July 31, 2021
The Federal government declared an immediate, unilateral cease-fire in its Tigray region after nearly eight months of deadly conflict on humanitarian grounds so that desperately needed aid can be delivered, to provide an opportunity for farmers to plant during the rainy season and to engage with other groups who seek peace. The TPLF undermined the declaration and resumed its attacks in the region’s rough terrain. It has already made several attempts at forcibly occupying the neighboring regions and people are mobilizing to repel the invasion.
Many people have several questions about the management of this war which has already cost thousands of lives. First, who is in charge of prosecuting the war? We sometimes hear conflicting statements made by government officials about the ceasefire, food deliveries to the region and other issues. This is a moment of grave danger to the country and the people expect their leader (commander-in-chief) to provide frequent briefings on the war and reassure them. Secondly, it is not clear why the army had to stop the war and declare a premature victory. Soon thereafter, it withdrew its forces from major cities and towns allowing the TPLF to establish a de facto state in Tigray. It reminds us of George Bush who declared “mission accomplished” aboard an aircraft carrier in 2003 and yet the war in Iraq was far from over and continued for several years thereafter. War is over only when a decisive military victory is achieved by killing or capturing all the civilian and military figures and degrading the enemy’s military capability to ensure that it will no longer pose a threat. This leaves the government with a monopoly over the use of force and enables it to impose order in the entire province. None of this happened in Tigray. Instead, it led to an inconclusive outcome that provided TPLF a golden opportunity to remobilize, regroup and rearm. This would not have been possible if Federal forces remained in the state.
Thirdly, the withdrawal of the interim administration and army from Tigray resulted in a leadership vacuum which allowed the TPLF to return to power. Even though the government declared it a terrorist organization, out premature exit crowned it in Tigray and will make it difficult for the government to normalize life by repairing the infrastructure, open schools and do other developmental activities for the people of Tigray. It cannot turn about-face and do business as usual with an outfit that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Also, there is no Federal presence in Tigray to counter TPLF narratives that the Tigray people are in danger due to their ethnicity. Now, we can neither prevent the recruitment and mobilization of young children into their militia nor the persecution of TPLF opponents or the silent majority who do not want to get involved in the war. Today, there was news about Tigray mothers who held public demonstrations against the military recruitment of their children for the war. They were apprehended, flogged and taken to jail. No one is there to protect them.
Fourthly, the army is still in a ceasefire mode even when TPLF forces are mounting a fierce attack in Amhara and afar regions. It is in the barracks while ordinary people are mobilizing themselves to repel the attack. An important role of the army is to defend the nation and fulfill its military responsibilities in support of national security. Most people do not see the wisdom behind this strategy which could lead to more casualties and prolong the war. Moreover, as civilians mobilize to join the war, there will be less people to produce the essential goods and services needed for the economy, possibly triggering a nation-wide famine. If the decision to stop the war and withdraw from Tigray was intended to placate the West and donor community, it is not likely to work since they have already taken a position in this conflict. This is not the first time that Western countries have sided with insurgent or rebel groups that they can control or manage. In the Sri Lankan conflict, for example, the West and donor agencies highlighted government indifference to civilian casualties and used shrill moralizing to put the government on the defensive against the Tamil terrorist groups. Meanwhile, they never condemned rebel atrocities during the conflict. This emboldened the rebel groups, enabled them to capture more territory and unduly prolonged the war. Only when a new government which understood these machinations broke relations with many of these countries (allowed limited, controlled involvement with some NGOs) that the war was finally won. It ultimately broke the backs of the rebels who had terrorized the country for 26 years. The rebel army surrendered after all major figures were captured and killed in action (the guns fell silent in 2009). The Western countries want the country to continue the ceasefire while the TPLF takes over more towns and cities. This situation will create a military advantage for the TPLF and a good opportunity for their allies to demand negotiations and a possible power sharing arrangement. It is a grave surrender to terrorism and a defeat for the country. The government should stick to its original message of upholding the rule of law. This still remains a law enforcement operation.
Where do we go from here? The government should ditch the ceasefire and use the army to achieve a decisive military victory over the rebels and then stabilize the state. It may be necessary to declare a state of emergency till the situation stabilizes and democracy is restored. Any effort at allowing TPLF to run the province or the failure to apprehend or capture the remaining fugitives from justice (civilian and military leadership) will lead to a prolonged conflict, more casualties and deaths. Our failure to take a quick and strategic action in order to placate the West and its partisan donor agencies could make the country pay a heavy price and potentially lead to a collapsed state. In that case, we have no one to blame but ourselves. At this crucial time, we are facing history and ourselves.