U.S. and South Africa Foment Terrorist Wars
By Sean Gervasi
Covert Action Quarterly Fall 1984
South Africa has been conducting an undeclared terrorist war
on the Front-line States, and in particular on Angola Lesotho,
Mozambique. Tanzania and Zimbabwe, for more than three years.
This war has been waged across an entire subcontinent, using every
means of modern warfare from armored divisions and squadrons of
bombers to economic sabotage, subversion and assassination.
Moreover, the Reagan Administration is a willing partner in
the secret war in southern Africa. It has thrown the weight and
power of the United States behind South Africa's campaign to destabilize
the Front-line States. South Africa and the U.S. are now full
partners in an almost invisible war to change the political balance
in the region and to preserve and reinforce the principal institutions
of the apartheid system.
Indeed, from its inception, it was clear that the Reagan Administration
would seek to preserve the status quo in South Africa as part
of an anti-Socialist crusade, just as it announced it would do
in El Salvador. It has therefore pursued a "two track"
policy, revealing its commitment to South Africa and its antagonism
to radical change, but concealing many of its actions in support
of South Africa's war. The war against the Front-line States has
been much more complex than many observers have suspected. And
the Central Intelligence Agency has inevitably played an important
role in it, carrying out a second, secret ''track" of U.S.
policy, coordinating various programs of covert warfare and undertaking
The 1981 Southern Africa Policy Review
When the Reagan Administration took office, the new President's
foreign policy advisors shared the view that the U.S. had to become
actively engaged in southern Africa. The Administration, however,
needed a coherent position and a consistent set of policies for
In early 1981, therefore, President Reagan ordered a major
review of U.S. policy towards southern Africa which was carried
out in the National Security Council by an inter-departmental
committee which included senior representatives of the Department
of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department
of Defense. The review resulted in a classified policy paper offering
the President a number of alternative courses of action in southern
Africa. By the summer, the President had ''signed off" on
an option, in a secret National Security Decision Directive, which
was to carry the U.S. into a tacit alliance with South Africa
in its terrorist war against the Front line States.
What follows is a reconstruction of the policy towards southern
Africa settled upon by the Reagan Administration in the summer
of 1981, based upon official speeches (in quotations), public
documents, and known U.S. actions.
President Reagan decided upon a general posture which would
be supportive to South Africa in a region increasingly threatened
by instability. The United States would seek " to encourage
peaceful evolutionary change" in order to forestall mass
revolutionary violence" within South Africa. Beyond South
Africa's borders, the U.S. would seek ''to counter Soviet influence
in the region." In particular, U.S. policy would seek "to
help bolster the security of South Africa," that is, "to
foster regional security'' by means which would meet South African
To pursue these objectives, the President decided upon the
following specific lines of action:
With regard to South Africa, to move towards closer and more
supportive relations with the Government of South Africa; to encourage
the Government of South Africa to move to wards a "nonracial
liberal democracy'' by moderate reforms of apartheid; to support,
politically, financially, and by other means, "those elements
inside and beyond the Republic which foster peaceful and evolutionary
change there"; to assist South Africa in resisting the international
efforts to isolate it, especially at the United Nations.
In Namibia, to help "end the guerrilla warfare that has
continued in northern Namibia and southern Angola for 15 years";
to seek the removal of Cuban troops from Angola; to seek a "peaceful
solution" of the Namibian question which would allow South
Africa to retain control of the country and yet be acceptable
In the region as a whole, to seek to end "the dangerous
cycle of violence in the region'' and to direct "the impetus
toward change into peaceful channels"; privately to encourage
South Africa "to pre-empt any armed threat-guerrilla or conventional-from
its neighbors" and ''to use its military superiority for
that end"; to apply strong pressure, with others, against
Angola and Mozambique and eventually to seek radical changes in
the internal political balance in those countries; to apply pressure
against the governments of Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and
gradually to draw them closer to the West; to cooperate closely
with South Africa in mounting pressures against the Front-line
States; to use U.S. diplomacy "to help establish the rules
of the game that will limit and discourage the application of
outside force" in the region.
And publicly, to maintain strict secrecy about active collaboration
in support of South Africa; to maintain strict secrecy about certain
actions taken against the Front-line States; to mount an extensive
campaign of political action and propaganda in Africa, Western
Europe, and the United States to ensure that actions of the U.S.
government remain invisible or are accepted by public opinion.
