US diplomacy failing at critical moment in Ethiopia war
The war waged by the Ethiopian Federal Government and Eritrea against Tigray is set for a decision by force of arms.
Despite the media’s preoccupation with the conflict in Ukraine, it’s the bloodiest war in the world today, with thousands of soldiers and civilians dying each day in combat and from starvation and disease. How it ends will have reverberations throughout Africa and the Red Sea arena for decades. As day 700 of the war approaches — it will fall on September 29 — the current trajectory, probably unstoppable, represents a dismal failure of U.S. and multilateral diplomacy.
Reports from the battlefront are hard to verify, but it is evident that the war has not unfolded as the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders expected. Having mobilized more than half a million troops to every Tigrayan border in August, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Eritrean Defense Force (EDF) have failed to make any gains against the Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF). To the contrary, the TDF has won at least two very major victories in the last month and has held its ground against sustained attacks.
The TDF has not, however, broken the starvation siege encircling Tigray.
The failure of U.S. and multilateral diplomacy boils down to a refusal to take the Tigrayans seriously. The unspoken premise is that the federal government should be allowed to establish military dominance over Tigray so it can dictate peace terms. Failing that, diplomats whisper that Sri Lanka’s bloody defeat of the Tamil insurgency in 2009 could be a recent precedent.
Closer to home is the example of the federal government of Nigeria’s victory over the breakaway Biafra region in 1970 after three years of starvation siege. After a Nigerian show of magnanimity under the slogan “no victor, no vanquished” the world forgot about Biafra and the brutal methods by which it was suppressed.
Serving in that federal army at the time was a colonel named Olusegun Obasanjo — the African Union’s current High Representative for the Horn of Africa and mediator for the Tigray conflict. The episode shaped him and a generation of Nigerians.
In a September 20 press briefing, Mike Hammer, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, spoke of “strategic partnership” with Ethiopia, without making it clear whether that was past, present, or future. How he depicted the conflict and the issues in dispute would have been comforting to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and discouraging to the Tigrayan authorities. His European Union counterpart, Annette Weber, shared the same sentiments in an official communication to all the EU member states, written as a mission report, in which she also put on paper what Hammer had carefully avoided saying, namely, “The US has facilitated three informal direct exchanges between the conflict parties (Seychelles, 2 x Djibouti).” The overall trajectory and results of those negotiations were outlined in my September 13 column.
After the September 8-9 Djibouti meeting, the Government of Tigray signed a commitment to a peace process. The federal government did not. Its answer came in the form of drone strikes on the Tigrayan capital Mekelle. It also wrote to France’s UN ambassador, who had shared the Tigrayan peace proposal with the other members of the Security Council, writing that circulating a letter from a “terrorist” group contravened the fundamental tenets of the UN and the sovereignty of Ethiopia, and demanding that France should “rectify its action.” The three African members of the Security Council then blocked a proposed session on Ethiopia in the days after the Djibouti talks, easing the diplomatic pressure on Addis Ababa.
Officials in Washington are worried by the stalling, but there is no sign that they have adjusted their approach. Three immediate problems, each of them separately fatal, arise.
The first is ethical. As the recent Report of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia makes clear, the Ethiopian Government is committing crimes against humanity targeting the people of Tigray, including systematic use of starvation as a weapon of war. The experts’ report applies the same standards to both sides, finding that all parties violated the laws of war, but only the federal government forces did so “as part of a widespread attack directed against the civilian population” — in other words, a crime against humanity (Paragraph 98). They added “persecution on ethnic grounds” and starvation crimes to the list of abuses attributable to the government.
The experts’ report validates those, such as Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, who have taken a principled stand against atrocities and starvation. Weber, on the other hand, was clearly trying to undermine Borrell when she wrote that “the EU is perceived as promoting bias through … exclusive condemnation of one side” and that the Ethiopian government “may close [EU] access to its key interlocutors” if it did not change its tune.
