How the US enabled Ethiopia’s bloodletting, training its military while playing innocent observer

The Biden administration has sanctioned Eritrea and Ethiopia for alleged crimes against the Tigray people. But over the last three decades, successive US governments trained and modernized Ethiopia’s military under the cover of “peacekeeping” operations.

The World Food Program reported in October that 7 million Ethiopians across three northern states — Afar, Amhara, and Tigray — risk starvation, more than 5 million of whom are in Tigray, a region that borders Eritrea and consists of 7 million Ethiopians.

The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea are united against the potentially secessionist Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). As usual in war, ordinary civilians pay the price.

But over the years, the Pentagon has armed and trained the Ethiopian military. While feigning concern for human rights, Washington appears to be taking a “wait-and-see” approach, especially as the current Ethiopian government has fallen out of favor with the United States.

History shows that successive US governments have had an ambivalent relationship with Ethiopia, but over the last three decades Washington has modernized the nation’s military and expanded its footprint under the guise of peacekeeper training programs and the blurring of civil-military infrastructure and aid projects.

Ethiopia: a “centerpiece of US policy” after WWII

Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous country and seventh-largest economy in terms of GDP, with the top 1 percent owning as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent. The average annual income of its over 110 million people is $850, with 26 million Ethiopians mired in absolute poverty. 

Its people include ethnic Oromo (around 35 percent of the population), Amhara (28 percent), Tigray (7 percent), Sidama (4 percent), and Welayta (3 percent), with dozens of other groups including Somalis making up the remaining percentages.

The CIA described post-WWII Ethiopia as “the centerpiece of US policy in the Horn of Africa.”

It borders Britain’s former colonies Kenya, Sudan and oil-rich South Sudan, and Somalia, which has a coastline on the strategic chokepoint, the Gulf of Aden.

Ethiopia also borders and used to control the former Italian and British colony Eritrea, which has a coastline on another chokepoint, the Red Sea, and borders the former French colony, Djibouti, which sits on both the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Djibouti hosts a US military base, as well as China’s sole foreign military base.

From the outset of the post-WWII, US-led world order, the US foreign policy establishment sought to balance its relationships with Ethiopia, then ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, and Eritrea, which Selassie annexed. At the United Nations, Washington suggested that Ethiopia be granted access to Eritrea’s ports but that occupied Eritrea gradually become a “federated” region of Ethiopia.

The main US military interest in Eritrea at the time was the Kagnew Station in the capital, Asmara. Kagnew afforded the Pentagon communications and interception capabilities across the continent and parts of the oil-rich Middle East, including spying on Soviet moves. Selassie sent over a thousand troops to back the Americans during the Korean War (1950-1953) and later in Congo.

In 1953, Ethiopia signed a Mutual Defense Agreement with the United States, receiving millions of dollars worth of arms and training for 23,000 troops under a Military Assistance Advisory Group designed, in large part, to keep the country out of the Soviet sphere.

Because Ethiopia was not considered to be vitally important to the US, the size of the military aid was considerably smaller than Selassie would have preferred. Selassie feared a lack of American support in the event of an Eritrean or Somali invasion.

Nevertheless, US Lt. Col. W.H. Crosson worked with Selassie loyalists to crush an internal coup against the Emperor in December 1960. Fearing that Selassie’s regime could fall, planners suggested that the US “seek to establish effective relations with the emerging group of middle-level, educated, reform-minded government and military officials who are the presumptive heirs to power.”

As we shall see, the current Washington policy towards potential allies also appears to be one of stepping back and waiting to see who wins.

The US manages “an embarrassing but reliable client”

Foreign “aid” may have the unintended consequence of helping poor people, but the underlying objective is propaganda. “Aid” has become a psychological weapon designed to present a positive image of what amounts to an occupation force. The second objective is to lay the infrastructural and cultural groundwork for private companies to take over public utilities and services.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) began operations in Ethiopia in 1962. A report two years later explained that “US objectives in Ethiopia” include maintaining access to Kagnew and nudging Selassie to adopt “reforms” so that the impoverished do no overthrow him, all the while preventing “civil disorder,” denying the Soviets access to Ethiopia, and ensuring the “[a]doption by the Ethiopia Government of positions favorable to U.S. interests.”