The strategy chosen was essentially an extension of the military
doctrine of coercive diplomacy, according to which a nation can
sometimes achieve certain limited political objectives by combining
carefully measured doses of military force with diplomacy. Selective
force can be used against an adversary who resists one's demands,
while "negotiations" with him are continued. In some
cases, inducements of aid or other incentives may be offered.
The idea is that an adversary may be "persuaded" to
accept one's demands when enough military pressure has been applied,
and when suitable inducements are offered.
The Reagan Administration chose to embark on an exercise in
coercive diplomacy jointly with South Africa. By the summer of
1981, they were working together to apply increasing military,
economic, political, diplomatic, and other pressures against the
Front-line States. But this strategy did not produce the results
which were expected of it. The U.S. and South Africa were really
demanding much more of the Front-line States than they were prepared
to give, even under pressure. What began as coercive diplomacy,
therefore, broke down and be came a full-scale terrorist war.
When the Reagan Administration and South Africa met resistance,
they had to choose between giving up their aims or escalating
the war. They chose the latter course.
The War Is Launched
In March 1981, South African commandos raided Maputo, the
Mozambican capital, only a few hours after Secretary of State
Haig had declared the ''war against international terrorism''
a priority for United States foreign policy. Pretoria stepped
up its military actions against Angola, initiating a continuous
low-intensity war in the southern part of the country. Its agents
carried out sabotage and assassinations in Zimbabwe. It made an
attempt to mount a coup against Zambia's President Kaunda. South
Africa also began a major effort to build, arm and deploy special
military units in Mozambique to attack roads, railways, bridges
and other economic targets, as well as to sow terror in rural
At the same time, South Africa began preparations for full
scale economic warfare against several of the Front-line States,
notably Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. During the
latter part of 1981, the pressure against the Front-line States
was increased, creating severe economic and political difficulties.
Heavy economic pressure was brought to bear on Zimbabwe. South
Africa disrupted the Zimbabwe railroads at a crucial time by refusing
to lease locomotives and by slowing the return of freight cars,
causing an enormous loss in foreign exchange revenue from exports.
The International Monetary Fund began to press for substantially
increased budget cuts by the Zimbabwe government, insisting on
the reduction of key social expenditures. And, at the very moment
that South African commando units were beginning to operate in
the south eastern part of the country, it also demanded a large
cut in the defense budget. Sabotage increased in Zimbabwe, causing
many millions of dollars in losses. At the end of 1981, a bomb
blast nearly destroyed ZANU headquarters in the middle of Salisbury-Harare,
killing six people and wounding many others. However, in 1981
the brunt of the attack was falling on Angola. In August, South
Africa mounted a major invasion of the southern part of the country,
deploying 11,000 men and several battalions of tanks and armored
cars. There was fierce fighting in the center of Cunene province,
and by September 80,000 Angolans from the area had been forced
to flee. South Africa established a permanent military presence
in southern Angola, substantially increased its support for UNITA
and began to extend its own raids further and further to the north.
In Mozambique, South Africa started a veritable war. It reorganized
the Mozambique National Resistance, which had been started by
Rhodesian Military Intelligence to attack ZANU inside Mozambique
during the liberation struggle. MNR units, assisted by South African
commandos, were sent again into Mozambique, where they repeatedly
attacked transport links and power lines in the central provinces.
Key road and rail bridges to Zimbabwe were blown up by South African
forces, cutting the movement of goods to and from that country,
including oil. While the Mozambique Army began to react with some
effect in 1981, the scale of the South African operations was
very large and difficult to cope with. Mozambique gradually came
under siege. By the latter part of 1982, the military, economic,
political and other pressures against the Front-line States had
become intense. South African demands, however, were meeting strong
The Role of the U.S. Since 1981
Considerable evidence can be pieced together from public sources
and from interviews, to give some idea of the extent of U.S. actions
aimed at destabilizing the Front-line States. From 1981, the Central
Intelligence Agency, acting through third parties, began to provide
substantial aid to the UNITA group in Angola, which has been heavily
supported by South Africa for a decade. This aid has included
money, arms and equipment. (See Time magazine, May 16, 1983; Newsweek
magazine, October 10, 1983; and Intelligence Digest Weekly Review,
February 17, 1982. ) From 1981, the U.S. has orchestrated a campaign
of economic pressure against Tanzania, demanding persistently
behind the scenes that Tanzania abandon socialist economic policies.
