significant TPLF-funded international information warfare campaign had, for a year, consistently reported that the atrocities had been committed against Tigreans by Federal Government forces, but, as access to the battlefield was now possible for independent observers, it was clear that the TPLF had engaged in classical “blame the victim” psychological operations, and that these information dominance operations had been actively and wittingly supported by the US State Dept.
The renewed US commitment to supporting the TPLF — a policy largely controlled by key Democratic Party operatives who had worked for the previous Clinton and Obama administrations — was a reflection of strong financial ties between US officials and the TPLF leadership over many years, and does not reflect US strategic priorities in the Horn of Africa or Red Sea region. What was significant was that the State Dept., under Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reinforced its support for the TPLF at a time when the marxist group had been forced, finally, to abandon its occupation and destruction of the Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia.
Equally significant is the reality that the US foreign and strategic policy establishments, particularly within the Dept. of Defense, do not understand why the Blinken State Dept. has committed so strongly to continued support of the TPLF. However, it seems clear that the TPLF now has no chance to recover control of the national government, control of which it relinquished in 2018 when it could no longer govern. The US journal, Foreign Policy, which normally reflects a US State Dept. line, came out on December 28, 2021, on its website with a report entitled “To End Ethiopia’s War, Biden Needs to Correct Course”. And yet the Blinken coterie at State, many of whom had been openly or discreetly financially linked to the TPLF over a number of years, has remained true to its client relationship with the TPLF.
So the evolving situation by December 28, 2021, was that the TPLF was now isolated inside Tigré region. However, it retained a significant fighting force; it retained its support from the US; and it was working to develop a land corridor from West Tigré across the Sudanese border to retain military support either from Sudan or Egypt, or from the US. The Ethiopian Government of Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali had said that it would not militarily follow the retreating TPLF combatants into Tigré, but this did not mean that it would stand by and allow the TPLF to maintain a land corridor to Sudan. Absent that land corridor, the TPLF would then be increasingly marginalized, and the Federal Government could then go about the task of separating the TPLF out from the general Tigrean population (which represents only some six percent of the Ethiopian population).
It seems clear that the Ethiopian National Defense Force would increasingly rely on its significant control of air power, both manned and unmanned, to control TPLF troop movements within Tigré, and that this was likely to be significant, given the degradation of TPLF air defense capabilities. Clearly, foreign support for the TPLF, if it could reach the embattled force, would include counter-air capabilities to the degree that they are available, but it was understood that Turkish and Israeli support for the Government forces was based on lessons learned from the Azerbaijan-Armenian clashes of October-November 2020 in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) proved highly effective.
Considerable effort has, however, been given over the past year by major powers such as the US to counter-UAV technology and doctrine.
This analyst in the last week of December 2021, just before the anticipated US AGOA statement, gave a confidential 150-minute briefing to senior officials on the Ethiopia and regional situation. That briefing was built around the following bullet points.
1. Neither are we near ending the war inside Ethiopia, nor are we nearing an end to the regional crisis (with Egypt and Sudan)1.
2. As suspected, the Abiy Government could not militarily follow the TPLF fully into Mekele (the Tigré regional capital) for fear of losing all of the Tigrean population forever, so it faces some key dilemmas, including:
- Embarking on a professional psychological campaign to separate the TPLF from the Tigrean mainstream population;
- Using other coercive techniques to bring the TPLF to its knees while rebuilding trust with, and the prosperity of, the Tigrean general population;
- Isolating the TPLF from foreign logical and political/psychological warfare support, including the physical denial of a land corridor from Tigré region into Sudan.
3. The US Biden State Dept. will not abandon the TPLF, given the probable exposure and blackmail over TPLF cash deals with current US officials; State will double-down on its support for TPLF, regardless of the negative strategic consequences for the US. Neither will the US State Department ever put the US-Ethiopia relationship ahead of the US-Egypt relationship. The same applies for the governments of the UK, France, Germany, and possibly Italy.
4. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian Government now has the task to convince the US Government and its allies that support for the TPLF has become futile and that the TPLF was already a political liability to its key supporters within the US Biden Administration. Part of this process must be to isolate the other key allies (UK, France, Germany, Italy) on the strength that the US State Dept. policy is “unsafe” and that — as was the UK Blair Administration’s following of US Democratic Party policies on Syria and, earlier, the Balkans — following US State Dept. policy was likely to be politically damaging to them. From the Ethiopian perspective, these key Western governments need to be helped to understand how best to resist US threats and pressures.
5. Quite apart from the TPLF, the Abiy Government would be unlikely to succeed in rebuilding peace, security, and prosperity if it did not address the problem of marxist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and its loosely-disguised affiliate, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and related terrorism and separatist agitation. The Abiy Government was unlikely ever to be fully trusted widely within Ethiopia unless it could eliminate the accusation that it was soft on OLF/OLA extremism and the widespread belief that it favored the Oromo over other Ethiopian groups. Indeed, even now, how long will it take for Amhara and Afar trust to be restored in the Government?
