Angola, 1975 to 1980s : The Great Powers Poker Game
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 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 morning papers bring fresh revelations about CIA and FBI misdeeds.
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 ‘62 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 Soviet Union, which had also given some support to Roberto, embraced Neto instead in 1964, arguing that Roberto had helped the discredited Moise Tshombe in the Congo and curtailed his own guerrilla operations in Angola under pressure from Washington. Before long, another movement, UNITA by name, entered the picture and China dealt itself into The Great Powers Poker Game, lending support to UNITA and FNLA.
Although MPLA may have been somewhat more genuine in its leftist convictions than FNLA or UNITA, there was little to distinguish any of the three groups from each other ideologically. When the press made any distinction amongst them it was usually to refer to MPLA as “Marxist”, but this was ill-defined, if defined at all, and simply took on a media life of its own. Each of the groups spoke of socialism and employed Marxist rhetoric when the occasion called for it, and genuflected to other gods when it did not. In the 1960s, each of them was perfectly willing to accept support from any country willing to give it without excessive strings attached. Neto, for example, went to Washington in December 1962 to put his case before the American government and press and to emphasize the fallacy of categorizing the MPLA as communist. During the following two years, Roberto appealed for aid to the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Algeria, and Nasser’s Egypt. Later, Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA, approached the same countries (with the exception perhaps of the Soviet Union) as well as North Vietnam, and accepted military training for his men from North Korea.
Each group was composed predominantly of members of a particular tribe; each tried to discourage aid or recognition being given to the others; they each suffered from serious internal splits and spent as much time fighting each other as they did the Portuguese army. The Vietcong they were not.
Author Jonathan Kwitny has observed that the three tribal nations had a long history of fighting each other …
It was not until the latter part of the twentieth century, however, that Dr. Henry Kissinger and other political scientists discovered that the real reason the Mbundu, the Ovimbundu, and the Kongo had been fighting off and on for the past 500 years was that the Mbundu were “Marxist” and the Ovimbundu and Kongo were “pro-Western”.
That the CIA’s choosing of its ally was largely an arbitrary process is further underlined by a State Department cable to its African Embassies in 1963 which stated: “U.S. policy is not, repeat not, to discourage [an] MPLA … move toward West and not to choose between these two movements.”
Even in 1975, when the head of the CIA, William Colby, was asked by a congressional committee what the differences were between the three contesting factions, he responded:
They are all independents. They are all for black Africa. They are all for some fuzzy kind of social system, you know, without really much articulation, but some sort of let’s not be exploited by the capitalist nations.
And when asked why the Chinese were backing the FNLA or UNITA, he stated: “Because the Soviets are backing the MPLA is the simplest answer.”
“It sounds,” said Congressman Aspin, “like that is why we are doing it.”
“It is,” replied Colby.
Nonetheless, the committee, in its later report, asserted that in view of Colby’s statement, “The U.S.’s expressed opposition to the MPLA is puzzling”.
Finally, it is instructive to note that all three groups were denounced by the Portuguese as communists and terrorists.
Before April 1974, when a coup in Portugal ousted the dictatorship, the aid given to the Angolan resistance movements by their various foreign patrons was sporadic and insignificant, essentially a matter of the patrons keeping their hands in the game. The coup, however, raised the stakes, for the new Portuguese government soon declared its willingness to grant independence to its African colonies.
In an agreement announced on 15 January 1975, the three movements formed a transitional government with elections to be held in October and formal independence to take place the following month.
Since 1969, Roberto had been on a $10,000-a-year retainer from the CIA. On 22 January, the Forty Committee of the National Security Council in Washington authorized the CIA to pass $300,000 to Roberto and the FNLA for “various political action activities, restricted to non-military objectives.” Such funds of course can always free up other funds for military uses.
In March, the FNLA, historically the most warlike of the groups, attacked MPLA headquarters and later gunned down 51 unarmed, young MPLA recruits. These incidents served to spark what was to be a full-scale civil war, with UNITA aligning itself with FNLA against MPLA. The scheduled elections would never take place.
Also in March, the first large shipment of arms reportedly arrived from the Soviet Union for the MPLA. The House investigating committee subsequently stated that “Later events have suggested that this infusion of US aid [the $300,000], unprecedented and massive in the underdeveloped colony, may have panicked the Soviets into arming their MPLA clients”.
The Soviets may have been as much influenced by the fact that China had sent a huge arms package to the FNLA the previous September and had dispatched over one hundred military advisers to neighboring Zaire to train Roberto’s soldiers only a month after the coup in Portugal.
The CIA made its first major weapons shipment to the FNLA in July 1975. Thus, like the Russians and the Chinese, the United States was giving aid to one side of the Angolan civil war on a level far greater than it had ever provided during the struggle against Portuguese colonialism.
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. 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, theWhite House and the media, verbal reports about the situation in Angola which were the product of briefings given them by their CIA case officers.
