Mozambique: It Began With Twelve, How Will It End?

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AFRICOM’s Newest Adventure.

White faces in fatigues – I’m sure that’s just what most Mozambicans were hoping to see upon their shores. After all, it certainly isn’t the first time. Ever since the Portuguese started planting trading posts and forts on what was known as the Swahili Coast around the year 1500, an arrival of armed whites has never really ended well for the locals. Now, if half a millennium late to the party, America recently shipped an army special forces detachment to the country.

The 12-man team hit the ground in mid-March, as part of a program that the New York Times described as “modest in size and scope,” on a mission purportedly limited to training Mozambican marines – to combat an escalating and brutal Islamist insurgency in the country’s northernmost region – for the next two months. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on the operation remaining restricted to a dozen troops, sixty days, or strictly training. Given Washington’s two-decade track record, the safe money seems to always be on a healthy dose of mission creep.

Either way, The Pentagon’s chosen dirty dozen shouldn’t get too lonely – since they won’t be the only combatant expatriate game in town. Get this: Portugal’s planning a Mozambican homecoming any day now, sending in a team of “around 60” special forces soldiers, according to Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, to “support the Mozambican army in training special forces.” It seems all fads – even colonialism – eventually find themselves back in style. Lisbon left way back in 1975 – after losing a ten-year anti-independence war in which some 50,000 civilians were killed – but even that era’s famed bellbottoms have already made a comeback. So why not? Well, I suppose there is the minor matter of wondering just how happy average Mozambicans will be to see their former masters moseying in.

Plus, the guest list might not stop there! According to BBC News, “France is reportedly monitoring the situation from its nearby island of Mayotte and South Africa is taking a close interest in its neighbor.” Furthermore, senior British officers told The Independent that elements of “the Special Operations Brigade being set up” by the army may deploy to Mozambique, and that the “European Union is also said to be considering sending troops there.” Talk about a truly colonial-retro throwback party – Africa always has been Westerners favorite continent to crash!

Most of the former imperial-revelers make sense, but Uncle Sam could be seen as an odd-invite. Sure, the U.S. military’s been tramping across Africa a lot recently, but although the United States was long a key enabler – and sometime supporter – of apartheid South Africa’s “Border War” (1966-89) against the region’s African nationalist states and freedom-fighting rebels, the portion of the continent south of the Congo has traditionally been off-limits to actual American troops. In other words, this deployment of special forces to Mozambique is rather unprecedented – though that fact is rarely highlighted in the bland mainstream media reporting on it.

Nevertheless, the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) has now crossed that seemingly last Rubicon – or, in this case, Ruvuma: the river forming the boundary between Tanzania and Northern Mozambique – and off to the future fiasco races. Their ostensible enemy target group – though there’s absolutely zero evidence it poses any threat to Europe or North America – is officially known, in the West and ISIS-media at least, by the menacing and misleading moniker Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). With an acronym like that, one might assume – just as Washington’s establishment hawks are hoping – that these Mozambican insurgents have something to do with Iraq, Syria, or you know…that whole global caliphate thing. But: not so much.

Less Than Tenuous Ties

Just days before those twenty-four total American boots hit the ground, the State Department officially designated the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. At first glance, that seems a solely symbolic move – since there aren’t any known cases of American citizens doing business with these particular Islamist rebels. Nevertheless, there are two significant aspects to this that most observers miss. First off, many experts argue that FTO designations tend to hamper humanitarian aid group efforts, and thus could end up hurting the average Mozambicans that are ostensibly in for some white-savioring in the first place.

Second, the FTO-classification – and the ludicrously long and awkward naming convention, itself – gives the illusion of a meaningful connection between America’s mostly vanquished (but lingeringly frightful) Islamic State foes in Iraq and Syria, and in fact, the entire framework of an exaggeratedly expansive global jihad. Yet it’s simply not true; not in either case. The insurgency in Northern Mozambique – like almost every one the US has taken it upon itself to try-and-fail to militarily solve – has local roots, based on local grievances, and unfolds in a specific local context. ISIS had, and still basically has, nothing to do with it. The notion that they do is a ruse paradoxically played by both Washington and Raqqa-in-exile – in other words Islamic State-Central.

