2011/04/19 12:28 AM
This was my first article on UNITA, published in the INTERNATIONAL DEFENSE REVIEW 1/1989. The conditions and situation described are as it was in 1989...
In the 13-year-old civil war in Angola the Soviet and Cuban-backed MPLA government has repeatedly gambled that it can destroy Jonas Savimbi's US and South African-backed UNITA movement. Each gamble has involved meticulous planning and tens of thousands of conventional troops supported by tanks, jet fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships. Each has failed.
This year (1989) the Cubans are raising the stakes yet again with an unprecedented build-up of forces along the borders of the 225,000km2 rebel-controlled territory in south-eastern Angola. But if UNITA is worried, there is little sign of it. From UNITA's headquarters in Jamba to the Benguela railway there is such an air of determination and confidence among the scarred guerrilla fighters that one wonders if they are bluffing or have a deck of aces up their sleeves. When asked the well worn question "Can you hold without the South Africans?" they bristle ever so slightly and come back with their own well worn answer. From Savimbi down to his most junior and worshipful acolyte it is the same:
UNITA forces halted and threw back previous Soviet and Cuban-planned offensives without the South Africans. Further, with their present strength in men and advanced - though unspecified - hardware, they are better prepared than ever before to do so again. Only Brigadier Wambo Kasitu, UNITA's chief of intelligence, deviated slightly. "We haven't been sitting still," he declared enigmatically in good American.
Part of that confidence may be due to the fact that CIA has not sat still, either. At a remote base near the Benguela railway line, the underside of the table bore the stencilled legend: MILAN BOX CORP. MILAN, TENNESSEE - AMMUNITION FOR CANNON WITH EXPLOSIVE PROJECTILE. Sitting at the table was a group of UNITA soldiers playing cards. Each card carried the silhouette of a NATO or Soviet warplane and the crisply lettered words:
Aircraft Recognition Cards. To Be Distributed to US Army Training Aids Centers.
Among visiting journalists, all of whom love the hint of a conspiracy, rumours are rife of American-speaking whites accidently encountered In the environs of Jamba, while the Americanese spoken so fluently ("I learned it in school; come on, let's hit the road,") by many UNITA officers brings wry smiles to those ever on the lookout for the "Company" connection. It is already common knowledge that the Agency is delivering quantities of the deadly Stinger anti-aircraft missile, as well as advanced anti-tank weapons, from the US-built airstrip at Kamina In Zaire. What other goodies may be arriving is open to speculation, but conventional wisdom suggests there are more aces in the shipments than might be found in a deck of Aircraft Recognition Cards.
Speculation that Savimbi might shift UNITA's headquarters from Jamba in southeastern Angola to a point closer to the Zairean border and the CIA supply routes is dismissed out of hand. He explained that the population within "free Angola" is "100 per cent for UNITA and can play an important role against an offensive. The people in the north are not 100 per cent for us. Also, if the Cubans and FAPLA try to attack us here they must cross a lot of open terrain where we can use our missiles to the best advantage. We will not move."
A Cuban Vietnam
Recent Cuban-MPLA victories over strategically and politically important towns along the Benguela railway line are dismissed with shrugs. It is quickly pointed out that these crumbling ex-Portuguese settlements — particularly Savimbi's birthplace of Munhango — have regularly changed hands over the years, just as positions were repeatedly won and lost by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Indeed, once the situation is seen at first hand, the Vietnam analogy and the difficulties faced by the Soviet- and Cuban-advised MPLA army become glaringly obvious. Like the Americans in South-East Asia, they are waging a conventional-style war against an increasingly sophisticated will o' the wisp guerrilla army that enjoys over two decades of bush warfare experience. And the Angolan troops they support appear every bit as moribund as the South Vietnamese soldiers the Americans, with increasing frustration, supported with massive quantities of arms and material, yet forever failed to mould in their own political image. History goes round and round, and it would appear that neither Marxist nor capitalist theologies are easily translatable into Third World lexicons.
While UNITA lives easily off the land à la Viet Cong, MPLA forces must rely on food flown from major bases to the nearest airstrip and then convoyed through hostile and unfamiliar terrain. If UNITA is to be believed, these convoys seldom arrive unscathed; mines and ambushes take a steady toll. Air-delivered supplies are even riskier. From one of UNITA's forward positions I watched as Angolan-piloted helicopters attempted to land at Cangonga with food and ammunition and pick up wounded. Heavy mortar and rocket fire from hidden UNITA positions quickly drove them away. In response to their calls for help, MiGs taking off from Luso (Luena) were reported approaching the area at an altitude of 3,000m. The threat of Stingers, however, sent them another 3,000m higher, from where their bombs were scattered inaccurately and harmlessly a mile away.
On the other side, supplies appear to move steadily, albeit laboriously, in trucks, along UNITA’s version of the Ho Chi Minh Trail - hundreds of miles of tortuous dirt tracks through dense bush and forest that stretch from Jamba in the far south-east of the Benguela railway line. None of these, according to UNITA, has ever been successfully attacked by MPLA forces. Although UNITA guerrillas operate throughout almost 90 per cent of Angola, the MPLA has been incapable of conducting small unit special operations against logistics lines inside "Free Angola". Even the bombing of these tracks from the air has proved ineffective; a direct hit on one requires no more than a minor diversion to avoid the crater.
