Bloodshed in the Horn: Implications and Consequences of the Tigray War for U.S. Policy
By Connor Tull
While this past week has been marked by the terrifying violence being inflicted in Ukraine, in Ethiopia, another conflict has been continuing with no end. The Tigray War, which has been raging on since November 2020, continues to engulf Ethiopian citizens in a maelstrom of violence and oppression from which there seems to be little escape. But the roots of the conflict stretch far beyond the initial political maneuvers and accusations of bad faith most media outlets seem to present as the cause of the conflict. In fact, the beginning of this tragedy stretches all the way back to 2018, with the rise of now-Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. As shown in Milkessa M. Gemechu’s article about the war, “addressing Ethiopia’s complex historical and contemporary challenges will require, first and foremost, a holistic understanding of those problems.” If the U.S. is to retain its valuable partnership in the Horn of Africa and continue its policies there, this understanding must begin now.
The story of the Tigray War begins in the 1980s, with the rise of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This group was a political coalition that fought against the communist Derg regime that had led the country since 1974. Importantly, the Front was led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who ended up taking a major leadership role in the new government despite representing only 6% of the Ethiopian population. In 2018 Abiy Ahmed came to power as prime minister by harnessing the momentum of the Qeerroo student movement. Ahmed promised that when he took power he would begin reforms towards full democratization, but ultimately turned his back on those ideas when he began to silence opposition and centralize power in himself. This culminated in 2019 when Ahmed announced the merger of all ethnic and region-based parties in the EPRDF into the new Prosperity Party, effectively turning Ethiopia into a one-party state. The TPLF refused to join this new party and further declared Ahmed as an illegitimate leader for postponing the August 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under this accusation and a subsequent regional election in the Tigray province where the TPLF is based, violence broke out on November 3 when Tigrayan troops attacked army posts and bases controlled by the Ethiopian army, the Ethiopian National Defense Force. The violence has continued on despite the capture of the Tigrayan regional capital Mekelle on November 28th by pro-government forces and multiple attempts by the international community and humanitarian groups to mediate a peaceful solution or simply to provide care for the millions of people who have been forced out as refugees.
This conflict is important for U.S. strategic policy because depending on how the government and State Department choose to respond, this could become a humanitarian crisis whose only parallel would be the breakup of Yugoslavia or an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate America’s renewed role on the world stage. Ethiopia has been a close U.S. ally in the War on Terror and a major strategic partner in an area of the world where U.S. influence is often viewed with suspicion or distrust. In particular, the Somali crisis has been tempered slightly thanks to the work of Ethiopian forces participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The U.S. cannot ignore the ongoing suffering in the region, especially since Biden has made promises that the U.S. would seek to return to its role “as an international champion of human rights.” But it cannot also easily turn its back on Addis Ababa and throw away 30+ years of cooperation. To navigate through this dilemma, the U.S. must emphasize a peacekeeping perspective and focus on helping the refugees who have suffered the most. This can be brought about by organizing a UN peacekeeping mission and providing troops to help international groups enter the country to treat the injured and sick. This does need to equate to sending into a significant military presence but only the necessary number of advisors and soldiers required to ensure that workers, doctors, and providers can move through the war zone relatively unscathed.
Expanding on this, the U.S. must seek to take an active leadership role in bringing both sides to the table for peaceful discussion. There is already a group known as the “A3+1”, composed of Niger, Tunisia, Kenya, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who has been working on mediating a solution. The U.S. should try and position itself within this group to both lend it legitimacy for its activities and bring more attention to the conflict so that humanitarian groups like the Red Cross have the chance to enter the country. The U.S. must also not be afraid to apply pressure to both sides, especially since the U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, providing more than $1 billion throughout the country over the last year according to the United States Agency for International Development. All in all, there is great potential for the U.S. to create a lasting peace in the region, if only it understands the full scope of the war and what motivates both sides. What I mean by a lasting peace is to see Ethiopia restored to its position, not just in Africa, but as a valuable American partner in general. Violence can be seen in areas of the continent. By helping to end this horrible conflict, the U.S. will continue to have a regional partner in attempting to bring some semblance of peace to this corner of the continent. That is a blessing too high to discard.
The Tigray War has been going back and forth for years now and shows little sign of slowing down in any way. Despite major gains having been made by both sides, neither one is willing to break, and indeed combined with the Tigrayan geography and its history of armed resistance, the foreseeable future appears to only offer more violence. But this does not have to be a reality if the U.S. plays its cards right. If successful, the U.S. can emerge from this crisis having preserved Ethiopia as a sovereign country and halted further atrocities. If a move is to be made, now is the time.