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PM Abiy’s Chess Move

The last week has been somewhat of a topsy turvy one for those at the BBC and other mainstream western media who are scraping the bottom of the barrel to churn out articles about the situation in Tigray region of Ethiopia. On Monday, June 28, 2021, word started filtering out that the TPLF’s (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) fighters had “captured” or entered the regional capital of Mekelle. Most western media did not hesitate to report on this piece of news without even verifying it let alone stop and analyse it. After all, they had been believing all the hype about the TPLF even before the fighting started some eight months ago.

To those of us who chose to think beyond what the western mainstream media would have us believe, things did not seem quite right. How can an army that had almost obliterated the TPLF eight months ago in a blitz war that lasted only three weeks suddenly capitulate and abandon not only Mekelle but the whole region? This and other questions were being asked in all corners of the globe, especially among western military and strategic analysts.

After all, there hadn’t been any major offensive per se by either side. The Ethiopians had made it clear that the TPLF was a spent force militarily but was resorting to guerrilla style tactics and the TPLF, until that point, was pressing its allies and supporters in the west, including the BBC, CNN, Reuters, DW, etc. etc. to push for a ceasefire, unfettered access by humanitarian agencies to Tigray region because “famine was looming and the Ethiopian government and its allies were blocking aid from entering and thus using famine as a weapon of war”, etc. etc. This was the narrative that was pouring out of the aforementioned media outlets and repeated ad nauseum throughout the corridors of the White House, White Hall, the UN and even the WHO, to name but a few.

Then all of a sudden, on Monday, June 28, 2021, reports started filtering out that the Ethiopian army and its allies had packed up and left, but not before, going to the UNICEF office and dismantling the VSAT system set up there. (Note that it was just the VSAT system that was dissembled – no property was looted, no vehicles stolen, nothing: strange, one would think!) The TPLF and its supporters were quick to see this as a huge propaganda moment claiming that they had “broken the back of the invading forces” and that they would not accept the unilateral ceasefire just declared by the Ethiopian government, calling it a joke because a “defeated party cannot call a ceasefire and expect it to be accepted by the victor”; that “they [TPLF] would pursue their enemies, if need be, into other regions of Ethiopia as well as into Eritrea to make sure that the fighting capability of the enemy would be destroyed.”

In a game of chess, if one is offered an attractive piece, say one’s Bishop, for no immediately apparent reason, one has to stop and think even harder why that is the case. It could be a genuine mistake by the opponent; it could be a desperate act because the opponent was cornered and had to sacrifice the Bishop in order to protect the King or it could be a bait that the opponent was using to unleash a move that would not only make the sacrifice of the bishop worthwhile but would lead to either check or even checkmate. Let’s use this parallel to explain the situation in Tigray this last Monday. Ethiopia dangled its Bishop — the city of Makele — in front of the TPLF and offered it as a sacrifice. The TPLF and its western allies, media supporters, “experts”, analysts, etc. did not think twice about taking the Bishop whilst at the same time feeling smug, brave and intelligent, not to mention openly claiming to have brilliantly outwitted the Ethiopian Federal Government whom they portrayed as having left Tigray because it was no longer able to resist the “recent military push” by the TPLF. The news hit the headlines of all major western media outlets.

The Tigrayans – including some living in Addis Ababa itself – were ecstatic and seen celebrating in all the “recently liberated” regions of the province. The enemy’s Bishop was taken. To the TPLF and their supporters they were now going for the jugular and soon they would even move out of Tigray region and to continue their defeat of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and then it would be checkmate for the TPLF — at least that is what the deluded TPLF would have everyone believe. There are, however, a few vitally important questions that nobody on that bandwagon seemed to have asked.

Question 1: Despite what the TPLF and its supporters were claiming, western military analysts will have known from both their people on the ground delivering “humanitarian” aid and from their satellite imageries, that there was no indication that a major offensive had taken place in Tigray region since the TPLF was decimated and made to leave Mekelle, let alone in the last week or so. That being the case, why would the Ethiopian army, which had the military and logistic upper hand, suddenly decide to withdraw? In other words, why was the Bishop being sacrificed?

