Special Operations: Diagnosing Mozambique


May 7, 2021: The United States has sent nearly a hundred Special Forces, air force and military specialists to Mozambique in March 2021. Officially, some were there to train local special operations troops for two months. Most of the Americans were there assessing the situation for Africom (African Command), the American organization responsible to monitoring the military situation throughout Africa. Providing advice and training to African countries is done when a country requests it. Africom then determines what is going on there and what American military aid would be useful. The final decision is a political one and Africom reports on what it can do with forces available. In most cases Africom monitors or provides some training assistance for local forces. This is something the U.S. Army Special Forces has been doing since the 1950s. That training assistance often escalates to counterterrorism and less often to taking sides in a civil war.

Afrcom has been remotely monitoring the situation in Mozambique for years. The State Department and CIA do that as well, via embassy personnel who have diplomatic immunity. The embassy-based monitoring is more limited than what U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) personnel can do. These are U.S. Army Special Forces which has, since the 1950s, continued using methods first developed and widely applied during World War II, when American troops who spoke the local languages and understood local customs helped organize and supply local resistance forces fighting German or Japanese occupiers. Many of these Americans belonged to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which was created during World War II to collect information on resistance forces inside occupied countries, often by sending in OSS personnel to worth with local resistance groups and report back the state of the resistance and what further assistance might help. Britain had a similar organization that operated mainly in Europe.

OSS was disbanded after World War II, but once Russia started the Cold War several years later, by taking control of local governments in East European countries that had been “liberated” by Russian forces at the end of the war, the United States sought to revive the OSS. This became urgent after Russia ordered North Korea forces, and later Chinese troops, to try and take control of South Korea, where the last American trainers and advisors had departed in 1950. The Korean War went on for three years, killing about four million people, most of them civilians followed by Chinese and North Korean troops. About 36,000 American troops were killed along with 4.500 from other foreign contingents that joined the UN force opposing the invasion. South Korea lost 162,000 troops, North Korea about 200,000 and the Chinese over 400,000. The Korean war never officially ended; the 1953 agreement was a ceasefire with ceasefire line roughly where the 1950 border between the two Koreas was in 1950 was.

The lack of information about the pre-war situation was later found to be a major factor in the United States misunderstanding the situation in the region. This led to the expansion of the newly established CIA and creation of the Special Forces, both based on successful OSS activities during World War II. Since the 1950s the Special Forces, with its troops organized into separate groups, each specializing in the languages and cultures of one region has been a primary method of assessing what is actually going on in potential hot-spots. These assessments often contradict current popular beliefs and are discredited, minimized or ignored. History is all about misunderstanding what’s going on elsewhere.

Africom obtains Special Forces troops from the 3rd Special Forces Group, which specializes in African languages and cultures. Africa has hundreds of different local languages and most African countries use a local widely known foreign language, usually English or French, as a common language for business and government. In East Africa, former Portuguese colonies like Mozambique use Portuguese as a common language. Many local police and military speak or understand some Portuguese. The American Special Forces can send in some troops who speak Portuguese and this makes it easier to train local troops, usually in how to deal with Islamic terrorist tactics.

Special Forces training missions also obtain a lot of useful information on what is really going on in a country suddenly confronted with a rebellion, Islamic terrorists or other crises. While Special Forces troops are highly trained career combat troops, their primary skills are foreign languages and knowledge of local culture. Special Forces training missions are often accused of being mainly about espionage, but there’s nothing clandestine or hidden about how the Special Forces get to know the local troops they are working with and impart essential military skills to local troops who know these lessons could help them survive the violence going on or developing locally.

