COIN for the Coinless: Portugal in Africa

By the end of next year, America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan will officially come to a close, notwithstanding a smaller residual force that might remain to conduct training and counter-terrorism operations to keep the fledgling Afghan government afloat. Including the war in Iraq, the U.S, has lost about 6,775 personnel killed in action, tens of thousands more seriously wounded, and has incurred financial obligations that will eventually total between $4 and $6 trillion. The strategic payoff of these sacrifices is rapidly evaporating as Iraq slides back toward sectarian warfare and Afghanistan continues to be…well, Afghanistan: a failed state with a central government unable to project power beyond a few urban areas, completely dependent on foreign financial support. With this kind of return on investment, it is not hard to fathom why isolationism is finding flavor among the American people.

Sustained counterinsurgency operations do not have to be this expensive. Between 1961 and 1974 – a length of time similar to America’s presence in Afghanistan – Portugal simultaneously waged colonial wars in three widely separated theaters of operation – Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique – and achieved relative military success in all. At the outset of hostilities, Portugal was clinging to the fringes of Western civilization, having fallen so far from its imperial heyday that it was barely considered a First World state. It’s GDP was $2.5 billion and the military numbered only about 80,000 with a budget of $93 million (for comparison, U.S. GDP was $509 billion). How did such a European backwater sustain three different colonial wars so effectively?

That is the question explored by John P. Cann’s Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese ExperienceHis answers contain insights on a topic that should be of keen interest to American strategists: how to wage counterinsurgency on the cheap.

The strategic decision to retain the colonies derived from Portugal’s weak economy and the potential that the colonies had for enriching the mother country. “Metropolitan Portugal from the earliest times remained economically underdeveloped and was dependent on overseas commerce and colonial wealth to maintain more than a subsistence standard of living.” For most of their history the African colonies were not major generators of wealth, but after World War II they were finally beginning to show promise. Unfortunately for Portugal, however, the political authoritarianism of the Salazar regime fueled the resentment that gave rise to nationalist movements in the colonies and blinded Portugal itself to the political reality that colonialism was a losing game in the post-World War II era. Thus, in December 1960 a Congress of 81 communist countries in Moscow determined that Portugal was vulnerable to subversion and targeted its colonies for wars of liberation and metropolitan Portugal itself for revolution. For the Portuguese military, it was obvious that war was imminent, and it would have to be prosecuted with extremely limited resources.

“It would have to address these serious limitations by devising ways to work around them and to avoid their full impact on its ability to wage war. There were two key elements that underpinned Portugal’s effort in this sphere. The first was to spread the burden of the war as widely as possible, and the second was to keep the tempo of the conflict low enough so that the expenditure of resources would remain affordable. The counterinsurgency practices that Portugal adopted and that reflected these two national policies in conducting the campaigns can be termed the Portuguese way of war.”

I have summarized some of the principle elements of the Portuguese way of war below.

1. Doctrine
Unlike most counterinsurgency situations, the Portuguese military could read the writing on the wall and began preparing for the wars well before the start of hostilities.

“The Portuguese Army General Staff knew that Portugal had little time before it must fight a campaign to retain its overseas possessions, and that it must fight its war correctly from the very first shot, if it were to succeed and contain the cost in doing so. If Portugal were forced to fight without a doctrine to guide its forces, and had to develop from scratch the necessary tactics that capitalized on the advantages accruing from the specific situations in each colony, then it would face a more difficult struggle with reduced chances of success.”

Thus, the Portuguese Army feverishly studied the counterinsurgency experiences of the French and British, eventually concluding that British counterinsurgency principles had the most relevance for Portugal’s unique situation. These included the now-familiar tenets of using only the minimum necessary force, social and economic development of the population, extensive civil-military cooperation, intelligence coordination, and the use of small-unit tactics for most combat operations. This produced a predictable mantra for the individual soldier:

“The Portuguese soldier is told emphatically that he is the key to winning the population and gaining its confidence in Portugal over that of the guerrillas. Equally important and following from the psychological theme, the soldier is told of the need for military support to civil authorities and his role in this aspect of the war for the loyalty of the population.”