This campaign has succeeded in depriving Tanzania of needed investment,
credit, and aid, thus contributing to the "economic failure''
which the Reagan Administration decries.
In 1981, Zambian security forces thwarted a plot by dissidents
and ''South African commandos" to assassinate President Kaunda
and seize power. It was reported (Africa News, July 13, 1981)
that agents of the CIA had recruited Zambians in an effort to
examine ' 'the possibility of an alternative leader ship in the
country.'' According to African sources, CIA Director William
Casey flew secretly to Lusaka and threatened sanctions against
Zambia if the role of the CIA was exposed. In 1981, the Reagan
Administration blocked the implementation of the U.N. plan for
a Namibian settlement by linking it for the first time to a withdrawal
of Cuban troops from Angola. While the U.S. continued to state
its support for the U.N. plan, Secretary of State Haig wrote the
South African Foreign Minister late in the year "that the
United States would not press South Africa to settle the Namibian
question unless Cuban troops were withdrawn from Angola.''
While the U.S. and South Africa were applying various pressures
against Angola, including substantial and overt military pressure,
General Vernon Walters, a former deputy director of the CIA and
now a U.S. special envoy, made numerous trips to Luanda to persuade
the Angolan Government to agree to the withdrawal of Cuban troops.
In 1981, after South Africa had mounted a large-scale armored
invasion of Angola and occupied a large area in the southern provinces,
the U.S. vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning its actions.
(See New York Times, September 4, 1981.) In the same year, the
U.S. vetoed the candidacy of Salim Salim, the Foreign Minister
of Tanzania, for Secretary-General of the United Nations. It had
been expected that the next Secretary-General would be an African,
and Mr. Salim was the choice of the Organization of African Unity
for the position.
During 1982, U.S. officials worked successfully to secure
an IMF approved loan of $1.1 billion for South Africa, although
that country did not appear to qualify for such a loan. (See Washington
Post, November 4, 1982; Africa Now, March 1983; and Africa Confidential,
May 25, 1983.) The South African government uses a substantial
amount of foreign exchange to purchase oil and arms and to finance
In August 1982, during a major military effort by South Africa
to extend its control of southern Angola, President Reagan sent
a letter, classified "secret," to President Nyerere
of Tanzania, the Chairman of the Front-line States, urging him
to accept the "linkage" of a Namibian settlement to
the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. President Reagan suggested
that if ''linkage" were not accepted soon, the U.S. would
cease to press for implementation of the United Nations plan for
Namibi. Throughout this period, the U.S. has used diplomatic and
political pressure behind the scenes to prevent South Africa being
condemned for its destabilization of neighboring countries. To
take one example, the U.S. intervened to prevent South Africa
being named in a Security Council resolution condemning the attempt
to mount a coup against the Government of the Seychelles in late
1981. It was later learned, during a series of trials in South
Africa, that the attempted coup had been officially authorized.
In 1983, the U.S., which was displeased with Zimbabwe's voting
in the U.N. Security Council, cut assistance to that country by
almost half. U.S. officials stated that Zimbabwe's sponsorship
of a resolution condemning U.S. intervention in Grenada and its
abstention on a U.S. sponsored resolution after the Korean airliner
incident "played a big part" in the decision. (See Washington
Post, December 20, 1983.) In 1983, when large numbers of people
in Mozambique faced starvation and when tens of thousands had
already died from lack of food, the Reagan Administration deliberately
held back food aid to that country, while it was seeking to "persuade"
it to sign a non-aggression agreement with South Africa. Mozambique
has repeatedly refused to agree to South Africa's demand that
the African National Congress be expelled from its territory.
Mozambique began 1984 facing the most serious food shortages it
had known and with a food deficit of well over 100,000 tons of
Rebuilding the Cordon Sanitaire
The Reagan Administration had concentrated its efforts on
what it considered Cuba's intervention in Angola. The focus was
on the issue of "linkage." Despite considerable military
and economic pressure, however, against all the Front-line States,
and especially against Angola, these efforts failed. The Front-line
States repeatedly rebuffed efforts to persuade them to accept
"linkage" of the "Cuban issue" to the decolonization
of Namibia. The response to this resistance was to escalate the
war and to try to force through a "regional security settlement.''
