This carefully documented article by Ermias Teka records the fighting that led the Tigray Defence Forces to the point where – together with the Oromo Liberation Army – they threatened Addis Ababa itself. With the help of detailed maps it explains how each offensive and counter-attack took place. We acknowledge with thanks Reclaim Eritrea for producing the maps.
This is a chapter from The Tigray War & Regional Implications Volume 2, which will be published in full on Tuesday 15 February. Volume 1 was published in July 2021.
An overview of the Tigray conflict: June to December 2021
By Ermias Teka
Barely seven months after facing military annihilation at the hands of the Ethio-Eritrean army, Tigrayan forces pulled off one of the most significant military reversals in recent African history.
In a series of battles in central Tigray, the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), succeeded to neutralize some of the best trained and highly-experienced divisions within the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). The ENDF subsequently withdrew from the Tigray. Determined to break what the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) labels a ‘de facto aid blockade’ and to regain lost territories, Tigrayan forces then went further and launched operation “Tigray Mothers.” It was their first in a series of conventional battles to retake southern and southwestern Tigray which remained under federal government and Amhara control. A series of brief but intense battles with the ENDF and Amhara forces saw the TDF recapture areas around Mai Tsebri in southwestern and southern Tigray – territories fiercely claimed by the government of the Amhara Region.
Contrary to the expectations of many, the TDF refrained from carrying out major operations to take back western Tigray which would have served as a crucial supply corridor to Sudan. Similarly, territories to the northwest remained firmly under the control of Eritrean forces and the Tigrayans made little or no effort to reclaim them militarily.
This meant that, despite the relatively significant TDF military successes against the formidable Ethio-Eritrean alliance, Tigray remained under siege. The federal government insisted the withdrawal of its forces showed its commitment to peace and rejected accusations that it was intentionally facilitating man-made starvation in Tigray. However, all services; including banks, telecommunications, electricity, and land transportation remained largely blockaded by federal authorities and lifesaving humanitarian aid was largely denied access.
The de-facto siege and humanitarian blockade gave the Tigrayan forces the justification to reject the government-declared unilateral ceasefire and to launch offensives into Amhara and Afar regions “to break the siege”. Accordingly, the Tigrayan leadership mobilized its forces on the region’s south-western and southern fronts. The short-term goals of the operation were to neutralize the bulk of the ENDF and Amhara forces that were allegedly planning to re-invade Tigray, and to set up a buffer zone to prevent future offensives.
The Tigrayans’ southwestern offensive was probably aimed at capturing the historic town of Gondar, once the capital of the Ethiopian Empire. By achieving this, the TDF hoped to sever the supply route for the bulk of the ENDF entrenched in western Tigray and force its capitulation without resistance. The TDF’s southwestern offensive succeeded in pushing deep into northern Amhara as far as Dabat, 53 kilometres from Gondar. The southern offensive succeeded in capturing the strategic town of Kobo and its surroundings, cutting off the A2, the main north-south highway between Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. This inflicted a major blow to the ENDF.
Meanwhile, another TDF detachment had quickly deployed to the southeast into the Afar region and after a number of brutal battles, took control of Yalo, Golina and Aura woredas and advanced halfway into Chifra. The TDF’s offensive into Afar was ultimately aimed at capturing Mille – a town along the Addis Ababa-Djibouti highway that serves as the main commercial artery for the federal government, linking the capital with the Red Sea. By capturing Mille, the Tigrayan command appeared to have intended to force the central government to open negotiations. However, the TDF’s repeated attempts to capture Mille failed; a serious blow for the Tigrayan forces. They were held up by the combined ENDF and Afari Special Forces (ASF) at Chifra, and later at Garsa Gita, and were forced to abandon the Mille operation entirely.
Similarly, fierce resistance and counterattacks forced the TDF to retreat from the vicinity of Dabat to Zarima.
With the TDF advance on both the Gondar and Afar fronts grinding to a halt, Tigrayan forces then resorted to another offensive directly southwards along the B22 highway aimed at capturing Wereta. The objective appeared to have been to facilitate the TDF advance on Gondar by cutting off the supply route from Bahir Dar to Gondar, while simultaneously forcing the redeployment of some of the Ethiopian and Amhara forces from the heavily-manned Debarik frontline, in north of Gondar. The TDF southern offensive along the Weldia-Wereta highway progressed as far as Debre Tabor.
The TDF’s rapid advance left its forces exposed with lengthy supply routes. The Ethiopian forces took advantage of this weakness. A major ENDF-ASF counteroffensive was launched at Gashina, aimed at cutting off the bulk of Tigrayan forces that had been concentrated around Debre Tabor. It forced a rapid TDF withdrawal and they eventually abandoned their objective to capture Wereta, which would have cut off the road to Gondar. The mass mobilization and deployment by the Ethiopians of highly-motivated but poorly-armed civilians in unprecedented human waves of battlefield attacks appears to have forced the TDF to abandon its operations on the southwestern front. A public statement by the TDF military command confirmed the complete withdrawal of the Tigrayans from Afar and a major pullback from Debre Tabor and Debarik.
The TDF claimed these withdrawals and pullbacks were no more than a strategic re-deployment to consolidate their territory. However, Federal and Amhara forces presented it as a major triumph. Soon rumours of an inevitable demise of the TDF and the subsequent recapture of Tigrayan held territories started to circulate. Indeed, after a period of latency when both sides made extensive preparations, the ENDF, Amhara Fano, and Amhara Special Forces launched a series of massive offensives from three directions aimed at capturing Weldia and progressing to Mekelle.
However, Tigrayan forces, who had been well prepared for the anticipated offensives, weathered the storm. Subsequent counterattacks saw the TDF quickly advance to take over Dessie and Kombolcha. The capture of these two strategic cities of South Wollo opened the gateway to Shoa and, with the ENDF seriously weakened, for the first time since the war began, the federal government’s hold on power was threatened.
Tigrayan forces then linked up with Oromo Liberation Front (OLA) to launch offensives on Mille and North Shoa. The attacks on the Mille front, however, proved futile and were repulsed by the ENDF and Afar Special Forces who were provided with aerial cover by drones. To the south, the TDF, joined by OLA, quickly captured areas along the A2 highway and managed to advance as far as Debre Sina.
Nevertheless, coordinated drone attacks on the TDF’s supply lines, the mass mobilization of Amhara civilians, and concerted diplomatic pressure eventually forced Tigrayan forces to pull back to Tigray’s constitutionally-defined territory.
Ethiopian coalition forces quickly recaptured territories vacated by the TDF and marched all the way to Alamata.
Contrary to high expectations among Abiy loyalists of an imminent ENDF march to Mekelle, as 2021 ended the federal government announced its decision not to advance into Tigray. However, frequent yet intense fighting continues to be reported on the Tigray/Amhara border.
Below are details of the main operations in the six months of bitter warfare.
Operation Alula Abanega
Operation Alula Abanega was the first major Tigrayan offensive that succeeded in reversing the course of the war.
By the beginning of June 2021 there was a huge build-up of ENDF presence in central Tigray. Some sources claimed more than seven divisions of the ENDF were mobilized. There were widespread rumours of a major Ethio-Eritrean offensive to conclusively defeat the Tigrayan forces before the Ethiopian winter set in. Moreover, it was the week of a national election and there were indications that the federal government was seeking a major battlefield triumph up north to bolster its prospects of an election victory.
The ENDF plan appears to have involved undertaking a huge area in central Tigray, which had hitherto remained a TDF stronghold, and to gradually tighten the chokehold while simultaneously deploying specialized assault units on search-and-destroy missions. It was apparent that the Ethiopian government was determined to “cleanse” every square inch of central Tigray of Tigrayan militants. This, however, required a massive deployment of ground forces as well as accompanying mechanized units on unfamiliar and indefensible terrain, making them susceptible to TDF attack.