Portuguese doctrine was eventually codified in 1963 in the manual O Exercito na Guerra Subversiva (The Army in Subversive War).

What is important to note is that Portugal selected British counterinsurgency methods not just because of their operational and tactical relevance to the individual conflicts, but also because they accorded with the strategic imperative of maintaining a low-key and inexpensive campaign; it was a strategy that Portugal could actually afford.

2. Organization and Training
Before the wars began the Portuguese Army was organized around its NATO commitment and the main ground forces were six mechanized infantry battalions. The General Staff recognized that this force structure was ill-suited for counterinsurgency and completely reorganized the Army around light infantry forces. For a larger power with a wide array of security interests, this type of wholesale reorganization is not possible; abandoning heavy forces such as armor and mechanized artillery would create too many risks. But Portugal could get away with it because its NATO commitment was not very significant and the situation in the colonies was Portugal’s only immediate military threat. Converting the entirety of its army to light infantry forces, the most inexpensive combat units to train and equip, helped keep the costs of war to a minimum. 

Adopting a mature counterinsurgency doctrine early in the conflict allowed the army to implement a training program that communicated the fundamentals of COIN to all incoming personnel. Many of these training courses occurred within the theater of operations, which helped acclimatize new soldiers and familiarized them with both the human and physical terrain before having to conduct actual combat operations.

3. Africanization
One of the most important elements of Portugal’s counterinsurgency effort was the large extent to which it “Africanized” the conflict by recruiting troops from the colonies into regular army units and a variety of paramilitary forces and militias. This was partly motivated by sheer necessity: Portugal was experiencing a manpower shortage caused by population pressures and decreased public enthusiasm for the wars. The regular Portuguese Army expanded from about 49,000 to 149,000 by the end of the war, not easy for a country of only 9 million. By contrast, the total population of the African colonies was about 12 million. In short, “the limitations of the domestic population base threatened the war effort.”

In 1968 Lisbon issued a 5-point plan to cope with the manpower shortage. Three of these points related to Africanization of the conflict while the other two concerned force structure issues. First, recruitment in the colonies for the Portuguese Army would be intensified and that in the metropole would level off. By 1971, African troops constituted 40% of the force and stayed at that level for the remainder of the war. Second, local paramilitary forces would be expanded significantly. When these units were added to the equation African troops made up 50% of Portuguese forces. Third, units from metropolitan Portugal would be scaled back as those from the colonies were expanded. This was intended to alleviate political pressure caused by widespread opposition to the war.

The benefits of this extensive Africanization were tangible and immediate. The Portuguese Army’s need to recruit from the metropole, a population largely hostile to the war effort, was diminished, thus relieving political pressure on the Salazar regime. It placed more of the burden of combat on those that had the greatest interest in eventual Portuguese victory; namely, the colonial population still supportive of Portuguese sovereignty. It created a more efficient division of labor within the Army as soldiers from the metropole were assigned more technically demanding jobs while African troops concentrated on security and combat-related tasks. Finally, it saved on logistics-related costs by reducing the need to transport military personnel from the metropole to the colonies. In Carr’s own words:

“Africanization from the Portuguese perspective was thus a sound response to a manpower shortage. It added sustainability to the conflict and helped Portugal counter the long-range guerrilla strategy of attrition. And finally, by moving the recruiting away from the metropole to the ultramar, Portugal was able to realize its goal of maintaining a subdued, low-tempo, affordable war.”

4. Social and Psychological Operations
Not surprising given its adoption of classic British counterinsurgency doctrine, Portugal recognized that success largely depended on capturing the support of the colonial population. “Social problems were perceived to be the root of the insurgency problem in all of the theaters and their cure as critical to any hope of victory.” The three major aspects of these operations were health care, education, and infrastructure improvement. In Guinea, for instance, the rural population was regrouped to provide better access to sanitation, health care, education and water in a program that focused on improving existing villages. In terms of infrastructure, the Portuguese invested in rural agriculture through irrigation projects, built schools and medical stations, and improved communications with new airfields, heliports, and better roads. “With something over 45,000 kilometers of new roads built throughout the theaters during the Campaigns, like the Romans, the Portuguese appeared to subscribe to the adage, ‘The end of subversion depends on the morale of the population and good roads.'”