“Aid” in the form of water, sanitation, education, and medical assistance designed to foster “a pro-Western orientation” continued to flow.

In 1974, the young Marxist Colonel, Mengistu Haile Mariam, an ethnic Oromo, led the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army (Derg) and overthrew Selassie. The events triggered the so-called Ethiopian Civil War, which actually involved rival Eritrean independence groups who battled until the ephemeral peace of 1991.

Two academics from the period wrote: “the U.S. supports the Ethiopian military government by sending munitions to prolong the war. It is certain that Eritreans will neither forget nor forgive.”

A US Army publication notes that Derg soldiers, “a number of whom were trained by the U.S. military either in Ethiopia or in the US, … touched off a bloody purge in which thousands of Ethiopians were killed or tortured.” The “purge” included attacks on fellow Marxists of a different faction who were ethnic Tigray, leading them to form the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

In the words of the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expressed “uneasiness with Ethiopia’s violations of human rights and growing leftist tendencies.” Their strategy consisted of waiting and seeing how Mengistu’s regime played out, whether it would spout socialism while bending to Washington’s will or whether it would move closer to the USSR.

Until the civil war of 1977, the CIA regarded Mengistu as “a difficult, occasionally embarrassing, but relatively reliable client of the US.” After the Revolution, Mengistu turned to China, Cuba, and the Soviets. The CIA saw Ethiopia as a lost cause. “The elimination of Mengistu … would probably be followed by a military government with generally similar objectives.”

Between 1981 and ‘82, US “aid” to Ethiopia was terminated.

US schools peacekeepers in Ethiopia with an “absence of peace-enforcement training”

In 1991, an umbrella of ethnic political groups calling itself the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, led by an ethnic Tigrayan, Meles Zenawi, overthrew Mengistu. In 1993, US “aid” resumed on the condition of massive privatization to advance business interests like the pesticide industry.

Following the Rwanda genocide and the new doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” tested in Somalia through the US military’s “Operation Restore Hope,” American military training resumed, but this time under the PR-friendly banner of “peacekeeping.” It turned out that peacekeeping meant subsidizing weapons contractors.

In 1996, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher launched ACRI, the African Crisis Response Initiative, which “offers training and equipment to African nations who seek to enhance their peacekeeping capabilities.”

In 1998, 70 US trainers began instructing Ethiopian battalions and brigades. The Bill Clinton White House noted at the time: “Non-governmental and private organizations are invited to participate in the training.”

The weapons company Northrop Grumman boasted that that it “has supported the African Crisis Response Initiative/African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program since its inception in 1998 and designed the initial training and materials as well as conducted computer assisted peacekeeping exercises.”

Marine Captain Emmanuel T. Carper said of the PR, “In order to make ACRI more palatable and assuage fears of U.S military occupation of Africa, the decision was made to put ACRI under the management of the State Department,” instead of the Pentagon.

The program was delayed because in 1998, Eritrea fought what became a two-year border war with Ethiopia. In the end, the US was forced to cancel its ACRI program because “peacekeeper” training would look like what it actually was: warfighter training.

However, the US and Ethiopia initiated an annual exercise called Natural Fire the same year that ACRI fell apart. Now, under the auspices of “Justified Accord,” various African nations host annual joint exercises that include the militaries of non-African states, such as the UK and the Netherlands. In addition to training for “peacekeeping,” such as contributing to the African Union’s Somalia Mission, academic classes also refine military doctrine.

US Air Force Colonel Russell J. Handy cited ACRI’s “absence of peace-enforcement training,” which suggests that “peacekeeping” was a PR façade.

Under President George W. Bush (2001-2009), ACRI became ACOTA: Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance. In 2004, Marine Captain Carper, was assigned to ACOTA.

“I was the only active duty Marine on a team of 11 people. Nine were contractors from Northrop Grumman Technical Services,” Carper reflected.

Peacekeeping, he said, turned out to be training for “crowd control” at a base on the Bilate River, in Ethiopia’s central-southwest region. Carper concluded, “ACOTA was not an effective allocation of resources for a long term capacity building program, because it does not combat the root causes of insecurity in Africa which are poverty, illiteracy, and disease.”