Question 2: By his very own admission, the top TPLF general, Tsadqan Gebretensae – about whom the BBC on its website is currently running a glowing tribute to his military planning prowess and crediting him with the defeat of the Ethiopian Federal army – a few weeks back had said in an interview that his forces had been obliterated by the drones used by the Ethiopian army but he went on to claim that they had now regrouped. The question being, how was it possible that an army which was obliterated (“made to eat dust” to use the General’s own words) six or so months ago and which does not have any outlet with which to resupply itself with basic logistics, suddenly be so strong, that it was able to kick out the Federal army that had airpower including the dreaded drones, mechanized units, etc. etc.?

Question 3: This is the most important one because it brings us to where we currently are today. Given that through some miracle or divine intervention or due to the “humanitarian” aid that was coming through to Tigray which also contained sophisticated military equipment – we already know that within days of the humanitarian aid coming through, TPLF leaders were able to communicate using Satellite phones supplied through this “humanitarian assistance program” and have been pictured with WFP agents using this communication equipment – the TPLF somehow defeated the forces it was fighting for and has now “liberated” Tigray region, what next? In other words, the Bishop was taken, what is the next move? As it turned out, once the TPLF entered the capital and other regions to the tune of western media claiming it had defeated the retreating forces and it was gaining ground, the next move was that of the Ethiopian government. But come Tuesday, there wasn’t a squeak from them. Western capitals were baffled. Some went public and supported the unilateral ceasefire and urged the TPLF to also declare a ceasefire, others stopped short of imploring the TPLF to follow suit but instead kept repeating the latter’s boasts of continuing the fight until the Ethiopian forces were severely crippled. Others, like Alex de Vaal, were given free reign by the BBC to glorify the ‘military genius’ — the British do have a wicked sense of humour — of the TPLF leadership. It seemed, for lack of any contrary explanation, that the TPLF had indeed defeated its enemies and was now in full control. Calls were being made to allow unfettered humanitarian access; an imposition of a no-fly zone over the whole of Tigray in anticipation of an aerial bombardment that was imminent; re-establishment of communication, electricity and fuel lines to the region, etc. etc. Then on the evening of Tuesday, the rationale behind the Bishop move was revealed. At a ceremony for graduating journalists, Prime Minister Abiy basically said that after weighing and discussing the issue with his people for weeks in light of the fact that they were realizing that the TPLF was being supported by the Tigrayan people in attacking the same Ethiopian soldiers that were feeding and protecting the population; in light of the fact that the TPLF was now a spent force of no credible military threat (they don’t have a mechanized unit, they don’t have heavy artillery, no air power, not even medical facilities to treat their wounded, etc.); in light of the fact that the Federal government had spent more than 12 times the annual budget of Tigray in the last eight months just to provide food, shelter, re-build broken and destroyed infrastructure, reconnect downed telecommunication systems, and in light of the fact that despite all these efforts to bring normalcy to the people of Tigray, the response had been a systematic insurgency by the people of Tigray either willingly or coerced by the TPLF and because his army could not bring itself to shoot into crowds of women and children behind whom the TPLF fighters were hiding, he had ordered his army to leave the region and let the region be administered by this group whom the people of Tigray seem to want to be administered by. In other words, quoting the billions of dollars of humanitarian aid the Federal government had poured into the region over the last eight months and realizing that the same people who were receiving this aid were the ones that were killing his soldiers behind their backs, he decided that he was not going to spend any more valuable resource on the region, that he had better use of the resources to divert it to other more pressing issues the country was facing and as far as he was concerned, the ball was now in the court of the Tigrayan people to decide how they want to move forward.

Abiy had learnt his lesson from America’s Vietnam, The Soviet Union’s Afghanistan, America’s Afghanistan and currently Iraq as well. He was not going to pour valuable and scarce resources into a region that was basically not worth it! Had the US been bold enough to pull out of Vietnam when it saw that it was not worth it, the more than 58,000 American lives would not have been needlessly sacrificed in vain.