Which brings us back to Mozambique, a country torn apart by nearly half a century of warfare. Modern Mozambique came to be in the 1500s when Portugal, conquered and colonized the area, creating the current borders. This explains why the country consists largely of coast and interior areas reachable via rivers that enabled the early Portuguese to easily control areas its ships could reach. What ended Portuguese rule was an early 1960s anti-colonial movement throughout Africa that led most other European colonizers, but not Portugal, to depart. Portugal held on until 1975, when political unrest back in Portugal included calls for setting the colonies free. This meant nearly 300,000 Portuguese left Mozambique, taking with them a major portion of the new nation’s technical personnel and skilled administrators. Mozambique elected its own government but that only lasted two years before a fifteen-year long civil war began. This civil war was far more damaging than the shorter, and less successful anti-colonial war. The civil war killed over a million people and drove more than 20 percent of the population from their homes for months or years. Nearly two million of those refugees fled the country.

Mozambique has been suffering wars or threats of war since the 1960s. Mozambique is a largely coastal country north of South Africa and south of Tanzania. Most of the coastline runs parallel to the large island of Madagascar. The current population of 30 million is a lot larger, and less prosperous, than the six million living there in 1950. For over a thousand years Mozambique had, like many other parts of East Africa, consisted of coastal cities that prospered by serving as market places where people from the interior could obtain all manner of foreign goods. Mozambique was part of a vast trading network using dependable seasonable winds to allow ships to move good from East Africa to the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia and eventually Europe and the world.

The 1960s Mozambique rebellion against the Portuguese colonial government left about 60,000 dead, 94 percent of them rebels and civilians. The rebels were never a real threat to the colonial government but Portugal eventually realized that their African colonies were expensive to maintain and unpopular with European and African governments. Eventually most Portuguese agreed as well.

The first post-colonial Mozambique government was socialist and run by politicians who wanted to establish a communist police state “for the greater good.” This triggered a civil war in 1977 that killed over a million people, most of them civilians, before it ended in 1992. With the collapse of European communist governments and the dissolution of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991, the Mozambique communists agreed that their God was dead (but might get better) and accepted true democracy. Some tensions between communists and democrats remained and there were brief outbursts of violence in 2013 and 2018. A 2019 agreement eliminated most of that tension just as a new threat, from Islamic terrorists, was developing.

The current ruling political party in Mozambique is Frelimo, which is led by families that supplied leaders for the original anti-colonial rebels and the various post-colonial groups that fought each other for supremacy. Frelimo is hostile to any foreign military assistance, even by other African nations offering UN sponsored peacekeepers. Small numbers of foreign troops are tolerated as long as they make themselves useful and do not threaten Frelimo. Currently American and French special operations troops are welcome because the Americans have a reputation for helping and not causing trouble. The French are acceptable because a French led consortium, organized by Total, a major French oil and gas firm, has nearly finished work on a $20 billion investment to create the largest natural gas deposits in Africa into a producer of natural gas for mostly for export.

While Total brought in a lot of foreign technical and engineering personnel not available in Mozambique, a lot of less-skilled jobs went to locals. Frelimo insisted those jobs go to people considered loyal to Frelimo. That meant most of these jobs ended up going to Frelimo loyalists from outside the Moslem majority northern Cabo Delgado province where all the natural gas was. In Africa, that sort of thing does not end well.

Mozambique is already one of the most corrupt nations in Africa, a continent containing too many of the most corrupt nations worldwide. That corruption follows a familiar pattern once sudden wealth appears, usually in the form of previously undiscovered natural resources. Frelimo stays in power by distributing what money and resources it has to those who can help to keep Frelimo in power. The new natural gas wealth, several hundred billion dollars’ worth over the next 25 years, has led the Moslem minority, especially those in Cabo Delgado province, to get angry and many are angry enough to start another war. A little over half the 2.2 million people in Cabo Delgado province are Moslem and neighboring (inland) Niassa province is 60 percent Moslem. Niassa has only 1.8 million people and these two provinces are the only ones with a Moslem majority. Most (63 percent) of the 5.7 Mozambique Moslems are a minority in coastal areas south of the two Moslem majority provinces.

