Ethiopia: Mao, Mango and the Guerilla Playbook

I’m just wondering…When Alex de Waal goes to parties with his TPLF buddies, do things get awkward because of all his aw-shucks gushing and practically humping their legs?

Here is Alex Mango on the late Seyoum Mesfin: “…Seyoum and his comrades, ‘revolutionary justice’ meant a transformation in the practice of killing your defeated enemies.” I somehow don’t think that memo reached the fifty (and still counting) interim administrators summarily murdered in Mekelle after the TPLF claimed victory with the unilateral ceasefire.

And here is the Director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University singing the praises of General Tsadkan Gebretensae, which the BBC chose to obliviously publish this month while ignoring it amounted to a puff piece profile of a terrorist leader. “His analysis, organisational skills and ability to win the trust of the fighters meant that by the late 1980s, he was one of its most respected operational commanders.” Later, we’re told by a former teacher that Tsadkan is “quiet, reflective, a listener, almost shy, open-minded — but of course there is steel inside.”

Yep, he’s that shy boy in high school you hope will ask you out and later sneak back into army barracks to commit treason. He’s ever so dreamy.

But of course, the star doesn’t make the rounds unless they’ve got a movie to shill, and the TPLF is all about the big show. Days later, Alex Mango defended pre-conditions for a ceasefire, making a desperate attempt to appear balanced with his calls for both sides to scale back the rhetoric.

Then Tsadkan pontificated to Elephant, claiming among other fabrications, that he only joined the TDF in November… despite his involvement in the TPLF’s efforts to raise a wider nation-wide “federalist force” (which included other entities like the OLF-Shene). And long before the November attacks and the planning and execution of the killing of thousands of troops across all outposts of the Northern Command.

Oh, and did you hear the one about the 8,000 prisoners of war?

Of course, now that we have the New York Times video of paraded soldiers plus less convincing and more ridiculous photos that have been clearly Photoshopped, some might be gullible enough to buy Tsadkan’s estimate.

Except there is no way that figure will tally against the number of troops killed, wounded, and even still within the ENDF after the November attack and which recently left Tigray. As I keep demanding: Name Them. Name every alleged “prisoner of war” you claim you’re holding.

Because the names will have to match the master roll of enlisted soldiers with Ethiopian federal authorities.

De Waal conveniently left out of his puff piece any excerpts from Tesfaye Gebreab’s memoir written on the Ethio-Eritrean war, which are far less flattering for his hero, like this one:

“General Tsadkan tried to call the meeting to order but he could not hide his emotions and broke down crying. He wept. All of the meeting participants cried with him. Infara was like a funeral home. Once he gained his composure, he tried to comfort the meeting participants. Everyone was crying. General Tsadkan said the following to the meeting participants, ‘I have led many battles in my career. I have fought in many wars. I have seen a lot. I have never experienced this kind of utter failure. It is bad.’”

One military strategist who was asked about this kind of behavior characterized it as “an utter failure of leadership and something which is totally uncharacteristic of skilled, charismatic and effective leaders.”

Yep. Big boy generals don’t cry. Especially in front of their men.

What is the point of these self-promotions? As someone who’s worked in journalism and also in communications, I reflexively think of them as propaganda. Okay, sure, duh. But I’m also told that this is a classic insurgency tactic — and that the timing is important here.

I consulted a few experts, who not surprisingly given the amount of abuse anyone who speaks out against the TPLF receives, preferred to be quoted under pseudonyms.

Robert Franks (not his real name) says it’s no accident that Norway’s Kjetil Tronvoll and Alex Mango have left a long record of pro-TPLF “messaging” since the conflict began about eight months ago. Tronvoll, who once bragged about being Tigray’s only international election observer, now boasts about connecting with TPLF officials and TDF senior officers daily over satellite phone. And as we now know, staff at World Food Programme are happy to loan the TPLF a satellite phone when they need it.

You’ll recall that de Waal’s best buddy “Yoohoo” Mulugeta, who keeps a villa in Tigray (despite claiming for the New York Times’s Declan Walsh that he was “just visiting” the region), inflated the number for Eritrean divisions in the region months ago.

