Tghat Forum 2: Reflections on Operation Alula

TGHAT Forum welcomes Alex de Waal for a discussion on the recent success of the TDF’s Operation Alula. The war started in November 2020 when the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, along with Amhara militias, invaded Tigray after alleging the Tigrayan Forces launched an attack on the ENDF’s northern command. When the war began, the Tigray government was forced to retreat from major cities and turn to a strategy of guerilla warfare. Reconstituted as the TDF, the Tigrayan resistance regrouped and launched two major offensives, Operation Seyoum and Operation Alula, which resulted in the TDF taking control of Mekelle and much of Tigray.

Alex de Waal explains why the TDF was able to reconstitute itself. The speed of the ENDF’s collapse was faster than anyone expected, but the outcome was clear from months ago. Key was the leadership from some of the past campaigns, such as General Tsadkan Gebretensae, along with the determination and commitment of many young volunteers who mobilized out of desperation. Tigrayan military leadership saw the Ethiopian army as a soft target given that its morale and command are in shambles. Eritrea is a more formidable force, but its conscript army has been reluctant to fight. A wide array of political forces in Tigray have unified and coalesced under the TDF. As this demonstrates, a population that is mobilized, politicized and armed cannot be ruled against its will or terrorized into submission.

Goitom Gebreluel attributes the success of Operation Alula to the organizational characteristics of the EDF and ENDF in comparison to the TDF. Poor battlefield strategy and a lack of discipline have been two decisive factors. Rather than being driven by military logic, Abiy’s war tactics are guided by political necessity. The EDF and ENDF lack discipline, as demonstrated by the reports of rape and videos of soldiers executing prisoners of war. The many atrocities committed by the ENDF, EDF and Amhara militias have only emboldened the Tigrayan resistance.

Patrick Wight explains that the Ethiopian government’s “unilateral ceasefire” is in fact war by other means. Abiy is simply pausing the war in an effort to reconstitute his forces. After the ENDF lost the conventional war, tactics have shifted to blockading Tigray. The government claims that it withdrew its forces to allow farmers to plant. In that case, it makes no sense to block and delegitimize attempts to provide humanitarian assistance. The ENDF withdrew from Tigray, but all of the bridges into the region were destroyed and essential services were cut off. We are also seeing a mass arrest campaign of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa. This belies the idea that this is simply a war against TPLF elites rather than against the Tigrayan people.

The conversation was moderated by Teklay Gebremichael.

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