Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961–1974

Fri, 05/10/2013 - 3:30am

Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961–1974, by John P. Cann, No. 167 of the Contributions in Military History series. Published by Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., Westport, CT, USA, 1997.

Naval aviator John P. Cann wrote a tremendously pertinent book for 21st century American counter-insurgency by deciding to focus his research on the Portuguese colonial war – the ‘Overseas War’. For over a decade Portugal fought guerrilla and terrorist movements across its old colonial empire - Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. These movements in the height of the Cold War had the backing of the Communist bloc as well as of much of the third world and were able to operate from sanctuary territories across sub-Saharan Africa. Along with Greece and Spain, Portugal was one of the poorest states in capitalist Europe and despite being a founding member of NATO the logistical challenge it faced was unparalleled; more so after the Kennedy administration implemented an arms embargo due to Lisbon’s refusal to accept the political parameters of the UN decolonization diktat.

The question the book attempts to answer then is how does a diplomatically isolated, economically limited, militarily feeble and domestically challenged regime manage to successfully fight a continent-wide insurgency on multiple fronts which additionally is financed and trained by one of the world’s superpowers, all with armed forces trained for a conventional theatre of war.

The author starts by explaining that Portugal had in spite of its anemic economy a considerable war chest as a result of strict financial management policies in the preceding decades. Salazar – the leader for life – viewed the colonies as an integral part of Portuguese territory and as key to the country’s future development. Equally important was the disunited nature of the insurgency against Portugal, which the regime’s military would come to exploit with exceeding efficiency. Conversely, the regime at home would also face some existential threats of its own with coups being attempted with some regularity against the government of the elderly Salazar and after his death, against his successor Marcelo Caetano.

Cann also does a good job at exploring the inception of Portuguese counter-insurgency doctrine, from primordial Portuguese officer schooling in US small wars doctrine – which would prove extremely relevant early in the war – through NATO inter-operability initiatives, to Portuguese officers training with French units in Algeria. Portuguese officers were trained by the British army as well but it was French Algeria that provided the Portuguese armed forces with specific training on counter-insurgency as per the Galula doctrine. Unfortunately while Cann succeeds in documenting the chronology of Portugal’s COIN training abroad and COIN teaching at home, he does not explore in depth the doctrinal debates that must have happened within the armed forces establishment. Galula’s approach was less than consensual even in France, and in a traditionalist and innovation weary country such as Portugal, the new approach brought forth must have had its degree of controversy. Would Atlantic values perhaps be more influential to the US trained Portuguese elite officers?

Cann continues by explaining that Portugal’s counter-subversion strategy was based on the principle of the indivisibility of the empire and relied on delicate military mobilization to the three theatres of war in Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. Thanks to French influence however, that strategy now included the widespread use of intelligence, counter-terrorism and black-ops tactics, as well as the crucial population centric warfare paradigm. The calculus was to slow down as much as possible the uprisings, by reshaping Portugal’s diplomatic alliances – for instance military cooperation with Rhodesia and procurement from alternative sources of weaponry in West Germany – dividing the rebels, improving the socio-economic conditions of the African natives and consequently force the rebels into a pro-Portuguese compromise in the aftermath.

The Portuguese adaptation of France’s guerre révolutionnaire existed in a bigger social component with both civil construction responsibilities – namely in infrastructures such as roads, sanitation, healthcare and education (although here the Portuguese diverted from the French by not making education an elitist privilege and instead extending it to the native population at large) – by the troops and a general psy-ops campaign to win hearts and minds among the civilians – which was designed according to French action psychologique standards. Portugal, in its process of adaptation, also modernized its forces by forming its first commando marines units – albeit not always successful. More controversial were the creation of black-ops units with locals, namely African marines and the so-called Flechas who were initially recruited among bushmen and harbored ethnic hatred against Africans. In fact Lisbon was cunning in turning the rebels’ natural strengths against themselves, as the fantastic variety of ethnicities and dialects in all the Portuguese territories made for a poor environment for a nationalist rallying cry.

African recruitment at large mirrored French numbers in Algeria and rose to outnumber guerrilla fighters 3 to 1, mainly because they operated alongside regulars in every deployment as spies, guides, interpreters – HUMINT was crucial given the underdeveloped nature of the colonial territories which made them unsuitable for SIGINT – other logistical functions as well as a fierce support fighting force – all part of the policy of Africanization of the war.

Cann does not delve much into the initial problems of the training though: the lack of special forces tradition within the Portuguese armed forces caused the first attempts at this type of training to produce unintended consequences namely the rare massacre of native civilians, thus undermining the population centric focus of the campaign.

The aldeamentos (village settlements) Cann reveals, were the practical implementation of the Portuguese doctrine adapted from French and NATO teaching. The armed forces conducted a devolution of military defense jurisdiction to local authorities, populations and paramilitary forces. The formal military institution was meant then to conduct only operations of strategic value with rapidly deployable forces into territories the size of continental Europe while the natives were isolated from the insurgents in protected zones, much like the British had done in Malaysia or the French in Algeria with tactical population relocations. This strategy was for the most part successful and indeed the war never reached the major cities, the insurgents having always failed to capture significant tracks of territory. Portuguese General Spínola was perhaps the most notable adaptor of COIN doctrine.