The Tigray forces for their part were well aware of ENDF’s impending all-out offensive and were making preparations of their own. By this time, their numbers had grown considerably, reportedly with a huge force organized at corps and army levels. Sources close to the Tigrayan resistance indicated that the TDF had as many as four separate armies at its disposal.
Yet, despite the growing impatience of the Tigrayan public, who were eager for news of a significant victory to lift their spirits, the military command of Tigrayan forces had so far resisted the urge to engage in full-frontal battles, preferring instead to pursue strategies of asymmetrical warfare. Since shifting to the insurgency in December 2020, the TDF’s strategy was to target ENDF weak spots while avoiding direct confrontations. The catchword “attack them at the place and time of our choosing,” often repeated in the central command’s public statements and chanted during army meetings, reaffirmed that the TDF was not about to abandon insurgency any time soon.
This gave crucial time for the TDF command to work on building the army’s capability while wearing down its more formidable enemies. TDF commanders gave interviews during which they highlighted the recent growth in manpower and capability of Tigrayan forces but insisted that it still lacked some essentials for conventional warfare – presumably a reference to the absence of motorized and mechanized units.
The ENDF operation was fundamentally at a disadvantage from the outset as it had very little information regarding its unconventional opponents, and whatever information it had regarding TDF positions and military strength was largely inaccurate. By contrast, Tigrayan generals appeared to have been sufficiently aware of details of ENDF deployments and strength. Ethiopian forces had reportedly assumed the TDF to have no more than 13 inexperienced and unmotivated battalions and had thus adopted lofty plans to complete its defeat of them in a couple of weeks. Grossly underestimating the TDF’s capability had been an ENDF blind spot, but that was not the only one. The Ethiopian forces had assumed the bulk of the Tigrayan army to be concentrated in central Tigray – around Adet, Naeder, and Kola Tembien. According to one high-level TDF commander, the Tigrayans decided to play to ENDF’s expectations and deployed a handful of units around Kola Tembien as decoys to preoccupy Ethiopian forces, while the majority of Tigrayan forces were quietly withdrawn to south-central Tigray.
On June 18th, 2021, Tigrayan forces carried out sudden well-coordinated offensives against Ethiopia’s 11th division which was stretched from Yechilla to Shewate Higum. This was to be the start of “Operation Alula.’ Nearly all Tigrayan forces participated in this offensive that was simultaneously carried out from all directions. Ethiopian prisoners-of-war from the 11th division of the ENDF describe an intense but rapid series of battles during which their units were carved apart by the TDF. The 21st division of the ENDF was sent from around Mekelle to provide support for the 11th division, but faced a well-positioned TDF ambush around Addi Eshir, about 10 km from Yechilla. Similarly, the 31st Division which was deployed around Kola Tembien was mobilized to the rescue, but was intercepted by a TDF detachment around Agbe.
The ENDF divisions were prevented from coming to each other’s aid by well-orchestrated and successful TDF offensives. Moreover, the sudden, multi-pronged nature of the TDF attacks, beyond their disorienting effects, over-extended the ENDF frontline causing splits between their units along several nodes. Eyewitnesses described chaotic scenes, with the chain of command completely collapsing, leaving soldiers to fend for themselves.
On June 21st 2021, three and a half days after the start of the offensive, the 11th division was completely neutralized. Many of its heavy artillery weapons, as well as its stores of food and ammunition, fell into the hands of Tigrayan forces. The commander of the division, Colonel Hussain, was captured. The 21st and 31st divisions were also more or less decimated.
Tigrayan forces, which until then lacked mechanized units, were now in possession of scores of heavy artillery as well as transport vehicles. These were rapidly serviced and put back into service by ex-ENDF operatives, who were protected from harm by the Tigrayan leadership for precisely this purpose.
Not willing to concede defeat, and probably hoping to recover or neutralize the weapons and vehicles they had lost to the TDF, the Ethiopian military leadership apparently decided to overwhelm the area with yet more forces. Accordingly, the 20th, 23rd, 24th, and 25th divisions were reportedly mobilized in quick succession to recapture the area. However, the Tigrayan forces had already familiarized themselves with the terrain, adequately fortified the area, and had further reinforced themselves with their newly acquired weapons and ammunition. The ENDF divisions were walking into a near-certain defeat.
Over three days of fierce fighting, the additional ENDF divisions were routed. In the heat of battle, the TDF anti-aircraft unit shot down a Lockheed C-130 Hercules of the Ethiopian Air Force, further boosting the spirits of the Tigrayans. During the 10-day battle Tigrayan sources claimed around 30,000 Ethiopian forces were neutralized, of whom around 6,000 were taken prisoner.
As the tides were turning in the TDF’s favour at Yechilla and Shewate Higum, other Tigrayan forces started to swiftly mobilize to take control of several towns in central and southwestern Tigray. Correspondingly the ENDF began to withdraw from many of these towns, and to concentrate around Mekelle. Consequently, the towns of Hiwane, Mekoni, Hawzen, Freweyni, Sinkata, and Edaga Hamus quickly fell into the hands of Tigrayan forces, largely without fighting. A TDF detachment cut the A2 highway and captured Wukro which reportedly left a brigade-sized ENDF unit isolated and surrounded near Negash.
The reaction of the Eritrean army to the ENDF losses was unexpected, to say the least. Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) units situated around Shire were initially included in the ENDF plans and were supposed to complete the encirclement of Tigray between Zana and Adet, as well as to carry out offensives towards central Tigray. But since the Tigrayans had withdrawn most of their forces to participate in the fighting further South, the Eritreans did not participate in the Ethiopian planned encirclement of central Tigray.
What is more significant is the apparent reluctance of the EDF to provide the Ethiopian army with a crucial lifeline when it was facing devastating losses around Yechila. Some Tigrayan sources have claimed that a few brigades of the EDF were indeed mobilized to come to the rescue of their allies but were intercepted by TDF detachments placed at key junctions, forcing them to abandon their plans. The EDF’s lack of determination to come to ENDF’s rescue was probably caused by fear of sustaining defeat similar to that inflicted on their Ethiopian allies. Self-preservation had kicked in.
The crunch came on June 28th, 2021. As Tigrayan forces, who had already taken control of much of the surrounding area, approached Mekelle from several directions, the Tigrayan political leadership which had been put in place by Prime Minister Abiy, were airlifted out of the regional capital to the midlands. Ethiopian forces garrisoned inside the city withdrew, amidst visible chaos, taking everything they could carry with them.
Tigrayan forces entered Mekelle to a rapturous welcome. As most of the A2 highway, both to the north and south of Mekelle, had fallen into the hands of Tigrayan forces, the ENDF hastily retreated to the east heading for the Afar region through the border town of Abala. However, Tigrayan forces claimed to have caught up with them near Amentilla and allegedly inflicted significant losses.
The ENDF and EDF withdrawal from much of central and southern Tigray accelerated after the fall of Mekelle. The very next day, Tigray forces quickly entered Adwa, Axum, and Shire to the northwest. To the south, the TDF’s advance continued as far as Mehoni and Mai Chew.
The federal government said its unexpected withdrawal was due to its decision to declare an immediate and unilateral ceasefire, in response to a request from the Tigrayan interim administration that it had installed, and to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. The ceasefire, it claimed, was to last until the farming season ended. The Tigray forces however rebuffed the federal government’s claims and insisted that major battlefield defeats had forced Ethio-Eritrean forces to flee.
The Eritrean army also withdrew its forces without major clashes from most of central Tigray and established defensive fortifications around the border. However, it retained several areas in the northeast, including large towns such as Rama and Zalambessa, as well as the contested Badme.