Political warfare masked as humanitarian aid

Donovan C. Chau is an associate professor of political science at California State University, and former subject matter expert at the Army Medical Research and Development Command. In 2007, he wrote for the US Army War College’s Institute for Strategic Studies.

Chau explained that US military personnel had been digging water-wells and rescuing cheetah cubs from cruelty. At the same time, China was digging boreholes in Nigeria.

Chau defined both powers’ actions as “political warfare”: “Both the United States and the [People’s Republic of China (PRC)] were using nonviolent means in a coordinated (or semi-coordinated) manner to directly affect the targeted population. They were using political warfare to achieve their national objectives.”

Under the “political warfare” concept, troops on the ground are repackaged as providers of humanitarian relief in zones prone to drought, famine, viruses, and underinvestment. This occupation-by-assistance doctrine is a form of psychological warfare that cements bonds between local populations and foreign (in this case US) soldiers, who blend civilian infrastructure and logistics programs with quasi-occupation. Other units call it WHAM: Winning Hearts and Minds.

In addition to WHAM or political warfare, the US Army Africa’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) launched a “train the trainer” program.

The US Army said that with 200,000 personnel, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces are, “in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, a force for stability,” meaning a potential proxy for US wars in Africa.

In Guam, Washington’s Micronesian island territory, the 1st Infantry Division 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, and the Guam National Guard trained Ethiopian soldiers “in basic infantry tactics, non-commissioned officer skills and officer logistics.”

The US Army specifically cited “Muslim militants in Somalia, and the ongoing threat of war with its breakaway rival, Eritrea,” as justifications for military involvement in Ethiopia.

In June 2009, following requests from the Ethiopian government, the CJTF-HOA authorized non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to “mentor” their Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) counterparts.

NCOs from the 2nd Battalion’s 18th Field Artillery Regiment, Fort Still, Oklahoma, participated in a “train the trainer” program, teaching students about the roles of sergeant majors, a new rank in the ENDF. AFRICOM sergeants also assisted, teaching “operations, communication and logistics.”

In August, the program was expanded to include the Ethiopian Defense Command and Staff College. Initiated by US Army Central, four Army Reserve lieutenant colonels and a US Air Force lieutenant colonel trained their would-be counterparts in “strategy, leadership, joint operations, military communication, research methods and English.” In October 2009, AFRICOM assumed command of “train the trainer.”

AFRICOM takes charge

The Stuttgart, Germany-based AFRICOM assists the African Union’s Peace Support Operations Division through its C4 doctrine: Command, Control, Communications, and Computers. These communications are coordinated through Addis Ababa’s Peace Support Operations Center.

The transition to a whole-of-government approach included exercises broadcasting information about viral outbreaks. In such scenarios, the militarization of everything — from public health messaging to bridge building to famine relief — is normalized.

In 2010, 36 states met in Ghana for Africa Endeavor, an AFRICOM-led military coordination exercise with the African Union’s Standby Force. Endeavor used Ethiopia as a base from which to facilitate the Union’s first successful satellite link-up.

As the modernization of the military continued into 2011, international “aid” programs, including those of the World Bank and UK Department for International Development, supported Ethiopia’s so-called Protection of Basic Services (PBS) project, a scheme to push 1.5 million farmers and pastoralists off their lands into villages, supposedly for their own health.

In Gambella in the west, PBS was “accompanied by violence, including beatings and arbitrary arrests, and insufficient consultation and compensation,” in the words of Human Rights Watch.

In Negele, a town in southeastern Ethiopia, the US Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (“Seabees”) led a bridge-building project to connect two villages. Under this propaganda-in-action model, residents “welcom[ed] the Civil Affairs team and the Navy Seabee team to their community and expressed that the Negele community is now their home.”

The Civil Affairs Team chief, Major Antonio Gonzalez, noted that, in addition to the bridge, US-led teams distributed mosquito nets and founded a Veterinary Civic Action Program.