The corrupt and distant – located hundreds of miles south of the insurgency’s Cabo Delgado ground-zero – Mozambican government is perfectly happy to push the “globalized terrorist” and Islamic State-linkage fantasy label. Doing so helps Maputo justify a heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaign that’s real aim is to defend the social and economic interests of a ruling national oligarchy and the foreign energy corporations who fund them. It also gains the government external support and (they think) a bailout, before it has to actually address the roots of an insurgency its mismanagement essentially caused: stark economic inequality, more than half of the population trapped in absolute poverty, lack of – and unequally distributed – social services, and repressive security force tactics. None of this is to say that the ISCAP crowd are angels – frankly they are mostly monsters who massacre civilians and lop off even children’s heads with some regularity.

But as for the ominous implication that ISCAP fighters will soon somehow be swimming around the Cape of Good Hope to behead some Floridian babies – the State Department’s announcement is again instructive. Because here’s the thing: nowhere in the statement is there even an attempt to spell out any tangible terror threat to the United States. Not a hint. America’s ever-more-militarized diplomats don’t even feel the need to much bother anymore. With one exception, worth transcribing in an abridged verbatim – an exchange between a British reporter from the Economist and Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Acting Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS John T. Godfrey, during last month’s digital press briefing on “US Efforts to Combat Terrorism in Africa” (with some added authorial commentary):

John McDermott, chief Africa correspondent for The Economist: Hi.  Sorry if this is a naughty question [My new favorite passive-aggressive lead-off when one knows they’ll never receive a real answer – or really an admission, since McDermott no doubt already suspects the truth] but what is the evidence of links between ISIS and the insurgents in Mozambique beyond the reported pledges of allegiance made more than 18 months ago? [That’s the real rub, isn’t it?]   And a related question is:  What is the evidence that Abu Yasir Hassan is the leader of the group, and what precisely do you mean by leader? [Washington-types have stretched the truth so long, and “made” these minor rebel players into self-fulfilling prophesied legends, that McDermott’s left with little choice but to resurrect Lewinsky scandal-era Clinton-ese: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”]

Mr. Godfrey: One of the sort of truisms of doing counterterrorism work that unfortunately a lot of the information that we rely on to inform our assessments isn’t the kind of thing that we can discuss publicly, [Isn’t that convenient?!?] but I would say that the evidence of ties between the ISIS branch or network in Mozambique and the so-called ISIS-Core in Iraq and Syria is quite incontrovertible…[Translation: “But…you know…trust us! It’s not as if we’re proven pathological liars; and, um, what I mean to say is: ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for!’”]

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Congo, to David Kalenda.

McDermott:  I’m sorry, my second question about the –

Moderator:  Okay.

McDermott:  – designation of the Abu Yasir Hassan as the leader.  Nobody – nobody addressed that.  If I could be polite and say –

Moderator:  Yeah.  Well, usually we just have one question.  (Laughter.)  So I’ll ask my guests –  

McDermott:  My first question was – my first question wasn’t actually answered either, so maybe I’ll get a half answer to my second question as well. [There are times in life, dark times – like, say, now – when there’s nothing so needed as petulant snark of the dry British variety.]

Anyway, the whole press conference exchange demonstrates the Catch-22 that underpins – and endlessly justifies – America’s expanding wars without end:

Look we can’t show any evidence of the one thing that might possibly justify the sending of American troops into harm’s way – credible threats to your security – because doing so would endanger your security, and therefore must be kept secret. That said, you should totally trust us that the evidence is there, and boy is it juicy and scary!

The nifty [forever war] formula works like a damn charm, and has now reached its logical conclusion and implications. That is, the nearly 20-year old post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) – which was specifically targeted at “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons” – has been so stretched and twisted that it now apparently permits military intervention against far-flung groups that weren’t even formed until 16 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It also offers fresh confirmation that the Biden team mostly means to read from the same old script, and use the same playbook to run the same “offense” – one globalized Hail Mary military solution-that-isn’t after another. For Biden, like his old younger boss Obama, that may especially play out on the African continent.

