The Portuguese Overseas War: A model for future conflict?

From 1961 to 1974 Portugal fought a war to retain its African colonies. Could the Portuguese experience point the way forward in counterinsurgency practice?

As John P. Cann – upon whose works most of this article is based – reminds his reader in many of his books, Portugal was the first European power to arrive in Africa. It was also the last to leave. When Holden Roberto’s armed columns stormed across the Congo/Angola border on 4 February 1961, a thirteen year war started for Portugal. At the time, Portugal was the poorest country in Western Europe. It also had a small population. Portugal’s authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Antonio Oliveira Salazar, resolved to fight for Portugal’s overseas colonies. As part of the doctrine of lusotropicalism Salazar’s government repeatedly affirmed that the colonies were not colonies at all but overseas territories of Portugal. Given the wider decolonisation taking place in Africa, ‘the winds of change’ as UK Prime Minister Harold McMillan called them, and U.S. pressure on its allies – Portugal included – to wrap up and grant independence to its colonies, Portugal was very much swimming against the tide. It would also mostly have to fight the war alone.

To make matters worse, Portugal faced insurrections in Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. The territory that Portugal would have to try to hold onto was almost as large as western and central Europe combined.

Yet mostly Portugal succeeded, with very scarce resources, in building up forces in its colonies and then successfully containing and in some cases rolling back the insurgencies. While this came at a very significant cost to Portugal – between 5.2-6.0% of GDP was devoted to defense spending between 1961-1974 in any given year – Portugal still was using far fewer overall resources to successfully hold more territory than the Americans were able to concurrently in Vietnam or even the far more competent French had managed to do.

In brief, Portugal was able to accomplish this due to years of careful planning and study of both the countries the Army (as it was primarily the Portuguese Army) would have to operate in and the counterinsurgency campaigns of Britain and France. The Portuguese learned and adopted aspects of British and French counterinsurgency practice but ultimately opted to conduct things in a way that is particular enough that Cann believes it is its own school of counterinsurgency. Taken from Cann’s 1997 thesis, the main points of this Portuguese Way of War are as follows

  1. The Portuguese recognised only two phases of what they called ‘subversive war’ – the pre-insurrectional and insurrectional phases. In the pre-insurrectional phase the emphasis was on preventive policing and non-violent action in the insurrectional phase the military became the leading arm of the government. Its aim was to “[reclaim] the population and destroying the insurgent infrastructure. Portuguese doctrine calls for action on the military, psychological, social and political fronts.”
  2. There is an emphasis on minimal violence and ‘calming’ the population during the insurrectional phase. Heavy use of violence will, even if targeted as precisely as possible, frighten the local population and drive them away towards the insurgents to flee government forces because of the sheer destructive firepower government forces are bringing to bear. Thus firepower – for reasons of cost and for strategic reasons – is de-emphasised. The Portuguese soldier, by his presence, is also meant to be a calming influence, and he was supposed to voluntarily help the population with their everyday problems.
  3. While calming the population, the insurgent is to be denied access to it. Peaceful, organised and assisted population relocation is thus part of the doctrine and constant patrolling at distance from villages and small settlements by the local garrison to keep the insurgents at a distance at all times from the population. That way they cannot insert themselves, harm, or rouse up the population.
  4. There are to be no large scale ‘sweep’ operations designed to find insurgent forces. This is both because of how expensive and hard to conceal such operations are and because it drains resources away from the primary mission of keeping insurgents separate from the population and in providing support to local garrisons.
  5. Where there are different insurgent groups or factions within them everything is to be done by the nation’s intelligence services to heighten and exacerbate those differences so that the insurgents fight each other instead of the government. If insurgents are successfully being kept at distance from the population they are also destroying themselves separate from the population out of sight, and out of mind, helping keep the situation ‘calm.’

To a very large extent the above was implemented but not always consistently. For example, in the initial response to Holden Roberto’s attack and the atrocities committed by his columns the Portuguese did engage in what their doctrine discourages – that is a French like ratissage or ‘raking over’ where extreme violence is applied to scatter, destroy and terrorise both insurgents and the population. Portuguese soldiers committed various crimes against the local population – albeit at a much lower rate than insurgent groups did. The Portuguese also sometimes engaged in large scale sweeps, most infamously in Mozambique in Operation Gordion Knot in 1970 to root out large formations of insurgents.

Nonetheless, the Portuguese were able to – at very low relative cost – largely make the war into a stalemate that they were slowly but surely winning.

That the Carnation Revolution ended this though is no accident. The cost to Portugal was significant and capital spent in the colonies, was not spent in the Metropole. While Portugal underwent an economic boom during the war, it was in spite of, not because of the war. Much capital was spent on military expenditures instead of further efficiency and investment drives in Portuguese companies, resulting in a number of missed economic opportunities.

While Portuguese military success should be studied more and admired, it is highly questionable as to whether any of the endeavour was ultimately worth it.

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