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 at the United States to influence the opinion of the American people about things from the CIA 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 beexported. 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 Congo 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 letting 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. He was perhaps particularly driven in this case, for as he later wrote: “Angola represents the first time that the Soviets have moved militarily at long distance to impose a regime of their choice.”
If this seems far removed from how the academics tell us American foreign policy is made, it’s still more plausible than the other explanation commonly advanced for the policy in Angola, viz: it was done to please Sese Seko Mobutu, the head of Zaire, characterized as America’s most important ally/client in Africa, if not in the Third World. (Zaire was home to the CIA’s largest station in Africa.) Mobutu desired an Angolan government he could sway, primarily to prevent Angola being used as a sanctuary by his arch foes, the rebels from Katanga province in Zaire. Accordingly, the Zairian leader committed his US-equipped armed forces into combat in Angola, on the side of the FNLA, for Holden Roberto happened to be a relation of his, although Roberto and the FNLA had little else going for them. As Professor Gerald Bender, a leading American authority on Angola, testified before Congress in 1978:
Although the United States has supported the FNLA in Angola for 17 years, it is virtually impossible to find an American official, scholar or journalist, who is familiar with that party, who will testify positively about its organization or leadership. After a debate with a senior State Department official at the end of the Angolan civil war, I asked him why the United States ever bet on the FNLA. He replied, “I’ll be damned if I know; I have never seen a single report or memo which suggests that the FNLA has any organization, solid leaders, or an ideology which we could count on.” Even foreign leaders who have supported Holden Roberto, such as General Mobutu, agree with that assessment. When asked by a visiting U.S. Senator if he thought Roberto would make a good leader for Angola, Mobutu replied, “Hell no!”
Kissinger himself told the House investigating committee that promoting the stability of Mobutu was one of the prime reasons for the American policy in Angola. Yet, even if this were one of Kissinger’s rare truthful remarks about the Angola situation, and even if this could be a valid justification for serious intervention in a civil war ina third country, his statement challenges, if it does not defeat, comprehension; for in June 1975, a month before the United States shipped its first major arms package to the FNLA, Mobutu had accused the US of plotting his overthrow and assassination, whereupon he expelled the American ambassador (see Zaire chapter).
The Secretary of State, never at a loss for the glib line custom-made for his immediate audience, also told Israeli officials that failure to stop the Russians in Angola “could encourage Arab countries such as Syria to run risks that could lead to a new attack on Israel, backed up by the Russians.”
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Moynihan, did not greatly enhance the level of discussion when he declared that if the United States did not step in “the Communists would take over Angola and will thereby considerably control the oil shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf to Europe. They will be next to Brazil. They will have a large chunk of Africa, and the world will be different in the aftermath if they succeed.” A truly baroque train of thought, and another example of what cold- war conditioning could do to an otherwise intelligent and educated person.
With only a change in place names, similar geo-political- domino theories have been put forth to give a veneer of rationality to so many American interventions. In this case, as in the others where the “communists” won, nothing of the sort ensued.
“In all respect to Kissinger,” Jonathan Kwitny has written, “one really has to question the sanity of someone who looks at an ancient tribal dispute over control of distant coffee fields and sees in it a Soviet threat to the security of the United States.”
The MPLA in power was restricted by the same domestic and international economic realities which the FNLA or UNITA would have faced. Accordingly, it discouraged union militancy, dealt sternly with strikes, exhorted the workers to produce more, entered into commercial contracts with several multinationals, and did not raise the hammer and sickle over the president’s palace. The MPLA urged Gulf Oil Co. to continue its exclusive operation in Cabinda province and guaranteed the safety of the American corporation’s employees while the fighting was still heavy. Gulf was completely amenable to this offer, but the CIA and the State Department put pressure on the company to discontinue its royalty payments to the MPLA, thus jeopardizing the entire oil venture in a way that the “Marxist” government never did. One aspect of this pressure was a threat by Kissinger to open an investigation of international bribery by the company. Gulf compromised by putting its payments into an escrow bank account until the civil war came to an end of sorts a few months later, at which time payments to the MPLA were resumed.
Contrary to accepted Western belief, Cuba did not enter the Angolan war as a Soviet surrogate. John Stockwell has noted that after the war the CIA “learned that Cuba had not been ordered into action by the Soviet Union” but that “the Cuban leaders felt compelled to intervene for their own ideological reasons.” In 1977, the New York magazine Africa Report stated that “The Cubans have supported [MPLA leader Neto’s] pragmatic approach toward Western investment and his attempts to maintain a foreign policy of non-alignment.” The magazine also reported that on 27 May the Angolan government had announced that, aided by Cuban troops, it had crushed a rebellion by a faction of the MPLA whose leader claimed to have Soviet support.
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 Statesand 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 contras.
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.