Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Namibian Border War: An appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 3)

The Namibian Border War: An appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 2)

Taking a break from the never ending stories about crime and corruption in the New! Improved! South Africa! I had a look at some of the past political issues and found an interesting essay by Dr. Leopold Scholtz (Stellenbosch University) about the Namibian Border War. I'll be posting it in a series of 10 parts.

The South African doctrine

Before we come to the war itself, we will have to look briefly at how the South Africans translated these principles (from Part 2) into their own doctrine. To begin with, they studied the way the Portuguese and Rhodesians fought their wars closely and learnt many lessons, both about how to do things, but also about the mistakes made there.

Especially two writers exercised great influence, the American J.J. McCuen and Lieutenant-General Alan “Pop” Fraser, Chief of Joint Operations of the SADF in the sixties and a veteran of the British COIN campaign in Malaya in the fifties. McCuen proposed five strategic and four tactical principles when fighting revolutionary guerrillas. His tactical principles, which need concern us no more here, were, shortly, keeping the initiative, having good intelligence, maintaining mobility and achieving surprise. His strategic principles were the following:

· Having a clear political aim: In the light of the intense political nature of revolutionary warfare, McCuen places great emphasis on this aspect. Without it, neither the civilian administration of the government nor the military can properly deal with the evolving phases of the rebellion.

· Annihilation of the enemy and preservation of own forces: Obviously, the enemy forces will have to be destroyed, but not to the point of seriously weakening your own forces. The areas which have not yet be subverted, should be safeguarded and developed in order to prevent such subversion from happening. At the same time – and this proved to be very important to the South Africans – the internal and external political infrastructure of the rebels should be high on the agenda for destruction.

· Mobilisation of the masses: This principle rests directly on what Mao had said about the matter, that the active participation of the masses should be secured, especially as far as the so-called silent majority is concerned. In addition, the government should offer a vision which is more attractive than the one offered by the rebels. This should accommodate popular aspirations and eleminate genuine grievances.

· Get outside support: To get the political and moral support of neigbouring states is necessary to counter the external manoeuvres of the revolutionaries.

· Unity of effort: All means and instruments available should be effectively integrated into one consolidated effort. Government departments should not make ad hoc decisions which are not properly integrated into the central war effort, and this applies not only to military steps, but also those in the political, psychological, economic and organisational realms. This principle, when read together with the writings of Beaufre, was the foundation of the P.W. Botha government’s much maligned Total Strategy.

At the same time, General Fraser, who was, perhaps apart from General Jannie Geldenhuys, the only senior South African military man who approached the phenomenon of revolutionary guerrilla warfare with a more or less intellectual frame of mind, formulated the following points in a paper entitled Lessons learnt from Past Revolutionary Wars as summarised by Geldenhuys, Chief of the SADF in the eighties (McCuen’s influence is obvious):

· A revolutionary war is a political war;

· The purpose of both sides in a revolutionary war is to win the support, endorsement, sympathy and active participation from the population;

· The government should win the political iniative over the insurgents by having a cause which is even more attractive that the one inspiring them;

· The danger of complacency (refusal to recognise the true situation) must be avoided before and during a revolution;

· There must be a high-quality intelligence organisation; and

· Bureaucratic delays in a revolutionary war is as dangerous as subversion itself.

The following words of Stephen Ellis is a very good summary of the South African general security strategy as it developed during the seventies and eighties (the quotation is, of course, about South Africa itself, but is perfectly applicable to the South African strategy in Namibia as well):

In the view of the securocrats, then, the aim of violence was less to destroy the enemy’s armed forces than to win the support of the population by a mixture of political action, intimidation, propaganda and the symbolic manifestation of those socio-economic grievances which made South Africa fertile ground for revolutionaries. For the securocrats, most of whom were professional soldiers and policemen rather than politicians, the war was essentially a management in which the security and welfare functions of government had to be integrated for the overall purpose of preserving the life of the state. This is the ideology of sophisticated military rulers. They believed that it was above all the use of revolutionary violence and propaganda by the ANC and its allies which accounted for the ANC’s success in winning support from what they saw as an essentially manipulable black population, as part of what became, after the late 1970s, a classical revolutionary strategy.

It is clear that the South Africans, in theory, had developed a very sophisticated approach to Swapo’s onslaught which embodied a good understanding of revolutionary guerrilla warfare principles. The question is to what extent they practised what they preached.

To be continued...

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