In practice, this meant forcing the Front-line States to reduce
their support for the liberation movements. The objective was
to re build the cordon sanitaire of buffer states around South
Africa which had been destroyed by revolutions in Angola, Mozambique
In September 1982, shortly after the Frontline States had
rebuffed President Reagan's approach on "linkage,'' William
Casey flew to southern Africa. He visited a number of countries,
including South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zaire. CIA sources
have stated that this was a "familiarization" trip,
with no particular political purpose. This is not true. Casey
went to southern Africa, and particularly to South Africa, to
begin implementing a grand design for rebuilding the cordon sanitaire
around South Africa. Press reports at the time made it clear that
South Africa and the U.S. would demand that the Frontline States
cease or reduce their support for SWAPO and the ANC or face an
escalation of military, economic and other pressures.
Casey's discussions with South African officials apparently
resulted in an agreement on implementing the next phase of coercive
diplomacy in southern Africa. Pressures on all the Front-line
States would be increased. The demand for an end to support for
the liberation movements would be stated more openly and more
persistently. The U.S. would intensify its diplomatic efforts,
acting as a "mediator" between South Africa and its
adversaries. And the U.S. would coordinate its actions even more
closely than it already had with South African actions against
the Front-line States.
The Road to "Settlements"
By the end of 1982, the situation in southern Africa was be
coming very difficult, especially in Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
The region was suffering from the effects of two years of drought.
The world recession had hurt exports badly, and foreign exchange
was generally very scarce. Parts of the region had already suffered
serious damage as a result of South African military and terrorist
The attacks on most of the Front-line States were intensified.
South Africa resumed a low-level guerrilla war against Lesotho,
using a surrogate Lesotho "liberation army." In Mozambique,
the MNR attacked transport routes and terrorized the countryside,
mining roads, burning stores, schools and health posts, poisoning
wells, and deliberately mutilating peasants. In some cases, actions
supposedly carried out by the MNR were actually carried out by
regular South African commando units. South Africa had also begun
to infiltrate former Rhodesian commandos into the southern part
of Zimbabwe in an effort to precipitate a ''civil war.''
In December of 1982, South African commandos attacked and
destroyed the oil depot in the Mozambican city of Beira. The raid
caused millions of dollars in damage and cut supplies of petroleum
to Zimbabwe. On the same day, South African commandos flew by
helicopter to Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, and carried out
a raid against houses inhabited by South African refugees. Forty-two
persons were killed, and many more were wounded. By the beginning
of 1983, South Africa was carrying out military and paramilitary
attacks against the Front-line States almost openly.
U.S. diplomatic activity in the region was being intensified
at the same time. Anthony Lewis, writing in the New York Times
(January 31, 1983) could apparently begin to see the outlines
of coercive diplomacy. The South African government had "had
a year of remarkable successes." "Externally,"
he wrote, ''the last year has seen South Africa use its military
power both covertly and overtly in neighboring black-governed
states." And it had done so "without any significant
political penalty,'' although, he thought, "the United States
has privately urged restraint on South Africa.'' Still, "South
Africa's neighbors have in effect been told, without subtlety,
that they can have peace and a chance for economic development
only on South African terms.''
During 1983, economic warfare against the Front-line States,
most of which was covert, continued, and several countries found
themselves facing unprecedented difficulties. They could not export
their goods. They could not attract foreign capital. They could
not purchase essential commodities, particularly adequate supplies
of food. They lacked the means to substitute domestic production
of needed goods. Foreign aid projects had to be shut down, often
for security reasons. By mid-l983, drought, war, and a variety
of external pressures had begun to make a difficult situation
desperate. U.S. analysts predicted that the Front-line States
would soon be ''on their knees.''
The situation which existed by the end of the year in most
parts of the region is hard to describe. In Zimbabwe, millions
of people were receiving emergency food aid. South Africa was
again intensifying its efforts to produce chaos in the province
of Matabeleland. It had mounted a further large-scale invasion
of Angola, sending its troops nearly two hundred miles into the
country. While Angola offered strong resistance, this third invasion
was a harsh blow to a country already suffering from drought,
a partial economic blockade and the dislocation and damage caused
by previous attacks. South Africa's UNITA surrogates, furthermore,
were extending their military actions into the center of the country.
Mozambique faced the gravest economic situation it had known.