So what’s the point of all this arbitrary and bureaucratic designation-whimsy? After all, one could cogently argue that the classification itself sort of solidifies and legitimizes ISIS-Central’s own classifying sleight of hand: by which they’ll farm out the franchise name to almost any vaguely Islamist-inspired rebellion and then take the much-needed – for a failing parent brand – credit. Then again, one could just as easily ask and answer the same question about the entire Western and US military intervention in Mozambique.

Resource and Cold Wars

In late March, insurgents seized – though Mozambican security forces just retook – the coastal town of Palma, which happens to be a mere six miles from a multi-billion-dollar liquid natural gas (LNG) plant, the largest and richest in all of Africa. That plant is run by the French energy corporation, Total, which subsequently pulled its staff from the site. Keep an eye on that – on this particular continent, natural resources under the earth or coastal waters tends to translate to local insurgencies, repeated foreign military interventions, and loads of dead Africans.

It seems the real motives, and why Mozambique suddenly matters, involve access to and securing of natural resources – liquefied natural gas to be exact – and, inextricably linked to that: great power competition with Russia and especially China. The heart of the ISCAP-insurgency is in Cabo Delgado, which boasts one of the planet’s richest LNG deposits, and thus hosts a cornucopia of major foreign energy companies: Total (France), Exxon, Mobil, Chevron (U.S.A.), BP (Britain), ENI (Italy), Mitsui (Japan), Petronas (Malaysia) and – wait for it – China’s CNPC.

The whole notion that the US, its European allies, or supposedly dogged Russian or Chinese foes have no choice but to battle for resources and influence in Africa, may be uncritically accepted in Washington and media establishment circles – but it’s a baldfaced lie. No matter, (so far) twelve American soldiers have been sent off to fight on that lie. But this defrauded-dozen represents a US intervention that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

A US Foot in (or Stuck) the Door

Older readers might recall the classically-‘80s television series The A-Team, starring Mr. T. It ran, in fact, from the year of my birth (1983), until I entered preschool four years later. Befitting the corny advertising-agency-accented times, the show had a slick slogan in its opening narration: “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.” Well, when it comes to Mozambique – and just about every unsolveable problem in Africa – the US Government, and its typically problematic local state partners, seem to have taken that to heart: sailing, flying, and eventually marching it’s US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) teams all over the continent. Not that they’ve ever really delivered on the problem-solving part. Nevertheless, the Pentagon, press, and politician obsession with precise numbers of boots-on-the-ground often conceals and simplifies the story.

On the surface – or I suppose, the ground – the recently deployed green berets make up an Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), or A-team. ODA’s typically consist of 12 team members: two weapons sergeants, two communications sergeants, two medical sergeants, two engineering sergeants, a commander (captain), assistant commander (warrant officer), operations sergeant and an intelligence sergeant. But in reality, that’s not the half of what an A-Team brings to bear. First off, while these personnel are organic to an ODA, detachments are often augmented – for example in Afghanistan – with any or all of the following: joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) to coordinate “layers” of amply available air support, a military working dog (MWD) and its human handler, additional intelligence assets, civil affairs personnel, and medical support specialists. On top of all this, special forces teams tend to possess unequaled – by conventional troops – access to, and availability of, additional resources and enablers; all with a higher priority status and speedier responsiveness.

I witnessed all this first hand when an ODA lived on the company-sized outpost I commanded in Kandahar, Afghanistan at the height of the surge in 2011 – and operated in tandem with our unit mission – for a few months. While these guys occasionally adhered to the Rambo stereotypes – like the time the team’s strikingly Eric Bana-resembling warrant officer was hip-firing mortars while shirtless during an attack on our base – their real power, and added value, stemmed from an ability to call in surveillance, airpower, intelligence, or just plain cash, faster and in greater volume than I could for a command ten-times the ODA’s size. In other words, deploying a green beret team into a country implies a lot more than a dozen troopers walking around with rifles, and could easily – and often does (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Syria, et. al.) – expand into an unrecognizable and unwinnable quagmiric fiasco.