Franks says that in terms of insurgency warfare, de Waal and Tronvoll represent the “auxiliary” of the insurgency effort. “The ‘auxiliary’ combines with the ‘guerillas’ and the ‘underground,’ in this case that ‘underground’ for our modern day is the Internet and the troll armies that work day and night, targeting policymakers, political representatives, the lobbyists who can influence the policy debate. They want to build the dominant narratives and keep pressure on the federal government. Okay, now all this, you understand, is well-trodden ground. You see this with, say, the Turkish government and you know, the Kurdish PKK, or the Azari government’s exchanges with Armenian rebels.”

Another expert, Dawit Tesfaye (not his real name), says “the TPLF propaganda troll army is not a new phenomenon and has been propping up in the TPLF’s authoritarian rule for years, especially since the 1-in-5 structure was developed. Anyone who veers from their warped and fabricated narrative will immediately receive emails in ranting pigeon English which are copied to all UN agencies, human rights agencies and the media in an effort to vilify and silence people. The international community is conveniently forgetting about years’ worth of this correspondence…”

And, says Franks, you can go further back. “Think of Mao Zedong’s concept of the People’s War. That was for its fight against the Japanese army in World War Two. You draw your opponent deep into the countryside, where you’re comfortable, and they aren’t. You bleed them dry with a mix of mobile and guerrilla warfare.”

According to another expert, Andrew Kakoiba (again, not his real name), if you want a successful insurgency, keep the spin cycle on. Lots of propaganda, which hits your target population and gets a reaction, which can prompt potential alliances and, oh yeah…blames your enemy for the destruction of the critical infrastructure the people rely on… Like maybe, (ahem!) a bridge.

In fact, why not blame your enemy for looting and damage to local services, like medical supplies and banking, transportation and education? On this last one, it really helps if the UN officials oblige you by helping to screw over the interim administration and block thousands of innocent kids from writing their exams).

A liberal mindset bristles at the thought of singling out any ethnic group as a potential “enemy” of the state. We don’t want to go there. And normally, we shouldn’t. Unfortunately, Nazis do tend to be white incels. And as Kakoiba point outs, “a Tigrayan middle class grew out of the TPLF providing its friends and relatives the access to all the opportunities Ethiopia had to offer — and to privileged lives overseas. No one should be surprised — no one — that such people infiltrate institutions where they can have influence and make decisions. They are catering only to themselves and their wealth, and care not about Tigrayan communities in Ethiopia.”

Kakoiba says look at the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhaman, or senior management within UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID, Amnesty International and other organizations. Even managing to get into the White House itself.

“After TPLF split from the Prosperity Party in 2019, and while all Tigrayans in government were being called back to Mekelle, these individuals were being re-mobilized as ‘auxiliary’ and ‘underground’ to support the TPLF’s ongoing objective of recapturing power, and its sustained extraction of national resources.”

“The TPLF is very familiar with Mao Zedong’s insurgency concept,” says Franks. “They adopted the mainstay of it to front the overthrow of the Derg regime. To a large extent, the same commanders — I mean the few who are still alive — working in the Tigray conflict have relied on Mao’s doctrine to lead the current effort against the ENDF forces. These strategies and tactics, they’re dominated by what we call ‘Psy-Ops.’ Psychological operations and ‘information operations.’ As the TPLF lose on the conventional warfare front, these are the tools they will bolster to cling harder to their patronage-based alignment with the international community.”

It’s not just the TPLF that is pursuing Psy-Ops in the conflict either. It’s also the U.S. government.

“The U.S. calls for de-escalation of the fighting even when the ENDF are not in Tigray is one part of it,” says Franks. “But the U.S. military, through Western media organizations, is engaged in a hostile campaign of Psy-Ops against the Ethiopian people to weaken their morale, soften their discipline, and erode trust in the federal government.

“The greatest target of these will be the Amhara people since they are on the frontlines in Welkait and Humera mobilizing in constitutional militias and working closely with federal forces.