The caminhadas or patrols were already then, the Portuguese way of displaying territorial presence and deny the opposition a monopoly over the native hearts and minds. As the territories were massive and the danger of ungoverned spaces was big, in many cases this principle was applicable by the utilization of helicopters, where France became vital given its availability for procurement; even if these were less useful in theatres of dense vegetation like Guinea.

Also part of the Portuguese adaptation was the mixed component of military units with miscegenation being practiced, contrary to both French and British doctrine.

Indeed, throughout the book, Cann takes special care to compare the Portuguese experience to that of other nations in a counter-insurgency effort. He does it too in a chapter entirely dedicated to military intelligence which he describes as very effective when properly coordinated with the efforts of psy-ops as well as those of the political police/counter-intelligence (PIDE). PIDE accomplished a number of intelligence coups by sowing discord within rebel ranks in their foreign sanctuaries and managing the assassination of a number of them when crucial. In Cann’s opinion, a 13 year war waged by a small nation could never have succeeded otherwise. It is estimated that the ‘social operations’ side of the war actually amounted to as much as 80% of all the war effort.

Most historians agree that the general draft enforced in Portugal would in time lead to the subversion of the state apparatus and of the armed forces establishment given the Marxist influence in the country’s universities where officers were recruited from. Indeed the coup that finally overthrew the regime was also known as the ‘captains’ movement’. As with the experience of other Western states when fighting with COIN tactics, the defeat of Portugal was very much political rather than military and – yet again proving relevant to contemporary realities – it came through civil subversion at home, rather than military defeat overseas. Portugal differed in that unlike France and the US, the subversion arrived not via student disobedience and political pressure in the streets but ideological infiltration and subversion at the very heart of the low rank military establishment.

For all these reasons, Cann’s book is very much a must read, especially considering the painfully limited Anglophone literature on the Portuguese Overseas War.

About the Author(s)

Miguel Nunes Silva has a M.A. in European studies from the College of Europe and is a researcher with Wikistrat Inc. having previously published with The National Interest and Small Wars Journal. He has worked with the International Criminal Court, the European External Action Service and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.



Sat, 05/25/2013 - 8:07am


Not surprising you'd find French reporting: not only were they interested given the many parallels between Portugal and France but they are also closer to Portugal and more attentive to what happens on their corner of Europe.
Wouldn't be surprised if you also found German and British coverage.


You are correct in that the 6th fleet is the one with jurisdiction over Africa but by mentioning the 4th fleet I meant the US is getting closer to African shores.


You raise an extremely interesting and relevant point. This is also a story about responsibility. The military had a job to do and so did the government. But let us step back and observe the context for a moment. What did the government request of the armed forces? Unlike in Vietnam, Lisbon was not going on a foreign adventure to an alien theater of war. Lisbon asked the armed forces to defend the national sovereignty, that was all; Remember that some of the colonial territories had been in Portuguese hands for half a millennium.
The Portuguese armed forces were on the defensive, not offensive. They were struggling in a continental wide campaign with multiple fronts, with only the resources of a small and impoverished European state. Doing all this against an insurgency financed and armed by a world superpower. That this defensive war was largely successful for over a decade is an outright miracle.
Now, the Portuguese armed forces did not give up or suffer dramatic defeats. They consistently did their best to carry out Lisbon's political agenda against terrible odds. The politics of Lisbon however, those did change, they changed inconsistently and did not even succeed to make use of the gains of the war to negotiate a better peace treaty. Lisbon simply abandoned the colonial territories and allowed a million people to be driven from their homes, with little concern for their fate - many of them ending up in the US btw.
I don't agree that the Overseas War is a political equivalent of the Vietnam War. A methodological analogy worth studying, but a very different political scenario in general.


Tue, 05/21/2013 - 12:10pm

Discovered today a series of French TV documentaries on the Portuguese war in Guinea-Bissau, one from 1969, others in 1974; needless to say in French so I had to guess what was being said. There are films taken from both sides!

This one has a grim ambush scene: The casevac Alouettes choppers arrive with nurses in white blouses!

There are at least a dozen films on:

There are other films; maybe eight on Angola and four on Mozambique.


Tue, 05/14/2013 - 2:14am

In reply to by MiguelNS

Very minor point, but I think you mean 6th Fleet.


Sun, 05/12/2013 - 10:28am

In reply to by MiguelNS

I did not know about the conscription of intellectuals. If so, the term "faux pas" is truly an understatement. Both you and I could probably think of very blunt language - in English, Portuguese, and Spanish (my second language) - that is more accurate, but not appropriate for use here!:)

An interesting sequel to the story would be how the end of war cemented sub-Saharan Africa's place as a Cold War battleground. War did not end for Angola or Mozambique etc. - the new governments were, as you point out, Marxist. So the US ended up giving "covert" aid to people like Jonas Savimbi. The FRELIMO-RENAMO battle in Mozambique is another example. One wonders if the story would have been different if Salazar had gotten the message earlier. Nice work, again.