Similarly, Amhara forces, which had established a presence in central Tigray around Debre Abay and Adi Gebru, retreated to the other side of Tekeze river, their traditional boundary with Tigray. Moreover, they established defensive positions near Amba Madre and destroyed the Tekeze bridge connecting Amba Madre with Adi Gebru, probably to prevent the pursuit of Tigrayan forces. All territory to the west and south of the Tekeze remained firmly under the control of ENDF and Amhara forces.
In rapidly withdrawing from much of central and southern Tigray and establishing defensive lines in areas claimed by the Amhara regional state, Ethiopian forces made their intentions clear. Having failed to root out the TDF from central Tigray, and after sustaining one of the biggest battlefield losses in recent Horn of Africa history , the ENDF’s plan B was containment. It would make its stand among the people Abiy Ahmed identified as ENDF-friendly, in contrast to the people of Tigray who were deemed “hostile”.
Consequently, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces rapidly vacated most of the territories of Tigray except for the contested areas. They established a wide envelopment around central and southern Tigray in an attempt to strangle the resistance into submission. Banking, telecommunications and electricity, were among the services that were discontinued soon after the ENDF withdrawal. Humanitarian aid delivery became increasingly scanty and politicized. The Prime Minister, in his public statement after the ENDF’s withdrawal, explained the reason behind the federal government’s decision as a determination not to repeat the Derg’s mistake.
“The main reason why Woyane [the Tigrayans] defeated the Derg during the war of ‘Ethiopia first’ was by using the Derg’s weapon and food. So, given the current situation, if we stay there for long, we are going to provide them with many weapons. When it comes to food [aid], if one family has five children, they register that they have 7, 8, or 10 children. Then they receive the rations of ten. They use five of it themselves and give the remaining five to the Junta… So, we discussed this issue for a week and decided not to accept this any longer.
Abiy made it clear in no uncertain terms his intentions to politicize the delivery of humanitarian aid into Tigray. A senior UN official later conceded that starvation was being used as a weapon while OCHA, a UN humanitarian agency, described the situation in Tigray as a ‘de facto aid blockade’.
The TPLF, for its part, quickly re-established its administrative structure after re-entering Mekelle. Key political figures, such as Debretsion Gebremichael, who had remained hidden since the start of the insurgency, made a triumphal entry to the city. The regional House of Representatives resumed its sessions.
The newly re-established TPLF-led Tigray administration soon made its rejection of the federal government’s ‘unilateral ceasefire’ public. It claimed that the Addis Ababa regime was in fact, under guise of a ceasefire, enforcing a siege on the people of Tigray, and announced its determination to break the siege through force if necessary.
Operation Tigray Mothers
Operation Tigray Mothers consisted of phased offensives which took the battle to protect Tigray into surrounding areas, some of them annexed in previous conflicts.
Phase 1: TDF offensive to retake annexed territories
It became increasingly clear that the ceasefire wasn’t going to hold, and the Tigray forces were going to launch an offensive. The question was in which direction? Western Tigray was obviously the big prize as it would open up the crucial corridor to Sudan that would be vital for supplies. But the Ethio-Eritrean alliance was fully aware of its importance and was determined to prevent TDF penetration into western Tigray at all costs. Consequently, large detachments of the EDF and ENDF were deployed in the area along with several lines of trenches and minefields. Moreover, tens of thousands of Fano and Amhara militia, mainly from Gondar, were mobilized into the area and entrenched there to provide reinforcements. The flat terrain of western Tigray favoured the Ethio-Eritrean forces with superior firepower. The ENDF’s in depth defence along with extensive artillery support would spell disaster for TDF operations in the area. Consequently, although there were unofficial reports of skirmishes, probably involving TDF reconnaissance units, around Adi Remets, the anticipated large-scale TDF operation to western Tigray did not materialise.
There was also a brief anticipation that the TDF might take advantage of its winning momentum, as well as the EDF’s disorganized retreat, to go north. But any plans the Tigrayans might have had to confront the Eritrean army were shelved, at least temporarily, probably for the same reason as the decision to abort a military operation into western Tigray.
Contrary to expectations, TDF offensives focused on regaining lost territories on the southwestern and southern fronts. Preparations were relatively quick for operations of such a magnitude. It seemed the Tigrayan military command didn’t want to lose momentum. The Tigrayans had acquired significant quantities of heavy artillery during their successes in central Tigray and had been able to form multiple mechanized units that could support conventional offensives, which were rapidly launched.
On July 12th, 2021, a massive series of offensives, dubbed ‘operation Tigray Mothers’, were launched on both fronts. On the southern front, the TDF’s immediate objective was to capture Korem and Alamata. The Ethio-Amhara defensive line was on and around Grat-Kahsu, a strategic mountain range near Korem, which made a southward offensive along the A2 highway nearly impossible.
Tigrayan combat forces, instead of going straight for Korem, which would have put them at a disadvantage, made their primary direction of attack to the east, mobilizing from areas around Chercher to take Bala and Ger Jala towns, before arcing around to launch an offensive on Korem from the rear. Fighting in the vicinity of Korem was very intense and lasted an entire day. Both sides were said to have suffered heavy losses. Amhara sources reported that Tigrayan forces encountered strong resistance from the ASF and that the initial offensive was repulsed. The relatively unexpected direction of the TDF attack had threatened to cut off large sections of the defending force. Consequently, faced with the inevitable fall of Korem, the ENDF command ordered their remaining forces to withdraw past Alamata and set up a new fortification near the more defensible Kobo.
The capture of Grat Kahsu meant the TDF had artillery control over Alamata and surrounding areas, which in turn forced the ENDF and its allies to give up the capital of southern Tigray without a fight. The TDF entered Alamata on July 13th, 2021, and then quickly retook areas as far as Waja. This meant that after several months under occupation of Amhara forces, the contested territories of southern Tigray were back under the control of Tigrayan troops.
On the southwestern front, TDF offensives were aimed at capturing Amba Madre and Mai Tsemri towns. Even prior to the start of operation Tigray Mothers, Amhara sources had claimed that a small-scale TDF attack was repulsed around Amba Madre. This meant Tigrayan reconnaissance units had already crossed the Tekeze river and secured safe zones on the southern bank. On July 12th, 2021, Tigrayan infantry units swam through Tekeze river at several places. To the east the TDF offensive focused on driving out Amhara forces from Fiyelwiha and the surrounding Dima district. Similarly, a well-coordinated TDF attack from several directions succeeded in breaking through ASF and ENDF defensive lines near Amba Madre. The next day, Amba Madre, Mai Tsemri, and Fiyelwiha were captured. Tigray’s southwestern territories were now back under Tigrayan control.
Phase 2: Expansion of the war into Amhara and Afar regions
Southern Front: TDF operation on Kobo
The TDF’s victory in the first series of conventional battles sent shockwaves through the Ethiopian and Amhara leadership. A day after Tigrayan forces captured Alamata and Mai Tsebri, PM Abiy Ahmed released a statement that basically revoked the declaration of unilateral ceasefire and called on Ethiopians to support the national army. Regional administrations responded with ceremonies mobilising their special forces and sending them off to the battlefront. Footage of these was carried on national television, emphasising the federal government’s backing from all of Ethiopia’s regional states, as well as the public. The war against the TPLF was portrayed as a national, patriotic endeavour.
Tigray’s leadership, on the other hand, made it clear that it didn’t have any intention of stopping its offensives as long as the de facto siege of the region remained in effect and Amhara forces and ENDF occupied western Tigray.
Fighting along the Tigray-Amhara border intensified from July 16th, 2021. The TDF deployed several infantry and mechanized divisions in an attempt to penetrate the eastern border and take control of the Zobil heights. Located along the border between Amhara and Afar regions, Zobil mountains, with an estimated elevation of over 2000 metres, separates the broad fertile plains of Raya Kobo from the lowlands of the Afar region.