The drought had continued, further reducing food production. There
was insufficient foreign exchange to make up the difference. The
war in the central provinces had spread north to Zambezi. The
war had greatly aggravated economic problems which might otherwise
have been coped with. Emergency food supplies could not reach
those who needed them. More than 100,000 Mozambicans had fled
to Zimbabwe in search of food. In Inhambane province, where the
war was especially intense, the lack of food had caused the death
of tens of thousands of people, and possibly as many as 100,000
people in 1983 alone.
As the war escalated in late 1983, and as the situation of
several of the Front-line States grew increasingly difficult,
U.S. diplomats pressed hard for a series of ''non-aggression''
agreements. They concentrated their attention on Angola and Mozambique.
Behind their diplomatic overtures, however, there was the threat
of South African power being used even more harshly, and implicitly
of further economic pressure. U.S. diplomats said that they were
trying to help bring " peace ' ' to the region . However,
a South African official quoted in the New York Times (January
25, 1983) made it clear what kind of ''peace" they were offering:
''We want to show that we want peace in the region, we want to
contribute and we can help a lot. But we also want to show that
if we are refused we can destroy the whole of southern Africa.''
U.S. officials were for the most part more circumspect about
expressing such views. The Reagan Administration could not openly
link its proposals to the Front-line States to such crude threats.
But the link was there nonetheless, and the Front-line States
understood this. In late 1983, in an interview with the Johannesburg
Financial Mail (November 18, 1983), Charles Lichenstein, the Deputy
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, made it abundantly plain
that the U.S. and South Africa were working to the same plan.
In as clear a threat as any American official had made publicly,
Lichenstein said that "destabilization will remain in force
until Angola and Mozambique do not permit their territory to be
used by terrorists to at tack South Africa."
Thus the ''peace" which South Africa and the Reagan Administration
seemed to be seeking in southern Africa was apparently the same
kind which Nazi Germany sought to impose on Europe after the occupation
of the Rhineland.
This account should help to explain why Angola and Mozambique
eventually submitted to some U.S. and South African demands at
Lusaka and at Nkomati some time ago. Something near all-out war,
no less menacing for being unseen, was waged against them to force
them to do so. However, the story is not ended. The Lusaka agreement
has already broken down. South Africa has not withdrawn from Angola.
And both South Africa and the U.S. are now seeking to by-pass
the United Nations plan for decolonizing Namibia. Moreover, Angola
has made it quite clear that it will not accept ''linkage."
The political situation in southwest Africa has not changed.
The Nkomati accord, signed on the Mozambique/South Africa
border, is also beginning to break down. South Africa has shown
that it will not rein in its surrogate, the MNR. MNR units carried
out an attack on a truck convoy in central Mozambique only days
after the signing of the accord. MNR groups have staged attacks
again in Inhambane province and on the road between the South
African border and Maputo, which had hitherto been considered
safe. There is little doubt that these efforts will continue,
although Mozambique is now much better equipped to defend itself
than it was.
In assessing the prospects for the future, it should be remembered
that South Africa and the U.S . have embarked on an extremely
ambitious and rash exercise, that of bringing an end to socialist
experiments in the entire southern African region. It has been
clear for some time that they are bent on overthrowing the socialist
governments already established there. In the spring of 1983,
western diplomats at the U.N. were already speaking of ''the determination
on the part of the Reagan Administration and South Africa to gradually
rid southern Africa of Marxist regimes." (Louis Wiznitzer,
''U.N. Security Council Likely to be Drawn Into Namibian Debate,''
Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1983. )
This means that the pressure on Angola and Mozambique in particular
is bound to increase. There is now a real danger that, by a combination
of economic, political, and military pressure, South Africa and
the U.S. will continue to seek to overthrow the Machel government
in Mozambique, opening a serious breach in the Front-line States
and paving the way to expanded regional conflict and economic
and social chaos.
Before that happens, the Congress and the public should look
much more closely at the role which the Reagan Administration
has been playing in southern Africa during the last three years.
For the war against the Front-line States which it has been waging
jointly with South Africa is illegal and barbarous. It should
not be permitted to continue.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker
has said that he wants to see "negotiated solutions"
and ''peaceful change'' in southern Africa. In pursuit of this
goal, the Reagan Administration and its racist ally have unleashed
a war which has devastated an entire subcontinent and cost tens
of thousands of lives. This is terrorism on a scale which has
not been seen since the U.S. intervention in Indochina.
Sean Gervasi is a visiting professor of economics at the university
of Paris, and former Assistant in the Office of the U.N. commissioner
Policy and Pentagon