Social and psychological operations come in a wide variety, but their general outlines should be familiar to any student of counterinsurgency. I make note of them here, however, because the Portuguese achieved success with small projects that were very incremental in nature and compatible with the lifestyles of the population. A small village would be improved with new wells, irrigation dams and zinc-roofed houses, the training of local paramedical personnel, and the development of primary education. The modest nature of these projects contrasts with some of the expensive and useless projects undertaken by the U.S. in Afghanistan (the Kajaki dam, the Gardez-Khost Highway, etc). A contested rural population does not need such extravagances, especially when it disrupts their existing pattern of life.

An important ancillary to social and psychological operations was the organization of self-defense militias at the village level. The Portuguese Army was not large enough to defend the vast majority of the colonial population, but by arming the villagers directly, Portugal could demonstrate trust in the colonial population and give them the means to deter guerrilla infiltration and intimidation of the villages (especially important when combating guerrillas using a protracted war doctrine, such as the PAIGC in Guinea) and free up main-force units for patrolling and combat operations. In this regard, the Portuguese took a page from the American campaign in Vietnam:

“In 1967 Ambassador William Colby espoused this point in Vietnam when he said that, as the security forces could not be omnipresent to protect the population from insurgent intimidation, village self-defense through a local citizens’ militia was the considered answer not only for physical security also as one of the best forms of political mobilization. Experience in Vietnam had shown that a disarmed village community could be entered and dominated by a five-man squad. If they met no opposition, they could harangue the population with their message, collect taxes and supplies, and recruit or conscript local youths. Even a modest local defense force could block this intrusion and allow villagers to resist the subversive intimidation.”


In the study of war, comparison is a hazardous and often misguided exercise. The circumstances of one conflict are so different from another that extrapolating between them will muddle and distort a proper understanding of the situation. For example, over the past 13 years the U.S. has studied a vast history of colonial warfare to support expeditionary counterinsurgency, a category of warfare with a much smaller body of historical experience. When the counterinsurgent is not sovereign in the theater of warfare and is essentially alien to the society in which he operates, the lessons of colonial warfare have limited relevance. Portugal, with a history in Africa that spanned centuries, could greatly benefit by improving primary education in the colonies. In Afghanistan, however, the U.S. is still the infidel despite its clumsy attempts to appear otherwise, and schooling Afghan children is often viewed as unwelcome Western influence that disrupts traditional patterns of life. Thus, the U.S. continues to suffer from the basic mistake of misidentifying the nature of the war.

In my opinion, the Portuguese experience is relevant not for any particular counterinsurgency technique, but because of two fundamental lessons:

1. The importance of cost as a consideration in strategic planning – Portugal was keenly aware of its limitations and minimizing the expense and operational tempo of the campaigns was always a strategic imperative just as important as victory itself. “Every aspect of the Portuguese organization for war and deployment of its troops was constructed on the premise of minimal force which kept the campaigns subdued and affordable within the limits of Portugal’s resources.” The fact is that counterinsurgency does not have to be as obscenely expensive as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. Had the U.S. been less willing to throw money at the problem, perhaps it would not be rushing for the exits with little concern for what happens after 2014.

2. PORTUGAL STILL LOST – The most cost efficient, well-organized and doctrinally sound counterinsurgency will still fail if the war is waged at a level beyond what society is prepared to accept. Though minuscule when compared to American counterinsurgency campaigns, Portugal’s wars in Africa were still a crushing burden for such a small country, holding back its economy and society as the rest of Europe was entering an era of prosperity. In 1974 the Estado Novo regime was removed by a military coup after it became clear that Lisbon had no intention of exploiting the military gains in the colonies by offering a lasting political settlement. The junta granted the colonies their independence shortly thereafter. In short, the guerrillas achieved victory by maintaining their will to fight longer than the regime.

“In the final analysis, while Portugal fought an imaginative campaign to retain its colonies in an anticolonial era, no amount of military verve could overcome the political problem of Portugal’s legitimacy in Africa. Because of this circumstance, Portugal lost the war and ultimately its colonies despite its enormous sacrifices.”


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