Small Wars Journal

The Ethiopian Civil War: A Failure in Counterinsurgency

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:16am

The Ethiopian Civil War: A Failure in Counterinsurgency


Naman Habtom-Desta


Conventional symmetric warfare, i.e. a war between two national armies, has ceased to exist as the dominant force in international conflicts. Instead, civil wars, whether organic or proxies, define the contemporary world and are intrinsically intertwined with the questions of migration, famine, political radicalization, etc. Within civil wars, counterinsurgency is the primary lens that governments view fighting. Yet, during the latter half of the Cold War, an African military juggernaut with the backing of a superpower slowly but surely crumbled. With incumbents having an advantage,[i] a quick look at the Ethiopian Civil War can offer lessons on what can bring down a government.


States do not exist in isolation and civil wars are fundamentally defined by their neighbors. Just like the Syrian Civil War is a product of the Iraq War/Turkish Kurdish insurgency/Israeli-Arab conflict, so was the Ethiopian Civil War. Following the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie and establishment of the communist military junta known as the Derg in 1974, underlying tensions with neighboring Sudan and Somalia began to bubble to the surface. The latter’s President Siad Barre, despite being on friendly terms with the Derg’s patron the Soviet Union, unsuccessfully sought to exploit the instability of the nascent government across the border by invading and unilaterally attempting to annex the ethnically Somali region of Ogaden in 1977. Whereas tensions had existed for years (due to demarcation disagreements dating back to the colonial period) with a border war having even been fought in the early 1960’s, this time it flared into an international conflict resulting in massive Soviet airlifts to Ethiopia coupled with Cuban and South Yemeni troops intervening on the ground.


The Ogaden War, though officially ending in 1978, sparked rapid militarization as well as political repression on a heightened level within Ethiopia, which in turn triggered the conflagration of the Civil War itself. Political radicalization doesn’t attack outwards but rather inwards. The Red Terror, having claimed up to possibly half a million lives,[ii] didn’t principally target royalists or foreign agents but rather began with the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement. This internal process resulted in a process of alienation that resulted in the state’s main enemies being a variety of organizations espousing a host of left-wing ideologies that were more similar than different from the government’s, whether traditional socialism (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, EPLF) or Albanian-Chinese communism (Tigray People’s Liberation Front).


The refusal to compromise fundamentally undermined the Derg’s ability to attain peace. Whereas the Soviet Union and East Germany, while still arming the junta to the hilt, recommended a negotiated political settlement that would include ideologically compatible rebel movements, the Ethiopian government would hear none of this. A last-ditch effort by the government to implement mild federalization during the latter days of the Derg’s existence proved to be futile whereas an earlier attempt may have been fruitful. The ‘all or nothing’ mentality exasperated the risk of a ‘nothing’ result, which ultimately came to be the case.


Whereas some civil wars are the product of environmental issues, the Ethiopian case saw the parallel development of famine and civil war, which though not inherently causal in relationship, did intensify each other and ultimately weakened the government. The 1983-5 drought, judged to be the country’s worst in a century, occurred after the civil war became full blown yet the use of landmines and displacement due to war and resettlement policies worsened the famine. Coupled with cross-border proxy wars, with the Ethiopians backing South Sudanese rebels while the Sudanese supported Eritrean separatists, the geography magnified the problems already present in both countries. Rather than being able to contain the war or tackle certain groups, the situation had instead spun out of control.


The inability to wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign can only be partially attributed to the government. Often, the determining factor in the toppling of a state is the presence of a successful opposition. Unlike say the civil war in Liberia, which featured rebel commanders like General Butt Naked who thought nudity in battle protected him from bullets[iii] when not busy sacrificing children,[iv] the Ethiopian Civil War featured highly disciplined opposition fighters. For example, in the midst of its revolt, the EPLF, which American intelligence considered to be the world’s most sophisticated guerrilla operation,[v] ran vaccination programs and mobile pharmacy units[vi] while busily fighting highly equipped opponents in highland terrain and coastal lands.


Far too often, as witnessed in the case of the United States’ global war on terror, the fight against unconventional combatants is limited to simply a ‘kill list’ as if a mere bucket list that is completed isolated from surrounding influences. While foreign armies are particularly susceptible to defeat at the hands of local fighters, so too can national armies be, if given the necessary conditions. Keeping this in mind reminds us that an armed group is never invincible but requires considerable force to be successfully tackled.


End Notes









About the Author(s)

Naman Habtom-Desta is the Director of Events and Speakers at the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum, a co-founder and co-editor of an upcoming journal, as well as a history student at the University of Cambridge. In addition, he has written for multiple publications on foreign affairs, security policy, and history.