The ENDF and Amhara forces primarily concentrated their defence around Chube Ber, a few kilometres north of Kobo. Moreover, heavy artillery batteries of the ENDF were established around Gira’amba Lancha, Mendefera, and Chube Ber from where they conducted a relentless bombardment of the mountainous terrain north of Zobil. According to a TDF commander, this was followed by a series of counter-offensives by the ENDF to cut off and neutralize the bulk of TDF units that had concentrated near Zobil heights. TDF detachments which had been well placed in strategic areas in anticipation of such attacks managed to halt the ENDF counterattacks. An ensuing TDF offensive eventually breached the defensive lines of Amhara forces on the Zobil heights and took control of the strategic mountain range. Subsequently, the Tigrayan forces quickly moved around Mendefera district and severed the Kobo-Woldiya road around Aradum, thereby blocking off a means of retreat for several battalions of the ENDF that were left stranded at Chube Ber. An attempt by the now isolated Ethiopian forces to withdraw to Lalibela through Ayub was also blocked and eventually neutralized by another TDF detachment which was positioned for that purpose resulting in a massive loss for the ENDF. On July 23rd,2021, Tigrayan forces took control of Kobo town. In the meantime, another detachment advanced further south and took control of Kobo Robit and Gobiye, with minimum resistance from retreating Ethiopian forces.
Southwestern front: the TDF advance towards Gondar
After initially being forced to retreat from Mai Tsebri by determined resistance from Amhara forces, the TDF launched a successful counteroffensive enabling it to penetrate into North Gondar Zone of the Amhara region and capture Addi Arkay on July 23rd, 2021. General Tadesse Worede, commander of the TDF, claimed that the terrain had made their advance very challenging. Indeed, the presence of several easily defensible commanding heights on one of the most mountainous areas of northern Ethiopia put the advancing force at a distinct disadvantage. However, rugged and mountainous terrain also prevented large-scale battles and reduced the impact of the ENDF’s superior firepower.
In addition, the TDF’s general strategy of mobilising smaller units and launching coordinated attacks from several fronts , enabled it to isolate and overcome pockets of Amhara resistance. Consequently, Tigrayan forces advanced rapidly deeper into North of Gondar and within the space of three days, seized Beremariam, Chew Ber, and Zarima towns.
Afar front: TDF push towards Chifra
At about the same time as Tigrayan forces were locked in fighting to capture Kobo, another army-sized TDF detachment crossed into Yalo woreda of Afar region and waged a major offensive against the ENDF and Afar Forces. There was already a heavy build-up of federal and regional forces in the area, which, in the eyes of the Tigrayan leadership, was in preparation for a renewed invasion of Tigray. The flat landscape of the Afar region meant that the TDF had to deploy a sizeable percentage of its infantry against ENDF defensive lines on open ground, making it vulnerable to the opponent’s superiority in firepower and numbers.
This also meant that the TDF infantry risked sustaining much higher casualties inflicted by ENDF heavy artillery batteries, which were superior to anything the Tigrayans had at their disposal. The absence of rugged terrain meant that Tigray forces were not able to deploy their favoured strategy of carving up enemy forces piecemeal and compelled them to face the massively entrenched infantry of ENDF in a full-frontal battle, where numerical superiority counted. The ENDF’s extensive use of air raids also compounded the challenge.
However, an attack on the right flank, coordinated with a massive frontal assault, reportedly destabilised ENDF lines and ended up in another TDF victory. By July 23rd, the TDF had captured Yalo, Golina and Awra Woredas of Zone 4 penetrating deeper south, to within a few kilometres of Chifra. In the course of their advance Tigrayan forces claimed to have completely destroyed the 23rd division of the ENDF and seized large quantities of heavy and medium-sized weapons.
The TDF’s successes in the Afar region were deemed so significant by the Tigrayan leadership that the next day General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a member of the central command, reportedly said, “The TDF can move swiftly to control the Addis Ababa-Djibouti road and will be in a position to accept humanitarian assistance directly”.
On July 26th, 2021, General Tadesse Worede, TDG commander, announced the successful conclusion of “Operation Tigray Mothers.” It was apparent that, though the fighting was still ongoing, the Tigray military leadership believed it had inflicted enough damage on its adversary to achieve the primary objective of the operation – containing the ENDF’s threat of re-invasion.
It had set out to nullify what it saw as an impending ENDF offensive from Gondar, Wollo and Afar. The TDF’s official statement claimed to have neutralized over 30,000 Ethiopian forces. Political analysts, who closely followed the progress of the war, agreed that the ENDF capability had been seriously compromised due to its major losses, especially in Tembien and Kobo.
Moreover, a staggering quantity of heavy and light weaponry fell into the hands of the Tigrayans. This was enough to transform it into a well-equipped army with a greatly enhanced combat capability. The spoils of war, combined with its highly-experienced military leadership at all levels, and the ex-ENDF weapons operators it had at its disposal, had turned the TDF into a formidable military force that was now a real threat to both Addis Ababa and Asmara.
The response from the Ethiopian side also reflected just how seriously the national army had been affected. Agegnehu Teshager, vice president of Amhara Regional State, made an unprecedented call to “all young people, militia, non-militia in the region, armed with any government or personal weapons, to join the war against TPLF”.
Tigray forces maintained their offensives on all fronts but now with a new operational title “Operation Sunrise”. By August 2021, the Tigrayan central command appears to have believed that it had sufficiently degraded the military capabilities of its adversaries to have a go at the capital. The name “Sunrise” hinted that the TDF’s objectives had evolved to include possible regime change.
Southern front: Gobye to Meket
The TDF continued its advance down the A2 highway relatively unchallenged, until it reached the gates of Woldiya. Much to the indignation of the town’s residents, ENDF detachments were ordered to withdraw from Woldiya without a fight, choosing instead to retreat to the hills to the south, between Woldiya and Sirinka, to try to halt the TDF’s advance.
In the vicinity of Woldiya, Tigrayan forces encountered determined resistance from local militia and Amhara Fano militia, led by the town’s mayor, who called upon every able-bodied person to fight and the residents appeared determined not to let their hometown fall into the hands of the Tigrayans. After several days of skirmishes outside the town, during which both sides were reported to have used artillery, the TDF finally took control of Woldiya on August 9th, 2021.
Woldiya’s popular resistance was widely promoted by the Amhara government and political activists as a model of urban resistance, to be replicated by other towns of Amhara region that faced the threat of TDF occupation. The residents of Debre Tabor and Debarik organized similar urban resistance, which played no small part in staving off an TDF advance.
The battle of Woldiya-Sirinka was the biggest engagement along the A2 highway since Kobo. According to Tigrayan sources it involved two ENDF divisions, more than 11,000 Oromo Special Forces (OSF), Amhara Fano, ENDF special Commando battalions, and mechanized divisions. TDF also reportedly deployed, among others, its ‘Remets’ and ‘Maebel’ divisions. After a fierce encounter, Tigrayan forces emerged victorious, amassing large quantities of heavy and medium weapons. Video footage of the aftermath, aired on Tigray TV, showed scores of ENDF vehicles and weapons destroyed or captured.
By the end of August, after facing sporadic resistance around Mersa, Tigrayan forces had penetrated as far as the rural areas around Hayik, a town 28 km from Dessie.
Opening a new front
Towards the end of July, another battlefront had already opened up to the west of Kobo. Several TDF divisions had advanced to the southwest, probably via a byway through Ayub, encountering only Amhara forces along the way. By the beginning of August, Tigrayan forces had advanced rapidly and were already in control of Muja and Kulmesk towns. From there they rapidly advanced northwest and, after a period of sporadic fighting with Amhara forces, took control of the historic town of Lalibela. Capturing Lalibela denied the Ethiopian Air Force decisive access to Lalibela’s strategic airport, which it had been using extensively to support the ENDF’s ground assault around North Wollo and Wag Himra.
