Angola 1975 to 1980s
The Great Powers Poker Game
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
It is spring 1975. Saigon has just fallen. The last of the
Americans are fleeing for their lives. Fallout from Watergate
hangs heavy in the air in the United States. The morning papers
bring fresh revelations about CIA and FBI misdeeds. The Pike Committee
of the House of Representatives is investigating CIA foreign covert
activities. On the Senate side, the Church Committee is doing
the same. And the Rockefeller Commission has set about investigating
the Agency's domestic activities.
The CIA and its influential supporters warn that the crescendo
of disclosures will inhibit the Agency from carrying out the functions
necessary for national security.
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, they are busy preparing
for their next secret adventure: Angola.
To undertake a military operation at such a moment, the reasons,
one would imagine, must have been both compelling and urgent.
Yet, in the long history of American interventions it would be
difficult to find one more pointless or with less to gain for
the United States or the foreign people involved.
The origin of our story dates back to the beginning of the
1960s when two political movements in Angola began to oppose by
force the Portuguese colonial government: the MPLA, led by Agostinho
Neto, and the FNLA, led by Holden Roberto. (The latter group was
known by other names in its early years, but for simplicity will
be referred to here only as FNLA.)
The United States, not normally in the business of supporting
"liberation" movements,. decided that inasmuch as Portugal
would probably be unable to hold on to its colony forever, establishing
contact with a possible successor regime might prove beneficial.
For reasons lost in the mists of history, the United States, or
at least someone in the CIA, decided that Roberto was their man
and around 1961 or 1962 onto the Agency payroll he went.
At the same time, and during the ensuing years, Washington
provided their NATO ally, the Salazar dictatorship in Lisbon,
with the military aid and counter-insurgency training needed to
suppress the rebellion. John Marcum, an American scholar who walked
800 miles through Angola into the FNLA guerrilla camps in the
early 1960s, has written:
'By January 1962 outside observers could watch Portuguese
planes bomb and strafe African villages, visit the charred remains
of towns like Mbanza M'Pangu and M'Pangala, and copy the data
from 750-point napalm bomb casings from which the Portuguese had
not removed the labels marked "Property U.S. Air Force".'
The United States was directly involved in the civil war to
a marked degree. In addition to training Angolan combat units,
US personnel did considerable flying between Zaire and Angola
carrying out reconnaissance and supply missions, and the CIA spent
over a million dollars on an ambitious mercenary program. Several
reports appeared in the US press stating that many American mercenaries
were fighting in Angola against the MPLA-from "scores"
to "300"-and that many others were being recruited and
trained in the United States to join them. But John Stockwell,
the head of the CIA's Angola task force, puts the number of American
mercenaries who actually made it to Angola at only 24. However,
Holden Roberto was using CIA money, with the Agency's tacit approval
to recruit many other mercenaries-over 100 British plus a scattering
of French and Portuguese. The CIA was also directly financing
the arming of British mercenaries. (The mercenaries included amongst
their number the well-known Englishman and psychopath George Cullen
who lined up 14 of his fellow soldiers-of-fortune and shot them
all dead because they had mistakenly attacked the wrong side.)
Subsequently, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger informed
the Senate that "the CIA is not involved" in the recruitment
of mercenaries for Angola.
There were also well over a hundred CIA officers and American
military advisers scurrying about Angola, Zaire, Zambia and South
Africa helping to direct the military operations and practicing
their propaganda skills. Through recruited journalists representing
major news services, the Agency was able to generate international
coverage for false reports of Soviet advisers in Angola. One CIA
story, announced to the press by UNITA, was that 20 Russians and
35 Cubans had been captured. Another fabrication concerned alleged
rapes committed by Cuban soldiers in Angola, this was elaborated
to include their capture, trial, and execution, complete with
photos of the young women killing the Cubans who had raped them.
Both stories were reported widely in the American and British
press and elsewhere. Some of the major newspapers, such as the
New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian of London, were
careful to point out that the only source of the information was
UNITA and their articles did not attempt to ascribe any special
credence to the reports. But this could not of course prevent
the placing of seeds of belief in the minds of readers already
conditioned to believe the worst about communists.
