Confidential

The Rhodesian Bush War & Intelligence Operations

The Rhodesian Bush War was a civil war in Africa taking place between July 1964 to December 1979. Primary belligerents were Rhodesia, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The ZANU and ZAPU were both African nationalist organizations that opposed the administration of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. The former came from Mozambique and was led by Robert Mugabe. The latter in Zambia, and led by Joshua Nkomo. Both nations formed an alliance for the war. This became the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) – the military wing of the coalition.

Key Judgements

KJ-1. Rhodesian intelligence failures likely contributed to their eventual defeat in the bush wars.

KJ-2. It is likely that the Special Branch was an effective intelligence asset for internal Rhodesian operations, and handled minor victories against the ZANLA.

KJ-3. It is highly likely that the Rhodesian Selous Scouts were the most effective intelligence capability on their side of war.

Rhodesian Bush War’s Historical Context

Because of the long history of the European colonialization of Africa, Rhodesia was a self-governing colony of Great Brittan from 1923 to the 11th of November 1965 in which case Prime Minister Smith declared independence. Great Britain met this declaration with resistance, refusing to recognize Rhodesia as an independent state. As a result, United Nations (UN) sanctions, trade embargos, and local condemnation occurred. Locals specifically felt the black population was under-represented compared to the dominating white population. This white population made up most of Prime Minister Smith’s government body.

The ZAPU and ZANU waged a guerrilla war against the Rhodesian government in response. This war had communist support from the Soviet Union and China, considering the ongoing Cold War. The fighting concluded on the 21st of December 1979 after the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement which opened a pathway to lawful Rhodesian independence. This concluded with the 1980 election of Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe then replaced Rhodesia as a nation.

Intelligence Operations in Rhodesia

Rhodesian intelligence failures likely contributed to their eventual defeat in the bush wars. According to a RAND report, “One of the greatest weaknesses of the Rhodesian counter-insurgency campaign was its lack of emphasis on military intelligence”. According to that same report, the bulk of Rhodesian intelligence operations went through their Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). The CIO was further partitioned into 11 different sub-branches. All internal intelligence filtered through the Special branch. Similarly, the branch of the Rhodesian Army relied on for their own intelligence operations. Special Branch intelligence focused on internal affairs, such as urban counterterrorism. While beneficial for its purpose, there was a disparity between what the Army required and what support they received.

Soldier with the battalion from the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army (Photo: Wikicommons)

It is likely that the Special Branch was an effective intelligence asset for internal Rhodesian operations, and handled minor victories against the ZANLA. The Branch used HUMINT by maintaining positive relationships between locals and police. Indeed, this strategy was especially successful in the more rural areas of Rhodesia. In this area, individuals stood out who were not from a particular village. RAND in their report explains it pretty clearly. “Between 1962 and 1969, Special branch agents had penetrated the highest levels of both ZANU and ZAPU. Intelligence supplied by these agents enabled Special Branch and the police to prevent insurgent groups to enter the country.

It is highly likely that the Rhodesian Selous Scouts were the most effective intelligence capability on their side of the war. According to the Georgetown Security Studies Review, “the white minority-controlled Rhodesian government carried out a remarkably successful counterinsurgency campaign against insurgent groups representing the disenfranchised black majority by relying heavily on the use of pseudo-operations.” The Selous Scouts were the primary operators and effectively produced HUMINT driven intelligence products.

Case Study: Portuguese Flechas

The tactics used by the Scouts contributed to their intelligence successes but originated in neighbouring Mozambique. Portuguese intelligence officers in colonized Mozambique raised up their own pseudo-operations units to assist in COINT operations during Portugal’s African wars. According to Peter Baxter in his publication Selous Scouts: Rhodesian Counter-Insurgency Specialists: “Known as Flechas, or Arrows, these were usually highly proficient, platoon-sized units comprising local tribesmen and turned rebels operating on a simple bounty system.” Flechas would take captured enemy rebels, turn them over to their side, and use them on the battlefield to support their goals. Using these locals was phenomenally successful. At least 60% of enemy guerrillas killed during operations were at the hands of the Flechas.

Future Implications

It is likely that the Selous Scouts and their COIN ops served as a successful case study for future modern COIN campaigns, as seen in the NATO-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). There are direct similarities between these Scouts and the Western COIN efforts in the Global War on Terror. Of course, the Selous Scouts were not the first special operations force to use COIN tactics throughout history. The success they had in Rhodesia is a recent example of the potential COIN operations can have in an unconventional battle-space.

Author

Michael Ellmer

Michael served as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Corps, he completed his undergraduate studies at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in communications. He is currently a graduate candidate at Brunel University, where he is pursing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis.

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