Part of this TDF detachment then moved from Muja southeast to Dilb, where it sought to sever the Woldiya-Woreta road. After reportedly sweeping away the massive ENDF detachment entrenched around Dilb it advanced in the direction of Woldiya, as far as Sanka. To the east of Dilb, TDF forces made a rapid advance along the B22 highway and captured the strategic towns of Gashina and Geregera, as well as all the towns in between. It appears that at least part of the detachment that captured Lalibela was re-routed via Dubko, a small town along a secondary road connecting the Lalibela to Muja route with the B22 highway, to take part in the capture of the strategic town of Gashina. Hence, by mid-August, the TDF had already taken control of most areas of North Wollo and was advancing along the B22 towards neighbouring Lay Gayint woreda of South Gondar Zone.
By this time, it was apparent that the objective of TDF operations along the B22 highway was to sever the Bahir Dar-Gondar road at the strategic town of Woreta which, if successful, would choke off the supply line to the northwest, putting the entire Ethiopian western command in jeopardy. Determined not to let this happen, the Ethiopian coalition deployed a huge force, including several divisions of the standard army and Amhara SF, in the highly mountainous area between Nifas Mewcha and Kimir Dingay. A two-day brutal battle that started on August 15th,2021 culminated in a major defeat for the Ethiopian side and enabled the TDF to establish control all the way to Kimir Dingay. Moreover, Mount Guna, the most strategic high ground located a few kilometres from Kimir Dingay, came under the control of Tigrayan forces. This crippled ENDF chances of mounting a meaningful resistance as far as Debere Tabor.
Meanwhile, a new front opened up to the northwest, as Tigrayan forces, in alliance with a few battalions of the newly formed Agaw Liberation Army (ALA) (which drew its support from ethnic Agaw populations in Wag Himra and Agew Awi Zones of Amhara region) attempted to wrestle control of Sekota from the hands of Amhara SF. The TDF-ALA offensive reportedly took place around mid-August as a joint TDF-ALA detachment advancing from Korem, was joined by another TDF detachment from Lalibela. By August 17th , 2021, Sekota, the capital of Wag Himra zone came under the control of TDF-ALA troops.
The Coalition strikes back
However, it wasn’t long before the coalition of ENDF and their allies struck back in offensives with fluctuating results until the end of 2021.
Firstly, from mid-August, they launched well-planned, massive counteroffensives on several fronts in an attempt to reverse TDF gains. On the August 19th, 2021, as the TDF was making preparations to take Debre Tabor, Ethiopian coalition forces launched a major counteroffensive that aimed to slice through and surround the bulk of TDF detachments in Lay Gayint and South Wollo. One Ethiopian counteroffensive involved a sizable detachment of ENDF and Amhara forces which were mobilized from Wegeltena to capture Gashina and thus cut off the supply route of the huge Tigrayan detachment that was heading for Wereta. Another ENDF counteroffensive sought to break through at Sirinka, to destroy a large proportion of the TDF that had gathered around Mersa. Tigrayan sources claimed that on the Gashena front alone, as many as five divisions of the ENDF and more than 10,000 Amhara forces, took part in the counteroffensive. The encirclement of the TDF detachment encamped around Mersa involved several brigades of the elite Republican Guard, Special commando, Federal police forces as well as the militia of South Wollo. The plan was for specialised assault units to surround and neutralize the enemy.
It appears that the ENDF plan initially worked. Gashina was captured and the B22 highway was severed leaving the bulk of Tigrayan forces in Gayint and Debre Tabor with no way out. Similarly, the Woldiya-Mersa road was severed at Sirinka leaving TDF’s southern detachment stranded.
However, TDF detachments soon converged on the Ethiopian forces occupying Gashina from three sides: from Arbit [Debre Tabor], Dubko [Lalibela], and Istayish [Woldiya]. After at least two days of intense and brutal fighting in which both sides suffered immense losses, the Ethiopian forces retreated towards Kon. Similarly, Tigrayan forces were also able to repel the Ethiopian forces from Sirinka and reconnect with their units in Mersa.
Towards the end of August, ENDF and Amhara forces began a series of counter-offensives on the southwestern front that intensified through the early days of September. By this time the TDF had reached Dib Bahir, near the great escarpment of Limalimo. Moreover, TDF reconnaissance units had penetrated the rural areas of North Gondar as far as Dabat. However, numerous “human wave” attacks, involving large, mobilized units of local militia and barely-armed farmers, became a formidable challenge to the TDF’s advance. At least one counter-offensive on Tabla, between Dib Bahir and Zarima, involving several brigades of ENDF units attempted, but allegedly failed, to cut off TDF forces deployed south of Dib Bahir. The Chenna massacre, where more than 100 civilians were allegedly massacred by TDF units in retribution for guerrilla attacks, was also reported at this time. It was increasingly apparent that the TDF was finding it ever harder to sustain its advance on Gondar.
All in all, even though the Tigray’s army command was able to save most of its forces, which had become stranded and faced annihilation, it was nevertheless forced it to relinquish significant parts of the hard-fought territorial gains on Woreta-Woldiya and Gondar fronts. Subsequently, Tigrayan forces under sustained offensives by local militia and ENDF units rapidly withdrew from Debre Tabor and Lay Gayint. They retreated all the way to the edge of North Wollo and concentrated around Filakit and Gashena. Eventually, the TDF operation to take Wereta and sever the Bahir Dar – Gondar highway was abandoned. Similarly, the TDF’s rapid advance towards Gondar came to a grinding halt around Dib Bahir and Tigrayan forces were eventually forced to retreat to Zarima.
TDF “Territorial Adjustment” and “Recalibration”
On September 9th 2021, the TDF released a statement announcing that it has decided “to make limited territorial adjustments temporarily from areas it had been in control of”. It was apparent that the Tigrayans were finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their control of some of the less defensible areas of Amhara and Afar. The TDF gave two main reasons for its decision: Amhara region’s mass mobilization of barely trained civilians “in hundreds of thousands,” who were then used in human wave attacks, and the deployment of Eritrean forces “to rescue Amhara forces”.
The former implied that the Amhara region’s mass mobilization strategy had borne fruit. Moreover, there were unofficial reports of local insurgencies around Kobo and north Gondar emerging from rural areas that had been largely left unoccupied by the Tigrayans. These were obviously causing problems for TDF supply lines, making further advances difficult. In addition, there were unofficial reports from Tigrayan sources of a significant level of EDF deployment in Gondar and Dessie aimed at protecting the two important cities from falling into TDF hands. Nevertheless, the EDF’s involvement in Amhara region has so far not been independently verified.
Following the announcement, Tigrayan forces made further withdrawals including a complete pull-out from Afar. Moreover, Ethiopian sources confirmed TDF retreats from Flakit and Gashina on the Woldiya-Woreta front; from Hayik on the Dessie front; from Sekota and its surrounding on the Wag front; as well as from Zarima and Chew Ber on the North Gondar front.
The failure of ENDF’s ‘irreversible offensive’ and TDF’s advance to Dessie
By the beginning of October, reports started to emerge that Ethiopian forces had planned a massive offensive across the Amhara region. Abiy’s government had just been formally inaugurated following his election victory and was apparently determined to assert its power with some solid gains on the battlefield. An Amhara regional official spoke of an impending “irreversible operation” to be carried out “on all fronts”.