“The Western media will do everything to erode trust in Abiy. They’ll make every necessary, though unpopular, strategic decision by Abiy — that would ultimately serve Ethiopia’s people — appear as though it’s a failure and done from a position of weakness. They’ll take advantage of Abiy’s patience, silence, and concerns for human life. They’ll fill every lull in Ethiopian media coverage with their own propaganda. The latest front-page article in the New York Times by Declan Walsh is effectively a loud announcement of this new reality. The U.S. is essentially telling Ethiopians and especially Amhara: ‘We’re going all in on our TDF allies who will obviously win this war.’

“And as they ‘capture’ less strategically important towns in Tigray, the Times and the TPLF Twitter warriors will be right there to convince everyone that a TDF victory is inevitable. They don’t care if they broadcast the use of ‘child soldiers’ and reprisal killings since this is, again, a form of Psy-Ops that suggests that TPLF and their US backers will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives. Al Shabaab and ISIS work the same way.”

Reinforcing these tactics, he says, are articles like the one de Waal wrote endorsing the TPLF’s pre-conditions for the ceasefire. It was no accident that this piece followed de Waal’s puffing up of Tsadkan as some kind of military genius —

— Which is a hell of a stretch. Before Tsadkan left his post as Chief of Staff for the Ethiopian armed forces, he only saw one major operation, which was the conflict with Eritrea — not exactly a clear winner for that debacle. He later served for at least five years as a senior adviser — paid for by the UK government — to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Front… which by the way, worked for the contract firm, Adam Smith International.

Incidentally, General Tadesse Werede, Tsadkan’s current co-lead general in Tigray, was also paid by UK “development” funding through ASI for work in the Sudans.

The scuttlebutt is that several individuals working in South Sudan back then noticed the future “rebel mastermind” Tsadkan didn’t spend a lot of time in South Sudan even though he was paid an inordinate daily rate for full-time consultancy services. Little wonder why the UK has been reticent to speak out against a group which, in terms of its senior command structure, they paid, trained and educated. Tsadkan? “One of the finest military strategists of his generation in Africa?”

Some genuine African military officers might ask you how much khat you’ve had tonight.

“But he [de Waal] is providing what’s called ‘augmentation’ for the insurgents,” cautions Franks, “and this is meant to deflect from their heinous crimes by trying to give their leader credibility. And the piece on ceasefire pre-conditions — that’s a classic ‘game theory’ move. You’re first to the plate, and so what’s called your ‘dominant strategy’ remains the ‘best’ possible outcome no matter what amendments are requested in the negotiations.”

So it’s reasonable to ask… What’s the countermove to all this?

Franks and Kakoiba appear to agree.

“Pull back,” says Kakoiba. “Reassess. They need to better anticipate how counter-insurgency tactics will work near the border areas [with both the Amhara Regional State and the international boundary with Eritrea]. Knowing TPLF tactics, it’s a foregone conclusion that they will use children — they will kill children — and blame the Amharas. They will also penetrate towards Eritrea and continue, in all places, using the stolen uniforms and videoing and blaming the ENDF and EDF.”

“The TPLF only has minimal military hardware — certainly not enough to mount any sort of conventional force against the rest of the federal army,” says Franks. “Because of this, de Waal and Tronvoll will get more histrionic. You can expect more Psy-Ops. Look at the pattern. First, an atrocity gets screamed about on social media, and then it’s ‘validated’ by mainstream newspapers and networks, who of course, go to the analysts like de Waal and Tronvoll to comment, and around and around we go.”

There is clearly no bottom for the TPLF Psy-Ops brigade and its Western media enablers.

Take for instance the “video obtained by the Associated Press and smuggled out of Tigray days later” (three guesses where they obtained it from). In the story published today, a 16-year-old girl from the video is identified as “Meron Mezgeb, Student.” Here is how AP quoted her: “I came here because I saw girls like me being raped” by combatants, she said. “I actually wanted to go (fight) at the beginning but I was told I was too young. But because I saw my comrades come, I came here to fight alongside them.”

