When the Soviet Union and Cuba swept into Ethiopia three years ago, the entire balance of power in the strategic Horn of Africa appeared to be shifting in their favor. Today, however, the situation looks quite different.
The United States has carefully cultivated new relations with a ring of states on Ethiopia's periphery, from Sudan through Kenya to Somalia. But perhaps more important, a growing list of nationalist movements within Ethiopia itself is providing a mounting threat to the Soviet-backed Addis Ababa regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Meriam.
Eritrean nationalists have managed to frustrate a series of major Ethiopian military offensives in the Red Sea coastal territory, and they now appear to have a slight military advantage over the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Ethiopian troops based there.
The rapidly spreading guerilla movement in neighboring Tigre Province also has confronted the central government with a serious military and political crisis. The final straw may prove to be the emergence of a rebellious Oromo movement in northern Ethiopia.
There now are indications that these disparate nationalist movements are seeking a formal united front. Formation of such a front would amount to a formidable alliance that not only could topple the military junta but also would be a heavy blow to Soviet influence in the region.
At the same time, these generally left-wing movements appear to oppose any Western influence, due in part to past United States opposition to movements that might fragment Ethiopia and because the West so far has shunned any moves to help them.
In a month-long tour of the Eritrean war zone, the writer found the guerrillas here confident that the 19-year war for independence from Ethiopia finally may be turning in their favor. It also showed the extent to which the Eritreans have begun to view their struggle from a regional perspective.
The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) for the past six months has been training and arming recruits for both the Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), according to guerrilla leaders here. The OLF operates among the Oromos (Gallas) in Shoa Province.
They also have begun daily radio contact with the Tigrean guerrillas to coordinate their military operations, and there is talk of setting up a concrete agreement among EPLF, TPLF, OLF, and other antigovernment forces, which could include the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) in Ethiopia's southeastern Ogaden Desert region, as well as opposition groups operating from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
"We are optimistic that we will be able to form a united, joint struggle against the junta," said EPLF political bureau member Sebhat Efram during an interview near the battlefront. "We are ready to do anything for the consolidation of this unity," he added.
Meanwhile, the main problem for Eritreans, and by extension the other potential EPLF allies, is the continuing disunity within the Eritrean movement itself. Relations between the powerful EPLF and a second smaller movement, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), have now deteriorated to the point where a small-scale civil war may be imminent.
Amid continuing reports of a major Ethiopian buildup here, the EPLF appears to hols a decided edge. Visits to the two main sites of confrontation between the EPLF and Ethiopia found the guerrillas holding positions high in what appeared to be almost impenetrable mountains, while government troops were bivouacked on low-lying open plains.
Under such conditions, Ethiopia's vast supplies of Soviet armor, artillery, and jet aircraft ar of little use. The guerrillas are dug into an intricate network of underground trenches and stone-reinforced bunkers from which they routinely bombard their foe with captured artillery and mortars.
Return fire from the Ethiopian side seemed to bounce harmlessly off the hard-packed dirt and shale. Two days of this produced no casualties among the Eritreans who occupied themselves with such tasks as attending classes in mathematics and world geography, preparing food, and strengthening their already complex fortifications.
Increased couterinsurgency activity is also reported by the OLF in the south, though the OROMO nationalists do not appear to be engaging the government on anywhere near the scale of the Eritreans and the Tigreans.
The OLF, however, in the long run may hold the key to the demise of the regime, as over half of Ethiopia's population, and the Army as well, are of Oromo origin.
The ruling Ethiopian junta thus is walking a thin line now, and a major setback on any these war fronts could push them over the edge. What sustains them is only the continuing flow of Soviet arms and military advisers.
For the Soviet Union, more is at stake here than merely military success or failure. Ethiopia was to be a political base for expanded influence throughout the volatile region, and the increasingly unpopular junta was once touted as the new African Bolsheviks.
Instead, they have turned out to be a run-of-the-mill military dictatorship that has turned again and again to armed force to solve their multiplying problems.