The disinformation campaign took place within the United States
as well. FNLA delegates came to New York in September to lobby
for support at the UN and with the New York press, distributing
as they went copies of a "white paper" on the Angolan
conflict prepared at CIA headquarters but made to look like it
was produced in Zaire, French and all. John Stockwell described
the paper as sometimes "false to the point of being ludicrous'
and other times "simply inaccurate".
Afterward, representatives of UNITA went to Washington and
presented to members of Congress, the State Department, the White
House and the media, verbal reports about the situation in Angola
which were the product of briefings given them by their CIA case
In January 1976, William Colby sat before the Senate investigating
committee and solemnly assured the Senators: we have taken particular
caution to ensure that our operations are focused abroad and not
on the United States to influence the opinion of the American
people about things from the ClA point of view.
There was virtually no important aspect of the Angolan intervention
which Colby, Kissinger, and other high officials did not misrepresent
to Congress and the media.
The odds never favored a military victory for the US-backed
forces in Angola, particularly in the absence of a relatively
large-scale American commitment which, given the political atmosphere,
was not in the cards. The MPLA was the most organized and best
led of the three factions and early on controlled the capital
city of Luanda, which housed almost the entire governmental machinery.
Yet, for no reason, apparently, other than anti-Soviet spite,
the United States was unwilling to allow a negotiated settlement.
When Savimbi of UNITA sent out feelers to the MPLA in September
1975 to discuss a peaceful solution he was admonished by the CIA.
Similarly, the following month when an MPLA delegation went to
Washington to once again express their potential friendliness
to the United States, they received a cool reception, being seen
only by a low-level State Department official.
In November MPLA representatives came to Washington to plead
for the release of two Boeing jet airliners which their government
had paid for but which the State Department would not allow to
be exported. John Stockwell relates the unusual development that
the MPLA men were accompanied by Bob Temmons, who until shortly
before had been the head of the CIA station in Luanda, as well
as by the president of Boeing. While the two Angolans and the
man from Boeing petitioned the State Department, the CIA man made
known to Agency headquarters that he had come to share the view
of the US Consul General in Luanda "that the MPLA was best
qualified to run the country, that it was not demonstrably hostile
to the United States, and that the United States should make peace
with it as quickly as possible."
The State Department's response to the MPLA representatives
was simple: the price for any American co-operation with the Angolan
government was Soviet influence out US influence in.
At one time or another almost two dozen countries, East and
West, felt the urge to intervene in the conflict. Principal amongst
these were the United States, China, South Africa and Zaire on
the side of FNLA/UNITA, and the Soviet Union, Cuba, the Cong Republic
and Katangese troops (Zairian rebels) supporting MPLA. The presence
of South African forces on their side cost the United States and
its Angolan allies dearly in support from other countries, particularly
in Africa. Yet, South Africa's participation in the war had been
directly solicited by the United States. In sharp contrast to
stated American policy, the CIA and the National Security Agency
had been collaborating with Pretoria's intelligence service since
the 1960s and continued to do so in regard to Angola. One of the
principal focuses of the intelligence provided by the US to South
Africa was the African National Congress, the leading anti-apartheid
organization which had been banned and exiled. In 1962, the South
African police arrested ANC leader Nelson Mandela based on information
as to his whereabouts and disguise provided them by CIA officer
Donald Rickard. Mandela spent almost 28 years in prison.
In 1977, the Carter administration banned the sharing of intelligence
with South Africa, but this was largely ignored by the American
intelligence agencies. Two years earlier, the CIA had set up a
covert mechanism whereby arms were delivered to the South Africans;
this practice, in violation of US law, continued until at least
1978, and a portion of the arms were more than likely put to use
in Angola. South Africa in turn helped to ferry American military
aid from Zaire into Angola.
In fairness to the CIA, it must be pointed out that its people
were not entirely oblivious or insensitive to what South Africa
represented. The Agency was very careful about getting its black
officers into the Angola program.
A congressional cutoff of aid to the FNLA/UNITA, enacted in
January 1976, hammered a decisive nail into their coffin. Congressmen
did not yet know the full truth about the American operation,
but enough of the public dumbshow had been exposed to make them
incensed at how Kissinger, Colby, et al. had lied to their faces.