A child soldier interviewed for the video conveniently “smuggled out” of Tigray and “obtained” by AP.

Not once does the AP remark on the fact that this is open use of child soldiers, a contravention of international law. Nor does the reporter bother to get a comment from a UN official or even an analyst on the clear use of child soldiers. Instead, we get more “journalistic stenography” from the TPLF perspective.

A graphic with Meron Mezgeb’s face, taken from a still of the video, has already been mocked up and shared online.

The individual posting this had a remark of their own: “If I am old enough to get raped, I am old enough to fight.”

Yeah, turn that one over in your mind for a while. And how horrible it is to exploit children like this.

And to put weapons in their hands.

This is what Ethiopia is up against. This is what the U.S. is defending.

But if Abiy acts strategically, says Kakoiba, he’ll keep his federal troops behind the contested border lines. People should recall that Ethiopia’s prime minister promised those lines wouldn’t be debated on until after the conflict.

Ethiopia’s Amhara people, however, are pissed. And they’ve got a case, as incidents of ethnic cleansing even before Tigray racked up a depressing body count, and subsequent incidents all during the conflict have still been mostly ignored by the Western media.

Abiy will need to placate the Amhara with the promise that restoring the original boundary lines will be a priority agenda item after the Tigray crisis is resolved.

But this will also mean the international humanitarian community will have to wake up to the monster it chose to lie down with. It demanded a ceasefire; it got one. Now it’s wedded to a beast partly of its own creation, one it helped supply with food, with safe sanctuary for TPLF fighters, and, in all probability, smuggled weapons. When the hangover hits, it’ll be a doozy, and there won’t be any federal forces around to blame anymore.

That’s why Kakoiba says, “Seal the borders.” He suggests Eritrea may well request the African Union deploy a force of military observers to patrol its border with Tigray, and that could soon exhaust the insurgency.

“Ethiopia has made it thus far — against the odds — since the TPLF cowards attacked the Northern Command back in November,” says Dawit Tesfaye. “Even when they cross the Tekeze and engage in guerilla tactics in ‘Western Tigray,’ all Ethiopians must understand that they will not unseat Eritrea and Amhara-backed ENDF positions there. First, this is the Golan Heights of the region whereby those who control the strategic positions there will ultimately control the broader region. Second, this is also spiritual warfare for the Amharas who are fighting for their land, dignity, and identity.

“The more the locals suffer under TPLF assaults, the more the ranks of the Amhara militia will swell with impassioned fighters with a deeper sense of purpose and morale. Third, the TPLF is totally encircled. Some arms will inevitably enter into Tigray, but for the most part, the TPLF is choked off from meaningful supply lines and is greatly weakened to the point of being castrated. Last, the TPLF is not fighting a ‘just war.’ They are cruel and bound by neither morality nor principle but rather led by dishonest, opulent leaders who are detached from the masses and who depend on external forces for their survival rather than their own people. For these reasons, the Ethiopian people should be confident in themselves and their leaders.”

Tesfaye advocates patience. All Ethiopians should “refrain from believing every passing rumor spread on social media and in the Western press. A strategic retreat and silence does not equal defeat. Stop the defeatism. War is complex and the devil is in the details. How many times have rumors promoted by the New York Times and the TPLF been proven false one day, week or month later? How many times have seemingly bad moves by federal forces been proven wise after the fact?

“Twitter is a medium designed to focus on the individual, which reflects Western tradition. However, the Ethiopian tradition and culture is one that focuses on the collective community, discipline, and patience with leadership. In these perilous times in which psychological warfare is intense, this Ethiopian tradition must come into play.”

“The rest of Africa is watching,” says Andrew Kakoiba. “They know very well what the U.S. and EU are doing, and they don’t want to be next. Remember last year when the analysts talked about a regional conflict? They’ve practically ensured one, but not the way they wanted or expected. This will bring Africans together, and I promise you, the Westerners won’t like it.”




Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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Jeff Pearce

Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.

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