The second problem is that military and diplomatic dynamics are not in synchrony. Since the war began, Addis Ababa has set the pace of the peace process. Whenever Abiy sensed battlefield advantage, he blocked peace efforts, only allowing diplomacy to proceed when his army needed time to regroup and recuperate.
Ethiopian custom is that calling for a ceasefire signals military weakness. Most Ethiopians interpreted the Tigrayan peace offer in that way — as an invitation for Abiy to push harder. The United States has done nothing to disabuse Ethiopians of this. Hammer seemed happy to pocket the Tigrayans’ compromises and appease Abiy by indicating that he’s going to ask for yet more concessions from the Tigrayans.
That’s a mistake. The Tigrayan offer was confident and carefully worded. They are fighting for their lives, they owe their successes to no one but themselves, and they are tenacious and tough negotiators as well. The United States is in the process of missing a rare opening. That’s happened before.
Reviewing the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, one of Ethiopia’s most experienced diplomats observed: “A diplomatic breakthrough in the Ethio-Eritrea crisis appeared always to wait for an advance by one side or the other on the battlefield — as if (apologies for the crude formulation) the blood of the youth were a lubricant for progress in diplomacy.” A formula for peace was put forward in 1999 but was only belatedly agreed by the two governments after a year of needless battlefront carnage. Among the reasons for this was an Ethiopian perception that Washington wanted to see who was winning before putting its political weight on the scales.
The third and final problem is that Eritrea is more than a disagreeable junior partner in this conflict. In her briefing, Weber reproduced the standard trope of the Addis Ababa diplomatic circuit, “PM Abiy faces a dilemma. Although government officials avow that Eritrea is not invited to the war, EDF forces are critical for a stretched ENDF to keep TDF in check. ENDF and Amhara forces have been moved into Eritrea to attack from there.”
This is simply wrong. Abiy resolved his dilemma by placing at least 12 ENDF divisions under Eritrean command. Some 50,000 Ethiopian soldiers are now Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s cannon fodder, and only the most naïve believes that he would let the survivors go home. This month he refused to return 5,000 Somali troops trained in Eritrea. Michelle Gavin of the Council of Foreign Relations warned that “Eritrea [enjoys] a level of access to the innermost circles of the Ethiopian security establishment that Abiy couldn’t unwind if he tried.”
Hammer signaled that the State Department has no idea how to handle Eritrea. In his press briefing, he said, “We will encourage those that might be able to communicate directly with Asmara that this is of extreme concern and must stop.” He added that he wouldn’t speak about “other measures that we might be able to undertake” but added that sanctions weren’t under active consideration.
It’s unclear who’s in charge in Washington. Is it Hammer’s boss, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Molly Phee, who is following a minimalist policy of managing the fallout from African crises? That feeds into to a lazy analysis that assumes that the Tigrayans should negotiate their submission on Addis Ababa’s terms, after which Ethiopia can return its strategic partnership with the United States to active mode. Whether based on impotence or ignorance, it amounts to giving the green light for Isaias to become master of the Horn of Africa.
Or is policy decided at the level of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan? They might grasp the repercussions of allowing Abiy and Isaias to prevail, with the result that America’s “strategic partner” in the Horn will be the pawn of a dictator allied with Russia.
The Europeans are animated by wanting a front-row seat at the negotiation circus that the AU is busy designing and are busy fudging facts and analysis to get their tickets. That peace process is a tactical option for Ethiopia and Eritrea, tailored to accommodate Abiy’s sensibilities and disregard Tigrayan demands. This promises diplomatic vanities getting in the way of addressing the real issues and power dynamics. The AU may become the ringmaster of an impressive show, but someone else will need to do the real work.
The simple logic of the war has not changed: without high-level political engagement, the fighting and famine will continue until one of the belligerents collapses — or possibly two or even all three. The blood of Ethiopia’s youth — and the corpses of Tigray’s starved children —are the lubricant for a lackadaisical imitation of diplomacy.