The loss of cities to Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries does not weaken the threat posed by Tigray’s forces.
Although, on the surface, the loss of Shire and other urban areas might look like a huge setback for Tigray’s army, it is a mistake to assess the balance of power by looking at the number of cities held.
In the medium to long term, if the occupation resembles anything like the first eight months of the war, the recent advances made by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies may even strengthen the resistance, as Tigray forces once again resort to Maoist guerrilla tactics.
Owing to the genocidal nature of the war in Tigray, and because the allied forces are occupiers, they won’t be able to maintain control of towns they’ve captured without the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers to protect themselves and their supply routes.
Now, Tigray’s army is estimated to be at over 250,000 soldiers, and this number is bound to swell in the coming weeks and months.
Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) leaders have called on every able-bodied person to join the fight and—having previously been accused of forcing people to join the war effort—according to a BBC report from inside Mekelle, the people are taking up the call.
Young people are joining the TDF in droves based on fear, as the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have killed, raped, and abducted civilians in the towns already under their control. The more the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces commit atrocities, the more new recruits will join the TDF.
When the war started, given the balance of power at the time, Eritrean and Ethiopian troops were present in even relatively remote towns and villages in Tigray. But, around March and April of 2021, the TDF started ambushing the Ethiopian and Eritrean units roaming the countryside.
A quintessential example is the battle in Werkedino, a place in southern Tigray close to the Tekeze Dam. This was the first and only time Eritrean forces faced the TDF alone, and they suffered heavy losses.
From that moment on, the Eritreans left southern Tigray altogether and began concentrating most of their forces in easily defendable positions, rendering their forces immobile.
When Operation Alula started in June 2021, the TDF attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Forces’ (ENDF) 11th Division that was spread from Yechila to Agbe, and an ENDF reinforcement in the form of the 24th Division came from Guya, the 31st from Guroro, and the 18th, 21st, 23rd, and 25th from other parts of Tigray.
When the 24th and 31st Divisions were getting destroyed, Eritrea had tens of thousands of soldiers in Werkamba, which is 30 to 40 kilometers from Guya and Guroro where ENDF’s 24th and 31st divisions were stationed.
The Eritreans didn’t come to their rescue for two reasons.
First, with the Eritrean army still reeling from the huge loss in Werkedino, they were weary of getting ambushed in a place where they weren’t sufficiently familiar with the terrain and had no intelligence in terms of the number of TDF combatants present and their firepower.
We need your support to analyze news from across Ethiopia
Please help fund Ethiopia Insight’s coverage
Second, Eritrean generals are not willing to risk heavy losses. This explains why most of the infantry in any joint operation with Ethiopian forces is composed mostly of ENDF soldiers and Amhara militias.
The repeated TDF ambushes made the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces very weary and immobile. This is still the case as, for example, the Ethio-Eritrean forces that recently came via Badme to Adi Hageray took 30 days to then travel to Shire, which is only about 75 kilometers away.
For Isaias Afwerki, the army is very important in protecting his totalitarian regime in Asmara. If the army loses thousands of soldiers in Tigray, it could spark popular unrest and threaten the very existence of the regime itself. Moreover, unlike Ethiopia, Eritrea cannot keep replacing its dead and injured soldiers, considering its demographic and economic limitations.
As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable … If your enemy is in superior strength, evade him. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
The TDF chain of command, from the top generals to the mid- and low-level officers, is composed of veterans of long, bloody wars against the Derg, from 1976 to 1991, and Eritrea, in the 1998-2000 war. While the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) are similarly experienced, they are mainly specialists of trench warfare. However, there is a huge gulf in terms of the ENDF’s military skill and leadership at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.
Being outnumbered is not new for Tigray’s military leaders, nor is being outgunned. This was the case at the start of the war, and they managed to take back control of the region and capture key cities in Amhara and Afar. The Ethiopian army is paying a heavy price for every square inch of territory owing to the superiority of the TDF’s leadership and fighting prowess.
According to reports citing ENDF sources, 126,000 Ethiopian soldiers have died and 72,000 were wounded on the southern and western fronts alone in the past couple of months. These numbers do not take into account the losses in the Sheraro and Badme fronts in Adyabo, and other fronts in north and northeastern Tigray.
At the start of the war, despite reports that Tigray had 250,000 security forces and militia, there were only 9,800 Special Police Forces and around 40,000 local militias spread across Tigray. Ethiopia, for its part, had 12 divisions and over 10,000 Regional Special Forces, and the entire Eritrean army, consisting of 42 Divisions.
On the evening of 3 November 2020, Tigray forces neutralized the Northern Command and used this anticipatory defense to arm themselves. However, as foreign drones came into the equation, the TDF was disarmed and suffered heavy losses.
Consequently, they were forced to change their military posture from an army fighting a conventional war into a light infantry formation fighting asymmetric warfare.