Abiy’s chess move not only enabled him to pull out of what promised to be a long-lasting insurgency that was threatening to drain his resources, patience and lives of his soldiers, it also enabled himself to free up resources and attention that was being wasted on Tigray so it could be used to address other more pressing issues that his country was facing. As he reiterated, Tigray was no longer a “centre of gravity” and it wasn’t high on his agenda anymore! What on the surface seemed to be an admission of defeat was actually a brilliant move that has pushed the TPLF and its western backers into a very tight corner. Sacrifice Bishop, move on to the King and call checkmate! For all the experts and analysts that they employ and invite to their studios, the likes of the BBC were completely taken by surprise by this move and have now chosen to ignore the elephant in the room altogether. Nobody is addressing the pressing issue of what will happen to the people of Tigray. Who is going to provide them with food, water, electricity, fuel and even protection and law and order? Tigray has chosen to isolate itself and is now banking on its western allies to feed it and somehow get it out of this mess it has landed itself in.

Their western allies are, themselves, trying to find ways to extricate themselves from the mess they didn’t see coming when they sat by and goaded the TPLF to take the Bishop that Abiy had dangled in front of them. Will they now dump the insignificant TPLF and side back with their long-standing ally in the region – Ethiopia, or will they arrogantly continue to back a militarily inconsequential and a thoroughly morally bankrupt group and risk losing Ethiopia once and for all? With one stroke of genius, Abiy had given the TPLF and its western supporters all they had asked for and a handful of problems that they would be hard pressed to solve. Tigray is now under the full control of the TPLF.

Tigray is, therefore, the responsibility of the TPLF who are defiantly refusing to accept any ceasefire. If humanitarian organizations cannot go into Tigray, it is because the TPLF has not laid down its arms to allow them to go in. The latter has to now feed the over five-million people of the region; provide medical services; provide fuel; electricity, etc. etc.  Something it has to be said it had been unable or unwilling to do while it was in power, with the task now made even more difficult now that the TPLF has no access through neighbouring countries, it is hard to see how TPLF is going to manage! Abiy has, reportedly, told the western humanitarian organizations and governments that they are free to go into Tigray and provide whatever assistance they could so the population does not suffer, as long as they do it through land which would entail that the aid convoys would have to be checked and vetted for before being allowed to enter and exit Tigray.

After all, this was one of the things he was being pressurized by the western countries to do. The second was the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from the border regions back to Eritrea which has now been accomplished. The third was the ceasefire. Again, this was unilaterally declared by the Ethiopian government whilst the TPLF, at the time of writing, was still beating the war drums and threatening to continue its offensive. The last, albeit most absurd, demand by the TPLF and their western backers was the withdrawal of Amhara Special Forces from what they euphemistically refer to as Western Tigray and what the Ethiopian PM calls Begemeder i.e. Gonder or in the new parlance Amhara Region.

No doubt, the western governments that have been lopsidedly supporting the TPLF, publishing its lies, using the whole situation to destabilize the Federal Government of Ethiopia so that, among other things, negotiations over the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) would favour their ally Egypt, and most far-fetched, bring back the TPLF clique to power in Addis so that they can have full control of Ethiopia once again, are now scampering here and there to try and extricate themselves from this situation as fast as possible. It is now check (probably even checkmate) for the Ethiopian government but alas the western media is refusing to see the elephant in the room. For all their bravado, lies, lobbying, “military geniuses”, the TPLF and its allies and supporters fell into this trap head on, completely blinded by the fact that they believed their own lies and propaganda. When they were offered the Bishop so easily, they should have stopped to analyse all possibilities before taking it. It turns out, it wasn’t a mistake – it was a wellcalculated move by Abiy. The Bishop was worth sacrificing for the benefit of the rest of the board. Tigray is no longer an important player in the regional politics. Mission accomplished. Your move, TPLF

Sara Isaias

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