Ethiopia’s Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) are carrying out yet another successful counter-offensive against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its allies. The current counter-offensive, which is coordinated with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), may result in the fall of the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the fragmentation of Ethiopia.
In early October, Abiy Ahmed and his government launched an ill-advised offensive on TDF positions in the northern districts of the Amhara region (TRT World, October 9). This offensive was meant to expel the TDF from the Amhara region and force its fighters to retreat within the borders of the Tigray region. The government-backed offensive incorporated elements of the ENDF and regional militias, namely ethnic-based militias from the Amhara region.
Despite an aerial bombing campaign as well as the use of newly acquired drones, the government-backed offensive failed to force the TDF to retreat from its positions in the Amhara region (ORYX, October 5). Instead, the TDF, which launched a similar counter-offensive in June, maneuvered around, behind, and through the ENDF and militia positions and provoked a disorderly retreat. The retreat allowed TDF forces to rapidly move south toward the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, which they claim to have captured on October 30 and 31, respectively (Al-Jazeera, October 31). Both Dessie and Kombolcha are on the A2, a major road that leads to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, roughly 200 miles to the southwest. On November 2, Abiy Ahmed’s government announced a sweeping state of emergency and called on all residents of Addis Ababa to register their weapons and prepare to defend the city (Addis Standard, November 2).
The TDF: A Formidable Foe
The TDF’s senior officers draw on decades of experience with traditional and guerrilla warfare. Its military leadership, which includes former general officers from within the ENDF, is keenly aware of the weaknesses of the ENDF and its attendant militias. These weaknesses include poorly defined chains of command and a pronounced lack of coordination between the ENDF and the militias, a problem that has worsened over the last four months. The ENDF also depends on heavy weapons and fixed positions that are not suited to the terrain or insurgent warfare.
In contrast, the TDF relies on small, well-trained, and lightly armed units that can quickly cover large amounts of ground. These units, which are the eyes, ears, and tip of the spear for the TDF, operate independently, infiltrate enemy lines and positions, and launch hit and run attacks. These attacks frequently cause ENDF soldiers, most of whom are conscripts from other ethnic regions, to abandon their positions. The TDF also uses these units to soften up ENDF formations and sever supply routes ahead of deploying their mainline soldiers against hardened positions. 
These tactics were previously used by the TDF in its June counter-offensive against the ENDF and ethnic militias. That counter-offensive resulted in the TDF retaking the capital of the Tigray region, Mekelle (Addis Standard, June 28). The TDF continued to retake and capture new territory in July when its forces moved into northern Amhara and the Afar region. Rather than adapt to the TDF’s tactics and learn from previous mistakes, the ENDF and the government of Abiy Ahmed persisted in utilizing the same failed tactics that they had previously used: massed frontal assaults on the far nimbler TDF. The only change the ENDF appeared to make was the use of more drones in an attempt to track and target TDF leaders and elite units.
At the same time, the Abiy Ahmed government ratcheted up anti-Tigrayan rhetoric. In July, Abiy Ahmed, despite being a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019, referred to Tigrayans as “Ethiopia’s cancer” (All Africa, July 19). This kind of rhetoric, along with a deadly blockade of the landlocked Tigray region, worked to drive TDF fighters forward. For the TDF, failure on the battlefield would mean that many of their families starve (Ethiopia Insight, February 18).
In contrast, ENDF soldiers are conscripted from multiple ethnic regions and lack the esprit de corps and determined leadership that the TDF enjoys. Many of the soldiers—the recent conscripts—do not share a common language and are from distant parts of Ethiopia. The conscripts and recruits suffer from poor training, low or non-existent pay, and an untrusted officer corps. The TDF, whose leadership, officers, and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) possess knowledge of the inner workings of the ENDF, have taken advantage of all these weaknesses. At the same time, the TDF maintains high levels of discipline within its ranks and its leadership is careful to ensure that POWs and fleeing soldiers are well-treated by its forces (Al-Jazeera, July 10). This is not to say that the TDF and allied forces have not committed abuses; however, the TDF leadership understands how important the psychological and moral components are to winning an insurgency.
Will Addis Ababa Fall?
The rapid advance of the TDF southward indicates that the ENDF is broken as an effective fighting force. Further, the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF), one of the most capable in East Africa, has failed to provide consistent air support for the retreating ENDF. It is likely that this lack of support is an early indicator of splits within the armed forces and Abiy Ahmed’s government.  With adequate air support, the ENDF and allied militias should have been able to stop the TDF’s headlong rush south. Instead, the ENDF continues to retreat south and west toward the capital. Much of the ENDF’s heavy weaponry and thousands of soldiers have been captured or stranded behind what are now enemy lines.
Most worrying for Abiy Ahmed’s government is the fact that the TDF has linked up with the OLA south of the town of Kombolcha. The OLA broadly supports self-determination for the Oromo people. The Abiy Ahmed government’s attempt to dismantle Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism reinvigorated the OLA. While there is plenty of bad blood between the TDF and the OLA, the two groups still managed to announce an alliance in August 2021 (Ethiopia Insight, September 2).
Concurrent with the TDF’s advances south, the OLA has captured territory northeast and northwest of Addis Ababa (Somali Guardian, November 2). OLA forces currently operate less than forty miles northwest of Addis Ababa.  The OLA has also moved to secure southern sections of the A2 road in what appears to be close coordination with the TDF. A majority of the ENDF conscripts and recruits are Oromo, which is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. The OLA does and will encourage Oromo ENDF soldiers to desert and defect. The rates of desertion and defection will increase as both the OLA and TDF exert more pressure on what remains of the ENDF.
If the ENDF and Amhara militias do not stop the TDF and OLA advance along the southern A2, Addis Ababa could be overrun within days or, at most, weeks. At the same time, the ENDF must also contend with increased OLA activity to the west, northwest, and south of the capital. The TDF uses small teams of advance units to conduct reconnaissance deep within enemy territory. Given the alliance between the OLA and TDF, it is likely that TDF units are operating south of the city where critical military facilities are located, such as the airbase at Bishoftu.
Barring a negotiated settlement, the future of Ethiopia as a unified state looks grim. The window for negotiations with the TDF and its political arm has probably closed. The TDF knows that the ENDF is a spent force and that it must push forward at all costs. The decision of Abiy Ahmed’s government to pursue a punitive war in Tigray left the TDF with few choices but to fight. The threat of famine and the rhetoric that gestures toward ethnic cleansing foster an intense clarity of purpose. The coming days and weeks will be critical to determining Ethiopia’s future as a unified state.
Unlike in 1991, when the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) helped oust Mengitsu Haile Mariam, the TDF and its political arm do not enjoy widespread goodwill. Ethnic tensions across Ethiopia are at a breaking point. Global food inflation and a moribund economy will further aggravate ethnic and regional tensions. Without negotiations between all warring parties, Ethiopia will face years of instability as competing ethnic and political groups attempt to carve up what was once a unified state. As the anchor state in the Horn of Africa, prolonged instability in Ethiopia will have a profound impact on the countries that make up the Horn of Africa.
 Author interviews with multiple analysts based in the region, November 2021.
 Author interview with an in-country analyst, October 2021.
 Author interview with an in-country analyst, November 2021.