Mercenary Madness

Of course there are already white faces and white hands toting guns – and piloting helicopters – in Mozambique, and have been for a while. Unable to defeat an ever-worsening insurgency, Maputo turned to that most ubiquitous tool of desperate African governments: foreign mercenaries. First there were the Syria-seasoned Russians from the Wagner Group, then – when that gang had several men killed in combat and retreated – came another outfit of from further south on the continent itself. What could go wrong?

Well, when one considers just what the private military company (PMO) – a polite modern euphemism for hired guns – in question, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), is, the answers seem obvious and countless.  This outfit is headquartered in South Africa – that veritable soldier of fortune-factory – and was founded in 2012 by Lionel Dyck, a Rhodesian (uh, shades of Hollywood’s Blood Diamond, much?) ex-military colonel. But seriously, a crew run by a septuagenarian white Rhodesian – who fought for the apartheid white-minority regime of a country now known as Zimbabwe – is the very definition of a poisoned well backstory.

After all, back in the 1970s, Dyck’s own Rhodesian African Rifles Regiment (RAR) used to make cross-border attacks to snuff-out Zimbabwean guerrilla bases that Mozambique’s current ruling Frelimo Party was then hosting. But Dyck has also been known change sides just like the weather, first, staying on in the post-independence Zimbabwean Army to suppress an insurgency and keep his old nemesis President Robert Mugabe in power; then, in 1985, commanding Zimbabwean troops fighting – the apartheid South African-backed proxy – Renamo rebels in Mozambique. Suppose all was forgiven after that, at least by Frelimo Party officials – as for average Mozambicans, that’s probably more complicated.

This guy’s a real gem, by the way – a true throwback to the unapologetic bad old mercenary days of Britain’s “Mad Mike” Hoare blazing his way threw nearby Congo in the 1960s. When Amnesty International released a report last month alleging that DAG personnel unlawfully killed many local civilians – documenting “extrajudicial executions,” “fir[ing] machine guns from helicopters and dropp[ing] hand grenades indiscriminately into crowds of people,” and “repeatedly fir[ing] at civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and homes” – cartoon-villain Colonel Dyck had this to say: “dissidents [who] ran into a hospital shooting at us so we shot them.” Easy peasy! He then expressed his total shock that his hired hands get such a bad rap, adding: “I have no idea why that [sic] mercenaries are so badly spoken of. We have that reputation too, good or bad, I don’t understand it.” Seriously, what a bunch of poor, put-upon, guys!

Funny thing: there’s much alarmism over the alleged nefarious activities of the Wagner Group’s Russian mercs in Mozambique flowing from mainstream media, congressional hearings and US government&defense contractor-funded think tanks – yet relatively muted mention of the exponentially worse atrocity allegations against apartheid-era South African and white Rhodesian hired guns. Could it be this whole Mozambican gamut – with its shades of Cold War I moral duplicity – is just drenched in “new” Cold War II frameworks and motives?

In other words, does the US military really wish to be associated – and it will be – with such soldiers of fortune inside an African nation that was colonized by Portugal for 470 years, then tortured for 17 more by the proxy rebel Renamo army of the white apartheid South African and Rhodesian regimes? No matter, whatever else Washington’s policymakers are apt to do: it isn’t to ask any average Africans what they think!

Mark my words: none of this is going to end well: not for the colonial-retro European imperialists, not for the rotating gangs of Russian and apartheid-throwback mercenaries, certainly not for actual Africans, and odds are – not for whatever number of American troops end in this mess.

The whole US intervention in Mozambique seemingly has all of the usual post-9/11 ingredients for the forever war recipe: it’s ill-advised, careless, easy entry-no clear exit, diversionary, and detached from real national interests. The muddled mission assigned those (first) twelve green berets matches another fictional quip, delivered by Jessica Biel in the 2010 remake of The A-Team – “they are the best at what they do, and they specialize in the ridiculous.”

The first part may be true; the second, sadly…almost certainly is.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.