Cabo Delgado Worrying lesson from history: Operation Gordian Knot

1 July was the 51st anniversary of the start of Operation Gordian Knot, the failed operation by colonial Portugal to defeat Frelimo. It was based on the belief that a foreign military intervention could beat a guerrilla force in a civil war in Cabo Delgado. Just a month after its start, on 6 August 1970, General Kaulza de Arriaga declared victory. But it proved a complete failure which eventually led to the military overthrowing the Portuguese government in 1974 and the victory of Frelimo and independence in Mozambique.

In June 1969, Arriaga became commander of he Portuguese forces in Mozambique and in March 1970 became commander in chief of the Portuguese armed forces. He entered with a plan for a big military operation to defeat Frelimo once and for all - to use 8000 troops to cut the Gordian Knot. In 1973 he was refused resources to step up the failed military campaign and was dismissed.

Mariana Carneiro has a long and excellent article (unfortunately only in Portuguese, "1 de julho de 1970: Inicio da Operacao No Gordio") on Esquerda (1 July). She is careful simply to tell the story. But the similarities with the current war jump out at the reader.

In May 1970, following the assassination for Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, already military commander, became president of Frelimo. He changed tactics, notably dispersing units into smaller groups, resulting in greater mobility on the ground and the capacity for surgical attacks on the Portuguese detachments.

As today, the military faced splits and conflicts with interests in the government and economic sector. First Arriaga had to confront the governors-general, including Baltazar Rebelo de Sousa (father of the current President of Portugal), who did not agree with his plan for the conduct of the war. And he had to deal with Jorge Jardim, the businessman who pulled all the strings in Mozambique. He mediated the interests of large multinationals and of white-ruled neighbours Rhodesia and South Africa, was linked to the Portuguese secret service PIDE, and also helped fund the armed forces.

And as today, Arriaga put his stress on creating special commando and air units (mainly of Mozambicans) and of clearing the population into "strategic villages" to keep people away from Frelimo. This is the strategy today. Portugal and US are training special forces. New helicopter forces are already in operation, supplied and crews trained by foreign private military companies. And it is obviously government policy to clear the land to keep local people away from the insurgents, with nearly the entire population moved outside the war zone as "internally displaced people".

Arriaga chose Mueda as his military operations base, as the government has today. Frelimo was concentrated in what are now Muidumbe and Macomia districts. On 25 and 29 March, in Litapata, Muidumbe district, Machel issued new orientations to the guerrillas. Recognising the military superiority of the enemy in almost every respect, he said the guerrillas should adopt a tactic of attacking and withdrawing immediately. Frelimo abandoned its three large bases, which were taken by Ariaga. Frelimo created smaller units and intensified sabotage and hit and run actions. And it moved into new areas in Niassa and Tete. ,Editor: Joseph Hanlon (

The Portuguese leadership of the time later admitted the error of trying to apply the tactics of classic warfare to subversive warfare. Silva Cunha, minister of Overseas Territories (1965-1973) and then Defence (1973-1974) said "it was like throwing a stone at a hornet's nest: the wasps flew everywhere. The result was that subversion expanded instead of being subdued."

After Gordian Knot, Arriaga intensified violence against the people, including Operation Frontier, which destroyed peasant crops with herbicides. This only shifted them to support Frelimo.

Is history repeating itself? Is the government following Arriaga's strategy? Will the desperate attempt to bring in foreign military forces be Frelimo's Operation Gordian Knot?

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