On October 8th, 2021, major air and ground offensives were launched by the combined ENDF and Amhara forces around Geregera, Wegeltena, Wurgessa, and Haro. The main objective of the operation seemed to be to capture Woldiya and Kobo with a possible advance further north. From the Haro front, an ENDF detachment was mobilized from Arerit probably aiming to enter Woldiya from the northeast. Similarly, a major offensive was launched at Geregera intended to advance along the B22 highway all the way to Dilb and then descend to Woldiya. In the meantime, another ENDF and Amara detachment was carrying out a comprehensive offensive in Wegeltena, ultimately aiming to cut off the Woldiya-Gashena road at Dilb by advancing across the high hills of the Ambasel range to the northwest. This would cut the TDF’s supply route to Gashina and isolate the Tigrayan forces at Geregera and Gashena. On the Wurgessa front, ENDF and Amhara coalition forces attempted a major penetration and assault along the A2 highway in an attempt to break through TDF fortifications around Mersa and advance to Woldiya.
After several days of intense and brutal fighting on all fronts, it was becoming increasingly clear that the ENDF offensives were not achieving their objectives. By October 12th 2021, after four days of fighting, no appreciable progress had been made by coalition forces, apart from a few gains around Arbit of Gashena front. Around this time, Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Tigray government, claimed that the ENDF had suffered “staggering losses” and General Tsadkan, a member of TDF’s central command, predicted: “I don’t think this will be a protracted fight — a matter of days, most probably weeks. The ramifications will be military, political and diplomatic”. It was apparent that the Tigrayan side was confident that it had inflicted significant damage on its adversary and that the ENDF’s offensives had all but failed.
On October 12th, 2021, after absorbing waves of ENDF’s offensives for several days, the TDF launched its counterattacks. Emboldened by the ‘staggering losses’ the Ethiopian forces suffered during its offensives, the objectives of TDF counterattacks were predictably ambitious: capturing of the strategic cities of Dessie and Kombolcha.
Brigadir General Haileselassie Girmay, one of the commanders in charge of Tigray’s forces on the southern front revealed that the TDF had executed an attack from four directions to take Dessie. One TDF detachment moved from around Faji and Kul Bayine toward Tis Abalima and by following the hills to the east of the A2 highway took a turn to the right of Haiq lake and advanced on Tita. Another detachment mobilized from the TDF stronghold around Mersa and kept a course to the west of the A2 highway all the way to Marye heights and then turned to Kutaber. Another “piercer” detachment moved down the middle, along the A2 highway, between the two adjacent TDF offensive units. It sought to destroy the ENDF’s multi-layered and dense entrenchments at Sudan Sefer, Wuchale and Wurgessa and then to progress towards Borumeda. To the far west, another TDF detachment, which had neutralized Ethiopia’s forces around Wegeltena, advanced to the southeast and converged with the TDF detachment from Marye. The two then co-ordinated their assault with the piercer division to mount an attack on the ENDF’s base at Borumeda. The triad then headed straight for Dessie.
Yet another TDF detachment was making steady advances into the Afar region through Habru and on October 18th 2021, was in the vicinity of Chifra.
The Tigray military command claimed to have destroyed 27 of the 34 ENDF divisions that took part in the ‘irreversable offensive’. The major battles that decided the fate of Dessie were carried out near Borumeda, Tita and around Mount Tosa and ended with the TDF’s victory.
The TDF was left in control of such strategically significant towns as Wegeltena, Wuchale and Chifra. Two days later, with the fall of Bistima, Haiq and the strategic heights of Marye, Dessie and Kombolcha were reportedly within the TDF’s artillery range.
When it was evident that Dessie and Kombolcha would fall, the Ethiopian side responded with a series of air raids on Tigray, starting on the October 18th and lasted until October 28th. Mekelle was bombed more than five times during this period while other towns like Adwa, Agbe and Mai Tsemri towns also sustained significant damage from air raids.
By the end of October, the TDF was on the outskirts of Dessie. After sporadic fighting against Amhara forces, they slowly took control of several parts of the city, starting from Wollo University. However, after taking control of most of the city, a quick ENDF counteroffensive on October 30th momentarily forced them to withdraw to the surrounding hills. In the meantime, another TDF detachment, which probably advanced from Tita, took control of Kombolcha town.
By the 3rd of November, despite widespread fears that Dessie would become the scene of prolonged urban fighting, the TDF was back in control of the city after minimal urban combat. With the fall of Dessie and Kombolcha, the next defensible terrain was 177 kms further which implied the road to Shoa was suddenly wide open. The fall of the federal government appeared inevitable. Many recalled that Mengistu Hailemariam, former president of Ethiopia during the Derg regime, had fled the country after the TPLF had captured Dessie. The eerily similar situation caused them to feel that a re-enactment of 1991 was unfolding.
The federal government was becoming desperate. The Prime Minister called on all citizens to “March with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF”.
The OLA, meanwhile, took control of Kemisse town, cutting off the A2 highway from Addis Ababa to Dessie.
The TDF-OLA link up and the march on Addis Ababa
After consolidating their control of Dessie and Kombolcha, the TDF launched offensives in three directions along the B11, A2, and B21 highways. The TDF advance along B11 highway was intended to capture the town of Mille and sever the Addis Ababa – Djibouti highway, the main economic artery of the federal government. The latter two offensives were intended to advance to Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, and unseat Abiy’s government.
By early August, the TDF and OLA had announced that they had struck a military alliance to bring down the incumbent federal government. They had since been synchronizing their offensives to maximize the impact on the federal forces. After the fall of Dessie, reports indicated that the TDF and OLA had made a physical link-up around Bati and Habru, areas dominated by ethnic Oromos who had strong sympathies with the OLA.
On November1st 2021, a joint TDF-OLA operation captured the towns Gerba and Bati. No information has been disclosed regarding how their alliance translated into action on the battlefield. However, since the OLA lacked combat experience, the involvement of its units in conventional battles was likely limited to reinforcing gains and conducting ambushes to distract the adversary.
Along the A2 highway, Tigrayan forces advanced unimpeded all the way to Kemisse where they joined the OLA forces which had secured the town a couple of days previously. The TDF-OLA alliance significantly facilitated TDF relations with the locals of Oromo Special Zone. Consequently, the TDF-OLA advance along the A2 highway to Gerbe and Senbete, border towns of Oromo zone, was swift and unobstructed by any local resistance.
On November 5th, 2021, the TDF and OLA jointly announced the formation of a new coalition, the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederal Forces, to include seven other military organizations representing Afar, Gambella, Agaw, Sidama, Benishangul, Somali and Qimant nationalities. The coalition was intended to take over federal power, after the removal of the incumbent, and pave the way for a transitional government
By this time the international consensus was that with the collapse of a number of ENDF units, the federal army was no longer in the position to protect the capital and the central government from the TDF-OLA offensives. Consequently, several countries, including the USA, UK, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, began calling on their citizens to leave the country, and evacuated non-essential embassy personnel. With TDF-OLA advance into Addis Ababa becoming increasingly likely, the federal government declared a state of emergency and again called on “Its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend the capital”.
While one arm of the TDF was on the verge of capturing Shewa Robit, after a bitter fight with determined ENDF and Amhara resistance, another detachment moved south of the B21 highway into the rural area of South Wollo, capturing the towns in its path. Consequently, Were-Ilu and Degolo fell into the hands of Tigrayan forces. One arm then proceeded towards Merhabete, likely in order to cut into the A3 highway at Fiche and advance on the capital from this side. Another arm made a sharp turn southwards from Degolo and penetrated into North Shoa, seizing Mehal Meda, Molale, and Mezezo.
Just 20 days after the capture of Dessie, Tigrayan forces had advanced an astonishing 209 km and were in the vicinity of Debre Sina. Debre Sina is located at the very high altitude of 2,700 m, even higher than Dessie, and combined with its rough terrain, was the most suitable spot for the ENDF and allies to make their last stand. There were fears that if Debre Sina were to fall, nothing was likely to prevent the TDF from advancing to Addis Ababa.
