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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.