In August 2012, Specialist Anthony Serna of the 345th Tactical Psychological Operations Company (Airborne), said: “One of the biggest things I want to accomplish … is to get the local media involved; where traditionally I would put out a mission directly. (I want to) bring the reports to the local [Medical Civic Action and Veterinary Civic Action Programs] so they can tell their people in their own words with their own feelings.”

In other words, set the scene and let the “natives” tell the Pentagon’s story, so it doesn’t seem like propaganda.

In an example of merged military roles, Serna met with Civil Affairs Team Specialist Alissa Anderson and Seabee Petty Officer Kasey Dotson. Anderson said, “I feel that now I’m getting the full spectrum of what the military can do.”

The cynicism of “political warfare” knows no bounds. In September 2012, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa soldiers were sent to deliver “care packages to a local orphanage” in Dire Dawa in the northeast.

US Army Captain and 3-124th Cavalry Chaplain Brett Anderson said of US forces and the orphanage: “we spend a lot of time there.” Lt. Jose Muñoz revealed that the Seabees had “installed showerheads and electrics for a water pump.”

A schoolboy saw the US forces and was asked what he wanted to be when he matured. “Construction,” he said.

The US watches the blood flow in the Tigray war

The 28-year rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ethnic umbrella party, ended in 2019. The Tigrayan prime minister, Meles Zenawi, died in 2012.

With US military support, his successor, PM Hailemariam Desalegn, an ethnic Wolayta, oversaw what Human Rights Watch describes as “crackdowns on opposition political party members, journalists, and peaceful protesters, many of whom experienced harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecutions.”

Victims included Muslims, who were abused under “anti-terror” legislation, and ethnic Oromo, whose Liberation Front threatened the power of the central authorities.

The young ethnic Oromo, Abiy Ahmed Ali, took office in 2018. He soon won the Nobel Peace for negotiating a settlement with Eritrea, whose government had been supporting Oromo independence movements in a strategic move against the central Ethiopian regime.

Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and formed a new coalition, the Prosperity Party. Refusing to join, the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) saw Prosperity as an effort to destroy the ethnic federal model and an attempt to centralize power.

In November 2020, Tigray forces were held responsible for attacking a military base. President Abiy, the Nobel Peace Laureate, sent troops to the Tigray region.

Failing to mention the years of US training, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) acknowledges that “[a]buses against civilians in Tigray by government-aligned forces have reportedly fueled insurgent recruitment.”

Politically, many ethnic Afar and Amhara were aligned with the neighboring Tigray. Abiy has de facto embargoed the three regions, leading the Tigray Defense Force to try to break the blockade.

In May 2021, Abiy designated the TPLF a terrorist group.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has alleged “human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities” carried out against the Tigray people by the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, while emphasizing the importance of “the sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.”

Trying to balance all sides is a common theme. “[F]or the first time years,” wrote the CRS, the US “aid” program in Ethiopia does not include the International Military Education and Training program, implying that the atrocities against Afar, Amhara, and Tigray are being conducting in part thanks to previous US training.

But why would Washington care about the atrocities it spent decades indirectly helping to facilitate? The answer probably lies in Ethiopia’s shifting allegiances.

Noted above is long-standing concern over China’s alleged “political warfare” in Africa.

In September 2019, Fort Leavenworth’s Lewis and Clark Center hosted a panel discussion on Russian and Chinese “soft power” in Africa. In an effort to heighten concern among US foreign policy elites about alleged Chinese influence, the panel’s “target audience” included Army schools, Regionally Aligned Forces, universities, think tanks, and interagency partners.

Ethiopia’s friction with the US has been compounded by President Abiy’s recent military contracts with Turkey, which in recent years has drifted from Washington’s orbit, as well as growing alliances with Iran, a long-term US target.

Tensions manifested when Ethiopia snubbed Samantha Power, the hyper-interventionist head of the US Agency for International Development.

Although Ethiopia is located in a strategically important region, Washington has traditionally taken an ambivalent attitude because the country itself is less relevant to the US domination of Africa.

Ignoring its own role in enabling the ongoing wave of human rights abuses, Washington appears to be sitting back and watching the war unfold.

If the historical precedent is anything to go by, the current approach is to forge an alliance with the victor after the bloodletting finally ends.