The consequence was one of the infrequent occasions in modern
times that the US Congress has exercised a direct and pivotal
influence upon American foreign policy. In the process, it avoided
the slippery slope to another Vietnam, on top of which stood Henry
Kissinger and the CIA with shoes waxed.
By February, the MPLA, with indispensable help from Cuban
troops and Soviet military equipment, had all but routed their
opponents. The Cuban presence in Angola was primarily a direct
response to South African attacks against the MPLA. Wayne Smith,
director of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs from
1977 to 1979, has written that "in August and October 
South African troops invaded Angola with full U.S. knowledge.
No Cuban troops were in Angola prior to this intervention."
Savimbi at this time again considered reaching an understanding
with the MPLA. The response from Washington was: Keep fighting.
Kissinger personally promised UNITA continued support if they
maintained their resistance, knowing full well that there was
no more support to give. During the two weeks that Savimbi waited
for his answer, he lost 600 men in a single battlefield. Yet,
incredibly, less than two months before, the Secretary of State
had stated: "We are not opposed to the MPLA as such. We can
live with any of the factions in Angola." The man was wholly
obsessed with countering Soviet moves anywhere on the planet-significant
or trivial, real or imagined, fait accompli or anticipated.
The civil war in Angola did not actually come to an end in
1976 as it appeared to, for the fighting lingered on intermittently,
sometimes moderately, sometimes ferociously.
In 1984 a confidential memorandum smuggled out of Zaire revealed
that the United States and South Africa had met in November 1983
to discuss destabilization of the Angola government. Plans were
drawn up to supply more military aid to UNITA (the FNLA was now
defunct) and discussions were held on ways to implement a wide
range of tactics: unify the anti-government movements, stir up
popular feeling against the government, sabotage factories and
transport systems, seize strategic points, disrupt joint Angola-Soviet
projects, undermine relations between the government and the Soviet
Union and Cuba, bring pressure to bear on Cuba to withdraw its
troops, sow divisions in the ranks of the MPLA leadership, infiltrate
agents into the Angolan army. and apply pressure to stem the flow
of foreign investments into Angola.
The United States branded the document a forgery, but UNITA's
representative in Washington would neither confirm nor deny that
the meeting took place. He stated however, that UNITA had "contacts
with US officials at all levels on a regular basis".
The aim of the operation, according to the memorandum, was
to force part of the Angolan leadership to negotiate with UNITA,
precisely what Washington had successfully discouraged years earlier.
A month after the reported US-South Africa meeting, the UN
Security Council censured South Africa for its military operations
in Angola, and endorsed Luanda's right to reparations. Only the
United States, abstaining, did not support the resolution.
In August 1985, after a three-year battle with Congress, the
Reagan administration won a repeal of the 1976 prohibition against
US military aid to rebel forces in Angola. Military assistance
began to flow to UNITA overtly as well as covertly. In January
1987, Washington announced that it was providing the rebels with
Stinger missiles and other anti-aircraft weaponry. Three months
earlier, Jonas Savimbi had spoken before the European Parliament
in Strasbourg, France in an appeal for support. Following his
talk, however, a plenary session of the Parliament criticized
American support for the guerrilla leader and passed a resolution
which described UNITA as a "terrorist organization which
supports South Africa."
Finally, in September 1992, elections were held, but when
it became apparent that the MPLA would be the winner in a run-off-in
polling which the UN certified to be free and fair-Savimbi refused
to accept the result. He ended a year-old cease-fire and launched
one of UNITA's largest, most sustained offensives of the war,
still being supplied by South Africa, and, in recent years, by
American "private" airlines and "relief" organizations
with interesting histories such as previous contacts to the Nicaraguan
In May 1993, Washington finally recognized the Angolan government.
In January, just before the Clinton administration took over,
a senior State Department official had declared: "UNITA is
exactly like the Khmer Rouge: elections and negotiations are just
one more method of fighting a war; power is all."
The war-which had taken more than 300,000 lives-was still
raging in 1994, continuing to produce widespread hunger and what
is said to be the highest amputee rate in the world, caused by
the innumerable land mines.