TDF experiences a major setback on the Afar front
As early as mid-July, Tigrayan forces had been repeatedly attempting to penetrate the Afar region and sever the Addis Ababa-Djibouti road. During the first round of operations, an army-sized detachment of the TDF had taken control of Yalo, Golina, and Ewa woredas and tried to advance to the Chifra-Mille road. However, successive TDF offensives were repulsed by the determined resistance of the Afar Special Forces and ENDF. This eventually prompted a complete pull-out of Tigrayan forces from Afar.
After the failure of the ENDF’s October offensives, however, the TDF carried out a series of counteroffensives, one of which managed to advance through Habru woreda of Amhara region and capture Chifra. Nevertheless, despite Tigrayan claims of inflicting heavy losses on the ENDF’s defending units, TDF attempts to further advance to the strategic junction at Mille faced dogged resistance. The Tigrayans failed to move beyond Chifra.
Following the fall of Kombolcha, Tigrayan forces, in alliance with the OLA, made yet another attempt to progress towards Mille, this time through Bati. Again, after advancing as far as Elli Wuha of Afar, they encountered another round of determined resistance forcing them to retreat to Garsa Gita. Unofficial reports claimed that Tigrayan forces suffered heavy losses, much greater than on other fronts, during last-ditch effort to break ENDF defensive lines and progress to Mille.
The TDF’s repeated failure to advance to Mille was perhaps the consistently odd note in an otherwise predominantly successful campaign. The main reasons for the TDF’s setbacks in Afar are likely very similar to their reluctance to attempt to retake western Tigray: determined resistance from local militants, artillery-friendly terrain and the ENDF’s efficient use of combat drones. Of the three, the drone factor was by far the most potent and significantly contributed to the TDF’s eventual pullback from the other fronts.
Ethiopia’s use of combat drones and the ENDF’s resurgence
The use of combat drones by the Ethiopian Air Force intensified after August 2021. At that time, Ethiopia was alleged to be in possession of only a handful of mainly Iranian-made Mohajer-6 armed drones, which had a limited operating radius of less than 200km. Consequently, since the frontlines of the war had been significantly farther away from the base of drone operations, at Semera and Bishoftu, the impact of drones on the progress of the war, especially on the Dessie front, was minimal. The frontlines at Chifra and surrounding areas, however, were much closer to Semera. Hence it appears that drones, along with other aerial strikes and heavy artillery support, contributed significantly to impeding the TDF’s advance on Mille. Coincidentally, there were several reports of drone activity in Semera during the same period, which strengthen the claim that drones made the difference in Afar.
As the frontlines moved towards the Addis Ababa, drone attacks became far more effective and lethal against the TDF advances. By mid-October, when it was becoming apparent that the Ethiopian defence of the strategic cities of Dessie and Kombolcha was not going to hold, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a major weapons deal with Turkey which reportedly included at least half a dozen Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed drones . Despite their limited range capability, TB2 drones had a track record of being more effective when they are operated in areas closer to their base.
Ethiopia’s drone capability was further enhanced following UAE’s active involvement in support of the Abiy’s government. Credible sources reported that by early November 2021, the United Arab Emirates had deployed at least six Chinese Wing Loong I UCAVs, along with Emerati operators, from Harar Meda air base at Bishoftu. This enabled the Ethiopian Air Force to carry out UAV surveillance and bombing operations over very long distances, which were previously beyond their reach. Consequently, drone bombings in Tigray and Northern Wollo intensified around the same time.
At this pivotal time, when on one hand, the seemingly unstoppable advances of the TDF towards the capital had created an ominous feeling that the fall of Addis was imminent, and on the other hand, when the purchase of sophisticated weapons had sparked hopes among the regime’s loyalists that all was not yet lost, PM Abiy announced he would be joining the army to lead from the front lines. The PM’s announcement invoked a great deal of public sentiment and mobilization in support of the government’s war effort.
By this time the TDF were strung out along the A2 highway, which runs South to North connecting Addis Ababa to Mekelle. The TDF had advanced southwards on five fronts and – rather like the fingers of a glove – were highly vulnerable to an attack from either east or west. Prime Minister Abiy chose to launch his most powerful remaining forces against the TDF from the Afar region, attempting to cut off the Tigrayan supply lines.
At the end of November 2021, news of major counteroffensives by the Ethiopian coalition started to emerge. ASF and Fano attempted a major offensive through Dubko to capture Lalibela. Though it momentarily succeeded in cutting off the Lalibela-Muja road, a TDF counteroffensive quickly reversed the territorial gains. On the Afar front, the ENDF and Afar forces re-captured Chifra. This was another major victory for the Ethiopian coalition after Garsa Gita and made it clear that TDF ambitions of capturing Mille had been irreversibly foiled.
On December 1st, 2021, reports emerged of an ongoing set of major offensives by the Ethiopian coalition forces on several fronts. Quite surprisingly, it was claimed that within a single day, Amhara forces and the ENDF recaptured Gashena, Arbit, Dubko, Molale, Mezezo, Degolo, Were Ilu, Aketsa, and Shewa Robit. In the midst of this, eyewitnesses reported that Tigrayan forces in Kombolcha, Dessie and Lalibela had started packing up and withdrawing without “a single bullet fired”.
In less than a week, the ENDF and regional forces were able to recapture Dessie, Kombolcha, the A2 highway to the south as well as the entirety of the B11 highway from Bati. Few actual battles took place during the clearance operations beyond a rather fierce exchange of artillery fire. Several videos showing destroyed TDF vehicles and heavy weapons appeared on social media and revealed how targeted drone strikes on TDF supply routes had succeeded in constraining its capability. Though both sides claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on their adversaries, neutral observers saw little evidence to suggest major battles took place during this period.
The Ethiopian government claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on the Tigrayan forces. The Prime Minster, when announcing the recapture of Garsa Gita and Chifra on state media asserted, “The enemy has been defeated. We scored an unthinkable victory with the eastern command in one day… Now in the west, we will repeat this victory”.
TDF “Territorial Adjustment” and “Recalibration” II
The Tigrayans, on the other hand, claimed that they were withdrawing their forces for strategic purposes and not because they suffered a defeat. The military command of the TDF said: “we are making territorial adjustments on our own terms and so as to pave the way for strategic offensives…”
Though it rejects the Ethiopian government’s notion that the TDF faced military defeat, it nonetheless mentioned its intention to “quickly deal with the obstacles posed by Amhara expansionists” as among its reasons for the pullback, thereby affirming that the mass mobilizations, combat drones and multi-fronted offensives spearheaded by Amhara forces had been a significant factor in the decision.
In early December, with only a partial withdrawal in place, the Tigrayan leadership had maintained that the ‘pullback’ was merely “a limited territorial and strategic adjustment”. This had caused the anticipation, among observers, that the TDF would not pull out of Amhara region completely, but would retain strategic areas of Northern Wollo, mainly territories beyond Woldiya, and mount its defence from there.
However, on December 10th, 2021, an Ethiopian offensive was able to advance from Afar through Boren and cut off the Mekelle-Woldiya road. This left the bulk of TDF forces to the south of Kobo in a precarious situation. They faced imminent encirclement in hostile territory.
Two days later, the Tigrayan forces launched a massive set of offensives to the west and southwest, as the result of which they were able to recapture, after heavy fighting, the areas around Lalibela and Gashena. Pro TDF sources claimed that Ethiopian coalition forces suffered huge losses, but this was not independently verified. The objective of the TDF offensives appears to have been to secure the Lalibela-Sekota road for the withdrawal of its forces in and around Woldiya. The TDF units around Gashena held off attacks from the direction of the B22 highway while the bulk of Tigrayan forces undertook an orderly withdrawal into Tigray.
