What the U.S. Can Do to End the War and Bring Hope to the Region

Elias Dawit 05-23-21

The U.S. has played an outsized role in propping up the Abiy Ahmed government. Despite decades of close cooperation between the EPRDF and the U.S. government in maintaining regional stability in the rough neighborhood of the Horn of Africa, the U.S. remained uneasy with the EPRDF’s land policy, banking system and overall approach to the economy within the context of the “developmental state.”

Even though renown economist Joseph Stieglitz pronounced the neoliberal economic paradigm “dead and buried,” the U.S. continued to push neoliberal policies that did not fit the reality of the Ethiopian economy and its people. This, combined with a loud and relentless diaspora that sought to micromanage Ethiopia from Washington, D.C. and Minnesota coffee shops, were the constant companions of U.S. foreign policy towards Ethiopia and its discomfort with the TPLF.

It is clear to everyone now that the U.S.’s partnership with Abiy Ahmed has had disastrous consequences not just on Ethiopia but on the entire region.  Finally, the partnership is beginning to weaken given the events of the past months. The statements coming out of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s office, the trip made by Senator Chris Coons, the words spoken by U.N. Ambassador Linda Greenfield-Thomas, and most especially the appointment of Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman signaled a welcome turnaround in U.S. foreign policy.

And now, after a whirlwind visit to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan for meetings, the Special Envoy has perhaps a better sense of just who he is dealing with in trying to stop the brutal war on the Tigray people as Ethiopia continues to spiral out of control.

Following the Special Envoy’s meetings with Abiy and Isayas, the U.S. announced that it is considering financial sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as visa sanctions on government officials. This announcement speaks loudly about the success of the talks.

Abiy Ahmed has tried to portray U.S. efforts to end this genocidal war as a threat to Ethiopia’s sovereignty. The irony is a gobstopper while Eritrean troops occupy Tigray and Isayas Afewerki calls the shots for Ethiopia.

The U.S. is now in the unenviable position of keeping channels open with Abiy while exerting pressure through visa sanctions and withholding aid for a government long past its expiration date.

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It took a genocidal war against Tigray to finally bring the U.S. around to the fact that their man in Addis Ababa was not the charismatic reformer he portrayed himself to be at the beginning of his tenure. His overture to Isayas Afewerki, his welcoming of opposition parties into the political process and his opening of state enterprises to the private sector were actions supported by the U.S. government and probably even facilitated by the U.S. government. There is even a strong case to be made that Abiy Ahmed was propelled into power with the full support of the U.S. government.

And when the TPLF pushed back against Abiy Ahmed’s increasing authoritarianism and ethnic targeting of Tigrayans, the U.S. dismissed their response as sour grapes—obviously, according to the U.S., the TPLF was bitter about losing power.

This has been a major weakness of U.S. policy  towards Ethiopia. While the U.S. listened intently to the opposition when the EPRDF was in power—a pragmatic approach to understanding the complex layers of the political landscape—the U.S. has dismissed the views of the TPLF, ignoring a perspective that has direct relevance to the bigger picture of the region and Ethiopia and certainly the current war against Tigray.

The U.S’s resistance to serious engagement with the TPLF imperils any opportunity to play a significant role in stopping this genocidal war, salvaging the Ethiopian nation-state and keeping the region from collapsing into even more chaos. . There should be a clear channel of communication with the TPLF leadership, despite the logistical challenges and regardless of what Abiy and Isayas want, that can help the U.S. identify pressure points for Ethiopia and Eritrea.

One pressure point is the military calculation of  the Tigrayan Defense Forces  fighting Ethiopian troops, Eritrean troops and the Amhara militia. While it seems clear that Abiy has lost a good deal of his military in the fighting and the untrained Amhara militia are serving as cannon fodder, both are a nuisance to the Tigrayan military. Isayas will not withdraw his army and Abiy Ahmed will not and cannot make him do so.

The U.S., however, can pressure Abiy to withdraw what is left of the Ethiopian Defense Forces and the Amhara militia, leaving the Tigrayan Defense Forces to finish off the Eritrean military. This will result in three desired outcomes: 1) end the fighting; 2) defeat Isayas Afewerki; and 3) force Ethiopia to the negotiating table to some up with a political solution to the ongoing conflict.

Make no mistake about it—this war ends in Asmara with the demise of Isayas Aferwerki and his stranglehold over Eritrea, Ethiopia and the region. There is no other path to peace and stability.

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