The previous Mozambique civil wars were mainly about politics and tribal alliances. Religion was not a major factor because more than four centuries of Portuguese rule had left the population mostly (60 percent) Christian, with about 20 percent practicing ancient local religions or no religion at all. About 19 percent were Moslem, mostly in the north. Until the huge natural gas deposits were discovered, the north was poor and not worth fighting over. In the last decade it became clear that Mozambique was really going become one of the largest natural gas producers in the world. Anyone who noted how this worked out in the rest of Africa realized this was going to make some Mozambique politicians very rich while everyone else remained poor. That got the northern Moslems receptive to calls for rebellion and that led to Islamic terrorists taking the lead, as they often do in Moslem majority areas. It only took a few years for several small Islamic terror groups to get organized and then agree to merge to form the larger Ansar-al-Sunna group. Starting out with less than a hundred gunmen and even more unarmed supporters, it took about four years of fighting, growth and a few spectacular victories for Ansar-al-Sunna to reach nearly a thousand gunmen. At that point the Moslem rebels decided to become an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliate called ISCAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province).

Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces are adjacent to Tanzania, a nation of 56 million and a larger (35 percent) Moslem minority. Islamic radicals from northern neighbors Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia were the key to creation of ISCAP. These other African terrorists tend to favor al Qaeda over ISIL but major victories in Cabo Delgado made the more vicious and fanatic ISIL more popular. Moslems are a minority in East Africa but an aggressive one when it comes religious matters. That’s a major reason why most East Africans are either Christians or follow ancient local religious practices. The Islamic terrorists still finance themselves via smuggling, extortion and outright theft and the coming natural gas income bonanza will provide more to steal.

Frelimo lost control of the situation in late 2020 because the 11,000 strong Mozambique armed forces are used more for policing than for soldiering. This is a typical move for African rulers, who note that a more professional military could become a threat to their power. That means the ten infantry battalions were not only poorly trained soldiers but were mainly used as poorly trained police. Three of these battalions were classified as “special operations” troops but that means they were considered more loyal to Frelimo and were treated better than other troops. As long as Frelimo kept each of these three battalions paying attention to internal threats, including the other special operations battalions, the government was safe. This was a typical technique for paranoid government to maintain their power. A flood of new natural gas income threatens to upset this precarious balance and ISCAP is a visible, painful and very dangerous example of how this works.

Frelimo knows that the few American and French troops they have let into the country are there to try and measure the severity of the threat to Frelimo rule. Frelimo expects to get details the assessment, which the United States and France hope will persuade Frelimo to make more rational and pragmatics decisions on how to proceed.

Meanwhile, in March 2021 Total declared Force Majeure (emergency beyond their control) and shut down the natural gas facilities. Nearly all foreign personnel were evacuated and only enough people left behind to monitor the unfinished natural gas extraction, processing and exporting facilities. Frelimo thought Force Majeure was premature but lawyers advised that Total was within its contractual rights to declare an emergency because ISCAP gunmen had recently come with six kilometers of the natural gas complex and their next attack may well take them into the complex.

Frelimo had already asked Portugal and the EU (European Union) to send military trainers and advisors. Those teams are no the way and Africom has to decide if the U.S. should join the effort.

Frelimo refuses to accept foreign troops, even UN supplied peacekeepers. Instead, Frelimo is seeking mercenaries but is not finding any numerous or reliable enough to get the job done. Russia had allowed the Wagner Group to supply several hundred Russia veterans but seven of these were killed and many more wounded in the recent effort to keep ISCAP from the Total compound. Wagner Group assessed the situation and reported back to Russia that the next attack would fall largely on the Wagner military contractors because they, and a similar number of South African mercenaries were the only reliable defenders in the area and the Mozambique troops appeared shaken and less capable of surviving another attack. Russia ordered the Wager Group forces out of the combat zone. The South Africans may follow and the situation is desperate.


Article Archive

Special Operations: Current 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close