Propaganda or not, it must be remembered that the Americans, with a professional air force far more potent and many times the size of what the Cubans have in Angola, were never successful in halting the flow of men and material into South Vietnam.
"I've personally been fighting in these hills since 1976," said Gen Arlindo "Ben-Ben" Pena, UNITA's chief of staff, as he ordered rocket fire on the MPLA positions inside Cangonga, "We know this terrain, we're far more mobile than the enemy and we have the support of the local population, who provide us with food and information. Without that support we wouldn't be operating across as much of Angola as we are. Obviously, we'll never be able to win a military solution to this war- not with the Cuban superiority in tanks, MiGs and helicopters - but it's impossible for them to defeat a guerrilla army."
If recent history is anything to go by, this may very well be true. Aside from Vietnam, where a marginally equipped and outnumbered guerrilla army frustrated the world's most powerful and sophisticated army and air force, far less organised and motivated rebel movements than UNITA have carried on for years in various parts of Africa.
Still, the Cuban general staff in Angola is gambling for the tenth time since 1976 that UNITA can be dealt a crippling blow. Designed to deceive and split UNITA's numerically inferior forces, these carefully planned offensives have always involved a two-pronged drive from the Benguela railway line in the north and from Cuito Cuana-vale in the west. Each of these logistically complex efforts has not only failed, but proved enormously expensive In terms of men, morale and equipment. In fact, the MPLA's losses in military hardware over the years have made Angola the world's tenth-largest importer of arms. The 1986 and 1987 offensives proved so costly and were such debacles that the previous chief of staff, Soviet Gen Konstantin Shagnovitch, was recalled to Moscow in disgrace.
The architect of this year's assault on UNITA, Cuban Gen Cintio Polio Fria, is opening the betting with a new twist — a third front along the south-western border of UNITA-controlled Angola, Here, MPLA brigades are already battling toward the ex-Portuguese town of Savate. Where the main thrust will come is anyone's guess, but with the biggest build-up taking place in the west, Cuito Cuanavale remains the odds-on favourite. It was at Cuito Cuanavale and along the Lomba River last year where direct South African air and artillery support blunted the Cuban-MPLA advance on Mavinga, a crucial stepping stone to Jamba.
With the withdrawal of the South African Defence Force, Savimbi has emphasised that the Cubans' stated role in Angola - defending the MPLA from South African aggression- is no longer valid. In response to this propaganda ploy, the Cubans appear to be handling only logistics and rear-echelon security this time around, pushing FAPLA to the three fronts. Savimbi maintains that this suits UNITA, as "FAPLA is not a serious threat; to reach Mavinga, only a major Cuban effort can do it."
As the war goes into its 14th year, both UNITA and the Cuban/FAPLA alliance are playing their cards very close to the chest. The stakes for each side are enormous:
Angola, one of the richest countries in Africa. Which side holds the winning hand is still open to conjecture, but as a visitor to Jamba said recently: "Say what you want about Savimbi, but he's the best poker player in Africa right now."
3 comment(s) so far...
By Rudi Kramp on
2011/10/26 08:28 PM
Re: Can UNITA survive without the South Africans?
I very much doubt if Unita could have survived without South Africa. That civil war was going bad for Unita already in 1975, when South Africa was withdrawing from Luanda (and Angola). That was with the Mpla following them, thus also pushing back Unita. By 1987, the Mpla were already closing in on Jamba, which was right in the southeast of Angola. That was during the famous Cuito Cuanavale battle.
Unita also never got much help from the USA - only a little more than the Stinger SAM missiles. After the South African withdrawal in 1989, the civil war probably continued to go from bad to worse for Unita - due to little outside aid. Plus, Unita was also shunned by the outside world then.
That civil war ended in 2002, when Savimbi was gunned down. I doubt if Unita could have held out much longer. Perhaps a Unita soldier shot him - in order for the war to end. A former Unita soldier told me that he doubts it (and was Mpla).
By runescape gold on
2011/11/25 04:09 PM
Re: Can UNITA survive without the South Africans?
Still, the Cuban general staff in Angola is gambling for the tenth time since 1976 that UNITA can be dealt a crippling blow. swtor credits swtor credits
By Observer on
2011/11/26 07:47 AM
Re: Can UNITA survive without the South Africans?
Another perspective. http://www.conservativeusa.org/angola.htm One has to measure him against Africa's norms, not Western norms.Treason within treason, also on South Africa's part. He was a guerilla fighter in the African way, perhaps more a black nationalist for his own people who at the end died a heroic death.Imagine living your whole life seeing nothing but war, living under the crudest and most spartan conditions - those are not the actions of an average man, but the actions of a man with a deep seated idealism, a man way above the masses. Quite a few Western leaders could take an example from him, a black man, I am sorry to say. Would we fight for our nations today like he did for his people?Somehow the whole UNITA saga has the feel of a great tragedy play in the manner of Shakespeare. While he and his men were fighting for over 40 years basically for nothing at the end except for a heroic struggle which rather has the feel of the way of the Teutons than that of a common black man, those that betrayed him were living in splendor and luxury, and still are living in splendor and luxury, while managing the West, our white West, into the ground.