6. The US/Allied positions that they are supporting Egypt’s wishes regarding Blue Nile waterflow must be professionally discredited, highlighting also the reality that, regardless of that support for Egypt, those Western powers will never again be permitted — at least while Egyptian Pres. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is in office — to gain the levels of influence they once had in Cairo. In other words: supporting Cairo against Ethiopia at this time will gain them nothing, although supporting realistic solutions to Egypt’s water crisis would provide options which could both save the Sisi Government and avert the pressure on Ethiopia.2
7. The Egyptian Government needed to be courted separately by the Abiy Ethiopian Government with creative solutions which would provide a win-win for Egypt and Ethiopia over the issue of Nile waters, without compromising Ethiopia’s rights, under international law, to control riparian rights to water flow. Ethiopia needs to be able to propose a “grand bargain” which will not only save Egyptian Pres. Sisi, but also guarantee international acclaim for PM Abiy. This includes Ethiopian participation in an overarching scheme to perhaps help channel water from the upper reaches of the Congo River across to the White Nile in Southern Sudan.
8. The Ethiopian Government lacks a comprehensive international intelligence capability and appropriate psycho-political strategic capability — information warfare — to understand and manage its regional situation. Addis Ababa keeps thinking it can “wing it” and respond reactively and intuitively. That kind of policy rarely works, historically. Having said that, the Prime Minister has made a couple of sound intuitive moves recently; first by channeling Emperor Haile Selassie in “going to the front”, and the second by empowering the Amhara and Afar militias to drive the TPLF back into Tigray. However, an ad hoc, reactive approach is usually a recipe for disaster in the longer term, especially when Ethiopia’s adversaries have so much economic, military, and political strength behind them.
9. Ethiopia does have a negotiating position vis-à-vis the US and West, but has no negotiating entry points (ie: diplomatic access) to break into foreign policy circles. These could be achieved through third-party, Track II, diplomatic assets. In all of these areas, the historical legitimacy of the Ethiopian Crown would logically be used. Instead, we see the Ethiopian Government, still lingering in the shadow of almost a half-century of marxist thinking, seeing the Crown as competing for political power, which, clearly, it is not. The recommendation to the Ethiopian Government was that it was time for the Government to put the Ethiopian nation first, by relying on historical institutions. The reality is that the Crown and the Government can have a perfect partnership, given that they have different but complementary rôles.
10. The Government of Ethiopia appears not to have thought of a long-term strategic outcome or goal; neither has it incentivized foreign supporters. Prime Minister Abiy’s promised Constitutional reform, which must — if it is to restore Ethiopia to the ranks of democratic states — open the country to private land ownership, is the key not only to foreign direct investment, but also to incentivizing domestic economic growth, and the creation of a foreign view of Ethiopia that it is the next big economic growth opportunity. This could generate foreign support for the country. Otherwise, why would foreigners care about Ethiopia?
11. Ethiopia has made no clear moves toward coherently mobilizing a regional coalition to resist pressures. The fact that it has been forced to accept foreign pressures, both positive and negative, is clear indication that Ethiopia itself was not driving the agenda. The pressures have served to ensure that Eritrea was constrained from helping to secure longer-term Ethiopian interests, not just regarding Tigré but also access to the Red Sea. Neither has Addis Ababa stated a strategic posture encouraging or exploring a revived union between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, with the then-guaranteed position of a strong voice in Red Sea security.
12. Ethiopia is being forced to rely, once again, on help from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, Iran, and Turkey, all of which in the past have worked against Ethiopian interests (although, admittedly, Russia has been less harmful to Ethiopia than the others in the post-Soviet era, but distrust exists because of the Soviet engagement with the Dergue and in the radicalization of Ethiopia during the late 1960s and early 1970s). This, plus the relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, could be capitalized on by the Abiy Government and used as leverage with the West, and yet no Ethiopian strategic plan seems evident.
13. An important point final point: Considerable power, and potential power, lies in the hands of the Ethiopian diaspora in mobilizing international political and economic support for Ethiopia, and the expertise and wealth gained by the Ethiopian diaspora population over recent decades remains potent. The Abiy Government, by December 2021, had begun supporting and rallying the Ethiopian diaspora, however, the critical element in supporting that group must be the restoration of the 1955 Constitution including the guarantee of the rights of private property, because it was the coup of 1974 and its reinforcement by the seizure of power by the TPLF in 1991 which drove Ethiopians into the diaspora in the first place.
1. See, in particular, a report in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis of August 18, 2021, entitled “Is the Nile Dispute In Fact Moving Toward a Dénouement?”
2. See Copley, Gregory R.: “Today It Is Us; Tomorrow It Is You”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 11-12/2021, and in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, November 24, 2021. That report included analysis recommending that any “grand bargain” could include multi-national projects to invest in the diversion of some upstream Congo River waters to the White Nile — a project envisaged and, in fact, begun over recent decades — to increase the flow into South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt. This Service reported on this concept extensively, as well, in an October 16, 2013, report entitled “A Revived Congo-Nile Canal Project Could Transform Egyptian Water Needs, End Potential Conflict Over the Ethiopian Dam, and Provide an African North-South Hook-Up”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis. This concept was also explored in Copley, Gregory; Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie, Ermias; Mohammed, Aliyu; et al: Rise of the RedMed: How the Mediterranean-Red Sea Nexus is Resuming its Strategic Centrality. Alexandria, Virginia, 2016: The International Strategic Studies Association and the Gusau Institute. See: www.StrategicStudies.org. ISBN: 978-1-892998-24-8.
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With regard to the tplf war of insurgency, the main problem now is the personal relationship of the tplf and the Biden Administration officials along with the money involved in personal gains. I believe the US administration should focus on the country’s main objectives and devise a strategic policy only based on the interests of its nation rather than personal relationship. The US and its allies should leave the African nations in the region alone in order to solve their own problems inside or outside their territories. All the countries in the region are fully capable of handling their own affairs.