Over the next week, Ethiopian forces rapidly advanced north through the A2 highway quickly recapturing Mersa, Woldiya, Gobiye, Hara Gebeya, Kobo Robit and Kobo.
Around the same time, drone bombing of Alamata began and intensified over the next couple of days. This was followed by a fairly strong aerial and ground offensive through Timuga which enabled the ENDF and their allies to quickly capture Alamata. An attempt to advance further and capture Korem, however, faced stiff resistance from Tigrayan forces from well-fortified positions.
The ENDF’s determined offensives and advance on the southern border appeared to have caused a stir among the Tigrayan leadership which released a statement claiming that the TDF’s withdrawal was in order to give “priority for peace” and called on the International Community to take firm measures to force the Ethiopian government to desist its assault. However, over the next few days, fighting intensified and expanded onto Abergelle [bordering Wag Himra] and Abala [bordering Afar].
After repeated calls by international bodies as well as concerned citizens for a ceasefire, on December 24th 2021, the federal government announced that it has ordered its forces “to maintain the areas it has controlled” meaning any plans to advance to Mekelle had been aborted. After 13 months of continuous fighting, this was the first time both sides officially announced a ceasefire. At the end of December 2021, however, unofficial reports indicate fierce fighting is still continuing on the southwestern front around Addi Arkay as well as on the Afar front.
The Tigray war is one of the most devastating conflict Ethiopia has faced in its recent history. It started out as a small-scale policing operation that would be concluded in “a couple of weeks”. However, even after more than a year, it is showing no signs of ending any time soon. Tens of thousands of civilians and combatants have been killed and wounded . Millions have been displaced, have seen their homes destroyed and are now completely reliant on humanitarian aid. Thousands of children in the conflict zone are facing acute malnutrition and hundreds are dying of hunger every day. Starvation is being used as a weapon of war. The Tigray conflict has can become a medieval siege warfare in its ferocity and characteristics.
It is now abundantly clear the war has been internationalised with involvement of a number of foreign actors. Besides the Eritrean army, which has directly involved the bulk of its forces in an ongoing fighting, there is solid evidence that many international actors are providing technical expertise, financial and military support to the Ethiopian federal government in its war effort in Tigray.
On the Tigrayan side, the resistance has evolved into a truly popular movement. The TDF now boasts among its ranks fighters from all sections of Tigrayan society: opposition leaders, scholars, farmers, and urban dwellers. It enjoys near unanimous support from the masses. Vocal supporters of the armed resistance include religious leaders, the elderly, human rights advocates and international personalities. Backing for the resistance, and the corresponding rejection of pro-government voices, has been so intense that even avowedly anti-TPLF parties like Arena have preferred to remain silent.
The federal government, for its part, has relentlessly worked at gaining the support of the non-Tigrayan population for its ongoing operations against what it has labelled a ‘terrorist organization.’ Its war propaganda has increasingly resorted to rhetoric that not only doesn’t differentiate between the people of Tigray and the armed resistance of the TDF, but blatantly accuses the entire people of treason. As a result, deeply engrained hostility has emerged between Tigrayan and Amhara society, which threatens to have an enduring impact on the entire region.
Both sides of the conflict have shown remarkable efficiency in utilizing their strengths to shift the tide of the war in their favour. The TDF drew upon Tigray’s rich military tradition, the remarkable solidarity which characterizes Tigrayan society, and its experienced military leadership. This allowed them to chart a course that saw the Tigrayan resistance re-fashioned from an apparently defeated force after its withdrawal from Mekelle in November 2020. Then it was forced to withdraw into the mountains of central Tigray to be refashioned until it was ready to re-emerge. Today it is a highly capable army that could not only wrestle most of Tigray from the grip of two of the largest and most experienced armies of East Africa, but also rapidly advance towards the gates of Addis.
The Ethiopian government, on the other hand, appears to have recognized from early on that its greatest strength lay in the huge human and material resources of the country. Consequently, it invested heavily in propaganda and in the purchase of advanced weapons that enabled it to survive despite the near destruction of its national army. By the end of 2021 it had managed to reverse the TDF’s gains and drive its enemy from Shoa, all the way to Tigray’s borders. It achieved a remarkable success in the sustained mobilization of hundreds of thousands of militia forces and barely-trained civilians from all over the country, and delivering them to the battlefields, where they fought with bravery and determination. At the same time the Ethiopian authorities were adept at making the best use of their geopolitical opportunities to acquire game-changing drones and other advanced weaponry. Combining mass (if poorly-trained) armies with sophisticated weaponry, maintained by foreign technicians, has allowed the Ethiopian government to turn the tide of this war once again in its favour.
In terms of military strategies, the TDF appears to have recalibrated its engagements by choosing techniques and environments conducive to their military capability. Acutely aware that it has a very limited population from which to recruit combatants, it has avoided large-scale full-frontal battles and flat, open landscapes where superiority in manpower and artillery would be decisive. Even in conventional battles, its forces performed manoeuvres that followed principles similar to those adopted in a guerrilla warfare. Unless the TDF was forced by geography, as they were when attempting to cut off the vital Addis-Djibouti road, they sought to use strategies that took advantage of their expert knowledge of operating in mountainous terrain, as well as the flexibility and mobility of their forces to destabilize and sometimes defeat, the numerically superior and extensively armed ENDF.
Although it has required the sacrifice of almost its entire professional army and resulted in disastrous economic consequences, the Ethiopian leadership, with the assistance of Eritrea, has managed to foil TDF’s primary objectives: liberating western Tigray and attempting to cut off the Addis-Djibouti road. The former would have given the Tigrayan resistance a crucial supply line to Sudan. However, the EDF’s heavy deployment in western Tigray and large mobilization of Amhara militants, meant that the corridor to Sudan remained sealed. The TDF’s operation to sever the Addis-Djibouti road was an attempt to gain a strong bargaining chip to force Abiy into negotiations. The federal government successfully countered the TDF’s repeated offensives into Afar by securing the allegiance of locals, deploying the bulk of its forces on this front, and employing advanced weaponry, especially drones.
Ultimately, diplomatic leverage and successful utilization of combat drones played a disproportionate role in reversing what had appeared to be the TDF’s near-certain victory.
There is now a military stalemate. The Ethiopian coalition forces appear incapable of advancing further into Tigray without risking another military catastrophe. Tigrayan forces, too, are unlikely to attempt another offensive into Amhara or Afar unless they find an antidote to the drone problem. Yet, as long as Tigray remains in a de facto siege, and its disputes with the neighbouring Amhara region are not resolved, the prospect looms of another round of even more brutal warfare.
 Note on Tigrayan tactics: The technical terms like ‘Koretsa’ [cutting off], ‘Mizibae’ [destabilizing], ‘Mishab’ [luring enemy force into false pursuit], ‘Kurmim’ [isolating and carving off enemy units from the main body] predate TPLF’s years of insurgency and are embedded in Tigrayan military tradition. They have been an integral part of their organized battlefield engagements.
The Tigrayans avoided, as much as possible, prolonged fighting. Unless strategically significant, maintaining defensible territories was never their priority. Upon facing a stronger, determined offensive, they retreated quickly to save their strength and countered by choosing the time and place when the opponent was vulnerable. Unlike the EPLF’s military tradition, the ‘Woyane’ as the Tigrayans were known, adopted highly mobile guerrilla strategies which were honed and perfected by TPLF military commanders during the 17 years armed struggle which ended with their capture of Addis in 1991. Even during conventional battles, TDF’s units employed quick and focused attacks preceded or followed by constant shifting of positions using similar principles as in a guerrilla warfare. They rarely deployed larger than battalion sized units at a time, but used several of them from multiple sides to launch coordinated attacks. To this end they employed the wealth of experienced medium and high-level military leaders had at their disposal to pull of remarkably well orchestrated manoeuvres between their units.