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ADDIS ABABA: The Ethiopian army this week regained control of territory previously claimed by Tigrayan rebels, a potential validation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to join soldiers in conflict-affected areas.
Yet how the government achieved its victories and what they mean for an eventual outcome in the year-old war remain matters of fierce debate as the fighting enters a new uncertain phase.
Just a month ago, the rebel group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray appeared to be going on the offensive, claiming to have captured Dessie and Kombolcha, towns on a key highway to the capital Addis Ababa.
They reportedly reached Shewa Robit, about 220 kilometers (135 miles) northeast of Addis Ababa by road.
But after Abiy announced last week that he would lead operations on the ground, the government announced a series of victories and the rebels admitted to changing their strategy.
State media responded with triumphant wall-to-wall coverage.
“The enemy is destroyed, disintegrated,” the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation said Thursday, citing Abiy.
There is no doubt that the government can claim to have “the upper hand” in specific areas, said Awet Weldemichael, a Horn of Africa security expert at Queen’s University in Canada.
“Only time will tell if these can be translated into [the] the upper hand in war, ”he said.
War in northern Ethiopia erupted in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops to overthrow the TPLF – a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on Federal Army camps.
Although Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, promised a quick victory, by the end of June, the TPLF had recaptured most of Tigray and quickly launched offensives in neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.
The rebel march to Addis sparked an international panic, with a multitude of embassies urging their citizens to leave the country as soon as possible.
All the while, however, the exact nature of the TPLF’s advance was in dispute.
“I don’t know if we should call it an advance,” a Western security official told AFP in mid-November.
“There isn’t a huge column of tanks and armored vehicles driving on the road to Addis. It’s more complex than that. There are infantry who go into the mountains, they shoot and surround certain areas, ”but do not seem to have full control of the towns and villages, the official said.
The TPLF also never explicitly stated that it wished to enter Addis Ababa, simply refusing to rule out such a decision.
The latest changes to the battlefield have unfolded quickly.
The government first claimed towns in Afar, near a critical highway bringing goods to Addis Ababa, then declared victory on Wednesday at Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has fallen to the hands of the TPLF in August.
State media reported on Friday that towns on the road leading north to Dessie and Kombolcha had been “liberated”.
The news could be a sign that government forces, along with several thousand new recruits who have enlisted in recent months, are fighting more than they realize.
“I was quite surprised by the government’s latest counteroffensive,” said Mehdi Labzae, a sociologist who studies land issues and mobilization in Ethiopia.
“I saw all the people who were mobilized … but the point is, I thought they weren’t trained and I thought they would just be destroyed.”
The African Union is trying to negotiate a ceasefire to prevent further bloodshed, although there has been little progress so far.
The TPLF insists it will have the advantage in all the fights to come.
“In combat, we know there will be adjustments and a limited retreat as well as significant advances,” TPLF military boss Tadesse Worede said in an interview broadcast Friday.
“We decided that in order to reduce the problems and vulnerabilities in certain areas that we had reached, to voluntarily leave some of these places.”
For Labzae, such statements are reminiscent of the government’s announcement of its withdrawal from most of Tigray in late June – a claim that avoided military setbacks even as TPLF fighters celebrated in the streets of the regional capital Mekele.
“They were so close [to Addis]. Why would they turn around now? Labzae said of the TPLF.
“It means that there was something they were worried about or something that they didn’t think was right.”
One possibility, said Awet of Queen’s University, is that the government’s top air power has turned the tide, at least for now.
“Drones are said to have played a decisive role in active combat, the extent of which we have yet to discover,” he said.
“But so far it appears they have helped stop the Tigrayan counterattacks and advances.”