Sun, 05/12/2013 - 5:33am


I appreciate your input. I would only contend that the US has nothing to learn. The US is apparently turning its attention towards Africa (4th fleet, AFRICOM) and doing so at a time of sequester and financial constraints, not to mention the emerging threat from fundamentalist Islam there.
I absolutely believe the US can draw many lessons from Portugal's experience.


Very interesting comments! It would be very interesting to have someone write a comparative analysis of Western COIN with alternative models such as Chechnya or Sri Lanka. Still, remember that Portugal is also an Atlantic state and is a better fit for US doctrine than Russian tactics or the Chinese model.


Insightful views on leadership. However I tried to allude to this in the review: it would be simplistic to say the regime was overthrown by its own military. The first attempts at a putsch actually came from westernized officers who had served in NATO and professed Atlantic ideals. However, these officers and high-ranks failed in the attempted coups.
The ones who actually succeeded came from initial war conscripts who had since been promoted to lower ranks such as captain - hence the name 'movimento dos capitães'.
The professional armed forces were not necessarily displeased with the regime. It was rather intellectuals who were conscripted as punishment who later subverted the institution from the inside. This was indeed a faux pas by the regime...


Sat, 05/11/2013 - 8:17pm

This is an excellent review for an excellent book. But there is one issue about the 1961-74 Portuguese Colonial War that is a major "elephant in the room" with respect to relevance to the U.S. We are in no way close to having a government akin to the Portuguese Estado Novo and thank heavens for that. But the 1974 Carnation Revolution (i.e., military coup -, I am afraid, has some "warnings" for the US.

The Spanish and Portuguese dictatorships from the 1930's to the 1970's were ideologically similar. That said, Spain's General Franco, despite his many sins, still commands respect as a personally honorable military leader who was willing to lead from the front. Morocco's current "love-hate" relationship with Spain today, given Spanish and former Spanish possessions on Moroccan territory, in part stems from Franco's leadership during the 1920's Rif War - the countries dispute territory, but Morocco's royal family was personally close to Franco, and now the Spanish royal family, despite the continuing territorial disputes.

Salazar, his successor Caetano, and their circle, however, were a bunch of technocrats and university professors. And they were overthrown by their own military in the Carnation Revolution because their military had had it with dying in useless colonial wars for some elite that was insulated from having its children serve themselves.

I fear that today's US civilian governing elite, obsessed with such things as "humanitarian intervention," is similarly out of touch. Again, I do not predict a US Carnation Revolution. But I do fear a serious and irreparable rupture in U.S. civilian policymaker-relations. I'd love to hear any insights on that thought.


Fri, 05/10/2013 - 11:34am

In reply to by davidbfpo

<blockquote>What is noticeable in the very limited writing - in English - on the three wars is how little attention is paid to Guinea-Bissau. Why? IIRC the campaign there failed, just looking at the geography helps to explain and there Portugal had little to offer the locals.</blockquote>

The PAIGC benefitted from good leadership, as well. Amílcar Cabral was a sharp tack.


Fri, 05/10/2013 - 6:24am

It is a long time since I read this book alongside a few others written before the decision in 1974 to exit from Africa, mainly IIRC by rather politically conservative American writers.

What Portugal did was amazing, but it was a dictatorship at the time. Colonial rule by the 1960's was history, for a host of reasons and the USA was a staunch advocate of self-determination, national independence and more for a long time. Throughout Portugal's wars in Africa the USA effectively "looked the other way" and obstructed any spillover from NATO into these wars.

For the USA today the political context is so different that I doubt if there are lessons can be learnt.

Politics aside for a moment. Could the USA fight an insurgency abroad with so few resources, a small military "footprint", with ample locally recruited, capable partners, using 'social' options instead of coercion and with a narrative that provides a motive for the local populace to choose them over their opponents?

I use the word 'amazing' having spoken to some Rhodesian and South African soldiers who visited the Portuguese campaigns in Angola and Mozambique in the late 1960's. So much was being done with so little, sometimes. The conscripts from Portugal did little and left much of the 'social' aspects let alone effective patrolling or other combat to their African allies.

What is noticeable in the very limited writing - in English - on the three wars is how little attention is paid to Guinea-Bissau. Why? IIRC the campaign there failed, just looking at the geography helps to explain and there Portugal had little to offer the locals.

With the exception of the small number of ex-Portuguese black African soldiers who left Angola to fight as 32 Battalion in South African service, we know very little about what happened after 1974 to those who fought for Portugal.

In an odd way Portugal is returning to Africa, with the young and skilled emigrating to Angola (oil rich) and Mozambique due to high unemployment and the economic crisis. Perhaps they will become 'key to the country’s future development', a development Salazar and many Portuguese would find very hard to contemplate.