Monday, 18 March 2013

Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portugese Way of War 1961-1974 - John P Cann

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Army Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Canadian Army Journal ( Website for the Journal is:
Title: Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War 1961-1974
Authors: John P Cann
ISBN: 9781907677731
Pages: 210
Illustrations: 18 b/w
Publisher: Helion Books

     In 1961 Portugal became embroiled in insurgency wars within its three African colonies of Angola, Portuguese Guine and Mozambique. At the time Portugal was one of the poor men of Europe having one of the lowest industrial and GDP rates amongst the NATO countries. Additionally, it had not been involved in any significant level of combat operations since the First World War. Having been the first European nation to establish a colony in Africa (in 1497) and having at one time been considered a world power through its colonial wealth, Portugal had witnessed gradual a diminishment in its standing to the point where its three remaining colonies represented both a source of economic prosperity but also world clout.

     As a result of a steady retrenchment of European colonial powers out of Africa throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Portuguese recognized that they would have to prepare themselves for the eventuality of having to deal with discord within their own colonies. Once the decision had been made that the Ultramar (the Portuguese term for their colonial holdings) were an integral part of Portugal, they set about determining the best method to maintain control. Having a military of only 79,000 personnel trained and equipped for a conventional war within the NATO construct and being faced with lines of communication stretching 7,300 km to Angola, 3,400 km to Guine and 10,300 km to Mozambique the Portuguese faced daunting tasks logistically, doctrinally and economically to support operations.

     Recognizing this, the Portuguese command staff made a deliberate decision to realign its military doctrinally to address the challenges of asymmetric warfare before they became engaged in them. First and foremost it proactively sent teams from its strategic headquarters to colonial sites presently engaged in or having recently completed colonial conflicts (Algeria, Indo-China, Kenya and Malaya for the French and English). It then drafted lessons learned from these conflicts, extrapolated out their application to Portugal and published a centralized doctrine for the Portuguese military that captured these lessons. Additionally, it consciously recognized that, unlike many her colonial partners, Portugal lacked the economic and military depth to carry on protracted warfare. Therefore, the doctrine was developed around two key factors: 1. That intervention must remain a subdued, low-tempo conflict and 2. It had to remain inexpensive and therefore economically viable.

     The result of this effort came to be known as the Portuguese way of war; unique amongst the colonial powers. Its success was such that Portugal was able to conduct effective colonial operations continuously from 1961 until 1974. So successful were they, that by 1974 (from a military standpoint) the conflict in Angola had been won, in Guine the rebels had been stalemated and in Mozambique the conflict had resulted in a Portuguese success. That Portugal departed its colonies in 1974 was not the result of a lack of military success but a political failure to effectively take advantage of the conditions created (a military coup in Portugal in April, 1974 resulted from the political intransigence).

     Cann’s book focuses exclusively on the military aspect of these operations breaking them down into subcomponents such as logistics, doctrinal development, intelligence and social operations.  His in-depth analysis of these provides the reader with a clear understanding of the level of effort put forward by the Portuguese in proactively seeking to prepare and address the issues relating to onward colonial control. Drawing upon extensive interviews, firsthand accounts, primary source documents and an extensive additional bibliography Cann is able to trace the degree to which the Portuguese assumed risk in deciding to reorient their entire defence policy and posture. He is also able to show; however, that these decisions were not made easily or casually but with a vast degree of research and thought. The reader is left with a profound respect for the professionalism and capability of the Portuguese military leadership.

      The Portuguese experience serves as the control measure by which insurgencies should be measured. Compared with other major insurgent conflicts of the period it ranks as the most successful when evaluated in terms of cost, human losses and success at ‘hearts and minds’ style of operations. By any measure the Portuguese intervention into their colonies was a success story (from a military perspective). Cann’s book is an outstanding study into the development and application of the doctrine and methods by which the Portuguese faced the challenges of the post-colonial world. His book should be mandatory reading for any nation looking to intervene into an asymmetric environment as it addresses both the social and military aspects of colonial/non-traditional style operations. Excellent production value and value for money; highly recommended.

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