70 Years of US Covert War Against Eritrea

Despite setbacks, the CIA continued supporting the TPLF, allowing them to regroup and launch further offensives.

4 mins read
Satellite view of the Nabro Volcano taken on 24 June 2011. [ Image courtesy of NASA via CIA]

It has been at least 70 years since the USA began its covert war against Eritrea. One could argue that it started when one of the infamous Dulles brothers, both founding fathers of the US National Security Establishment after WW2, and at the time US Secretary of State, stated, “Eritrea deserves independence, but it is in the US national interest to give them to Ethiopia.” The US sought Ethiopia as its policeman in the strategically critical Horn of Africa and saw providing them not one but two ports on the Red Sea as an effective strategy.

Thus began the US covert war against Eritrea, which continues to this day. The US attempted to deny Eritrea’s existence by rejecting the Eritrean people’s right to self-determination, the right to their own country. Today, the US continues to undermine Eritrean independence by punishing its people through various economic warfare tactics.

To start with, the US has banned Eritrea from the SWIFT international financial transfer network, preventing Eritreans from wiring funds to their country.

Additionally, the US and its allies in Western governments continue to hinder Eritreans from paying their 2% income tax from abroad to their government, a requirement similar to that imposed on US citizens living abroad.

The Western financial institutions understand the significance of this 2% tax for Eritrea’s survival, as it injects hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the Eritrean economy during challenging times.

The US has been particularly focused on sabotaging Eritrea’s mining industry. It pushed through UN Security Council sanctions against Eritrea’s first mine, the Bisha gold mine. Subsequently, Eritrea’s potash mine, a significant international asset in the Danakil depression in Afar, was also targeted and successfully delayed for a decade, despite its potential to generate billions in revenue for Eritrea over the years. At Eritrean demonstrations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2015 and 2016, it was evident that the intent of the accusations against Eritrea by certain parties at the UN Human Rights Council was to hinder this economic advancement. This illustrates further covert warfare by the US behind the scenes.

The most significant phase of the US covert war against Eritrea began a few years after Eritrean independence in 1991. Starting in 1998, the US National Security Establishment, also known as the CIA, initiated an aid-to-arms financial diversion scheme to support the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF, which had seized power after Eritrea led the overthrow of the Col. Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, received billions of dollars to re-arm with the aim of invading Eritrea and reclaiming Ethiopia’s former colony. In the US’s view, Eritrea belonged to Ethiopia in the “national interest.”

In 1993, Eritrea gained international recognition as an independent nation with a seat at the UN General Assembly, a development that angered both recalcitrant Ethiopian imperialists and the TPLF ruling Ethiopia.

By 1997, Eritrea had issued its own currency, prompting the TPLF regime to intensify preparations for war. In 1998, they declared war against Eritrea and attempted an invasion. However, their army suffered a decisive defeat. With secret support from the CIA, the TPLF embarked on a serious rearmament campaign.

TPLF leader Meles Zenawi, who had been recruited by the CIA as early as 1980, rapidly rose to prominence with their support. Throughout the 1998-2000 war against Eritrea, Meles, documented as a coward, sent his largely press-ganged army of Oromo youth to charge Eritrean trenches in human waves, a tactic that continued thereafter. The result was mass slaughter reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I.

When this tactic failed, Meles turned to the CIA for further support, particularly to Gayle Smith, who had personally recruited him and risen to a senior position in the US National Security Establishment. With their backing, Meles procured billions in military equipment, constituting the largest covert arms supply campaign since the US supported religious extremists in Afghanistan against the socialist Afghan government backed by the Soviet Union.

Subsequently, thousands of tanks, heavy and light artillery, dozens of fighter bombers, and hundreds of attack helicopters were supplied to the TPLF military. In 1999, a new attempt to invade Eritrea was launched but was quickly crushed by the Eritrean Defense Forces.

Enraged by another defeat, the TPLF, backed by the CIA, launched the “3rd Offensive” in 2000. This time, considerable CIA resources were invested in ensuring the TPLF’s success, including satellite intelligence analysis pinpointing Eritrean defenses. In June 2000, the TPLF breached Eritrean defenses, displacing around 40% of the Eritrean population from their homes. However, the Eritrean Defense Forces ultimately crushed the offensive in the Battle of Tsorona, wiping out some 20,000 TPLF fighters in one day.

Following this, the TPLF demanded UN peacekeepers to prevent a counteroffensive by Eritrea. Behind the scenes, the US threatened to bomb Eritrea if it launched a counterattack. The UN sent peacekeepers to occupy Eritrean soil, and a peace treaty was signed in Algiers in 2002, although it was not enforced.

The war then evolved into a “no war, no peace” situation, with Eritrea maintaining a large national service army on its borders to prevent further TPLF incursions. However, the US covertly supported this situation, refusing to honor the Algiers Peace Agreement and attempting to cripple the Eritrean economy.

The withdrawal of the TPLF from national power in 2018 marked a turning point. President Isaias Afwerki famously declared “Game Over” for the TPLF during his Martyrs Day address in June 2018, leading to improved relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In November 2020, while the world was focused on the US election, the TPLF launched a coup attempt against the Ethiopian government of Abiy Ahmed. This CIA-backed operation aimed to maintain US influence in the Horn of Africa. Eritrean Defense Forces intervened at the invitation of Abiy Ahmed, preventing the TPLF from seizing power.

Despite setbacks, the CIA continued supporting the TPLF, allowing them to regroup and launch further offensives. However, the TPLF was eventually forced to sue for peace, though the US was determined to prevent it.

Today, the US proxy against Eritrea, the TPLF, is no longer a serious threat. However, the US continues to punish Eritrea with economic sanctions. Nevertheless, Eritrea persists in resisting the US covert war, marking 33 years of independence and success against US aggression on May 24.

Thomas C. Mountain

Thomas C. Mountain is an historian and educator who lived and reported from Eritrea from 2006 to 2021. He can be reached at thomascmountain at g mail dot com or you can follow him on Twitter at @thomascmountain

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