There is nothing to suggest that it will be different this time around. In fact, the TDF is now in a better position than in 2020, as it now has a battle-hardened army with commando and mechanized units.
In an old interview, General Tsadkan Gebretensae talked about Carl von Clausewitz’s principles and theories of war when he spoke in detail about the enemy’s “center of gravity”, which refers to the source of power that provides moral or physical strength to the opposing army.
So, the TDF leaders are very adept at targeting the enemy’s strength, whether it be its command, communication, or mechanized units. Their tactic is to hit the center of gravity and, ultimately, cause the enemy to crumble.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) defeated the Derg using such military science and skill to outwit their enemy. The same thing has been happening in Tigray since 2020.
Mao Zedong once said: “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”
When the TPLF was fighting the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam, despite Derg forces controlling the major town and cities, they had a well-oiled logistical and reconnaissance network in the cities. As such, they were aware of the enemy’s plans and troop movements well in advance, which enabled them to attack at the time and place of their choosing.
However, at the end of November 2020, TDF didn’t have such networks essential for guerrilla warfare to succeed. By now, they have established a well-structured network in every city, town, and village.
As a result, it’s now much easier for the TDF to leave the cities and concentrate their efforts on degrading the enemy’s military capacity. Defending those cities would, in fact, take away precious resources that could otherwise be used to weaken the enemy militarily.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean armies have taken control of Shire, a city of 100,000 residents plus around 600,000 internally displaced persons, but they still don’t control the rural areas around Shire where the majority of the population lives. According to the last nation-wide census, in Tigray, 81.2 percent of people live in rural areas and less than 20 percent in the urban areas.
So, even if the ENDF and EDF manage to take all major cities and towns in Tigray, it doesn’t mean they control Tigray. Their stated aim is to destroy the TPLF and degrade Tigrayan society, to install their own puppet regime, and to rule Tigray, something they cannot do by only controlling the urban areas.
The fall of a major city like Shire has a big impact symbolically and politically. With this sort of gain, the invading Ethiopian and Eritrean forces can claim they’re winning the war to their domestic audience.
By taking control of major cities and towns across Tigray, the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces will also be able to control the stories coming out of Tigray. Consequently, they could massacre civilians without the world knowing about it for weeks or even months, just like the Axum Massacre.
TDF’s strategy at this point is to buy time and gradually weaken the enemy, a classic guerrilla tactic.
If the Ethiopian forces did indeed suffer almost 200,000 casualties in the Dedebit, Kobo, and Adi Arkay fronts alone, which were bloody but relatively short battles, imagine how many soldiers they’ve lost to take Shire, in a battle that was fought day and night for almost two months.
If the ENDF and EDF manage to take control of all major cities this time, they will have lost most of the soldiers they began the war with, which is estimated to be around 750,000. The ENDF is sending more and more untrained and inexperienced soldiers to Tigray every day. By buying time, the TDF is able to recruit and arm more soldiers.
When the Ethiopian forces were routed in Dedebit, Getachew Reda said the TDF had captured more armaments in the first 23 days of fighting since 24 August than they had over the previous two years. The Commander-in-Chief, General Tadesse Werede, also said at the conclusion of the Kobo battle that TDF’s stock of weapons and ammunitions had doubled.
Thousands of killed enemy combatants means thousands of newly armed Tigrayans. So Tigray forces are weakening their enemies and at the same time strengthening themselves.
Although it is difficult to know the exact numbers, TDF has also lost many soldiers. But, Tigrayan casualties are estimated to be a fraction of what the Eritrean and Ethiopian armies have lost.
The TDF, despite its comparatively small numbers, seems to be successfully implementing an elastic defense strategy which, if done successfully, minimizes loss of personnel.
Elastic defense, also known as defense in depth, was a tactical doctrine used by various nations during World War II. To minimize casualties on one’s own side and maximize the opposing side’s casualties, land is given up to the enemy in exchange for retaining a defensive line.
The TDF is seeking to delay rather than prevent the advance of the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, buying time and causing additional casualties by yielding space. This approach is necessary since they can’t defeat them with a single, strong defensive line, given that they are outgunned and outnumbered.
The elastic defense strategy is premised on the belief that the enemy’s attack will lose momentum as it tries to control a larger area. TDF generals have decided to yield lightly defended territories in an effort to stretch the opposing forces’ logistics and spread out their numerically superior attacking force.
Accordingly, the ENDF and EDF have captured numerous cities and towns, much like they did at the beginning of the war. Within a short period of time, the joint forces could take control of most, if not all, major cities in Tigray and declare victory, but this would only be the end of the first phase of this round of fighting.
Much like they did after the fall of Mekelle in late November 2020, the next phase of the war will involve the TDF mounting counterattacks by isolating and destroying ENDF and EDF forces that are spread out to pacify a territory of more than 50,000 square kilometers.
Query or correction? Email us
Follow Ethiopia Insight
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Aftermath of Mekele airstrike; Mekele, Tigray; 16 November 2020, VOA
Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.