This article was written by David Page, who has retired from policing and teaches an intelligence module for a Masters in a very different field, fraud investigation, at Coventry University. He is an observer of insurgency, intelligence, terrorism and strategy. David is a long-serving member of the IISS and RUSI. He is a forum moderator at Small Wars Journal.
Bandit Mentality: Hunting Insurgents in the Rhodesian Bush War, A Memoir by Lindsay O’Brien is a well-produced paperback (358 pages) from the UK-based publisher Helion & Company. The book can be ordered via their website.
Counter-insurgency (COIN) is rarely out of the news, let alone studies at universities. A profusion of books have been written on the Rhodesian war, or Chimurenga, which lasted for thirteen years from April 1966 to December 1979. Many of these books were written by Rhodesian and South African veterans, but only a few – including Bandit Mentality – are by foreign veterans of the counter-insurgency. None have to date been written by veterans of the African nationalist guerrillas.
This book is a refreshingly honest account by Lindsay O’Brien, a New Zealander, whose skimpy biography indicates service with the New Zealand Army as a ‘boy soldier’. O’Brien then ‘bummed’ around before landing in Rhodesia in 1974, where he managed a tobacco farm. In 1976, as the insurgency gained momentum, he volunteered to serve in Rhodesia’s British South African Police (BSAP) Support Unit, the largely civilian police force’s paramilitary unit. The unit was 1,200 strong. The ranks and NCOs were black Africans, and the unit was officered by regular, white police officers and those whites doing National Service.
What motivated O’Brien to serve? In his own words, simply ‘a selfish love of combat and life with a complete lack of routine … I was hooked on the adrenaline rush … [it was] adventure for the sake of adventure’ (p. 267). In addition, there was plenty of opportunity – between six-week tours in the bush – to drink, party and relax.
By 1978, as the war escalated, many whites were leaving Rhodesia. Despite the experience O’Brien had gained by this time, no one bothered to persuade him to stay on. After leaving the Support Unit, he became an adviser to the newly-recruited United African National Congress (UANC) fighters. The UANC were formed as part of the ‘Internal Settlement’ in March 1978 and were usually known as security force auxiliaries. Nearly all of the recruits had no combat experience or training and many came from the cities. They had to learn or die!
Little has been written about the ordinary, overwhelmingly rural, black African role in Rhodesia’s insurgency (I exclude the Selous Scouts who were mainly turned ex-guerrillas). Loyalties were not fixed, and O’Brien recounts that, in the autumn of 1976, a captured guerrilla recruit claimed to be a serving policeman’s wife (p. 79). Black policemen’s motives were mixed, but were often a combination of paid employment and revenge. They were loyal to the Support Unit and the BSAP – who ‘watched over them’. Like the French Foreign Legion, they ‘gave solid service in return [for this protection]’ (p. 172).
The rural African population lived in the Tribal Trust Lands and faced violence from the guerrillas and the Rhodesian security forces. The majority view of the population steadily changed from neutrality, to passive support of the guerrillas, and finally to active, if coerced, support for the guerrillas. The Africans would claim ignorance of the guerrillas’ presence in order to support them. A good illustration of the guerrillas’ freedom to operate can be found at a Rhodesian firepower demonstration, complete with aircraft, when an old African man asked: ‘If we are so powerful, why are there so many CTs [Communist Terrorists] in the bush?’ (p. 80).
Success in counter-insurgency is based on security forces successfully protecting civilians from insurgents. Rhodesia had extremely limited spending power, and their security forces were unable to live with and protect the rural Africans (p. 132). Personally, I doubt the white Rhodesian government ever had the motivation to protect ‘their Africans’, and their attitude only hardened as the war developed.
This book concentrates on the realities of hunting insurgents, although wider criticisms of the Rhodesian approach abound; for example, the lack of any briefing and debriefing for patrols (p. 289). O’Brien’s book helps to explain why Rhodesia failed to survive. There is a common, political phrase in COIN literature: ‘Holding the line’. To hold the line is to successfully contain the violence and strive for a political solution to end the conflict. The line in Rhodesia, as O’Brien points out, was simply full of holes. Following the Portuguese exit from their African colony, Mozambique, in 1974, the situation on the eastern border of Rhodesia worsened significantly. The withdrawal of the Portuguese rendered the border fully porous. Thousands left Rhodesia to get military training before re-crossing the border and joining the insurgency.
As the war progressed, the numbers of disaffected Africans grew. Their lack of cooperation was reflected, as outlined above, in the lack of information they provided to the security forces about the guerrillas’ location. As time went on, so many Africans left their everyday lives to join the nationalist guerrillas that the security forces could not, ultimately, hold the line.
In 1979, the Chimurenga was concluded with a negotiated settlement known as the Lancaster House Agreement. This marked the end of white minority rule and the arrival of majority rule in the country. Alas, this newfound democracy was soon replaced by a one-party dictatorship led by Robert Mugabe.
This book is worth reading, both for O’Brien’s recollections and for what can be learnt and applied to the world today. For multiple reasons, the Rhodesian COIN war is usually described as an exemplary use of a coercive tactical approach, yet the failings of the war are equally instructive. The security forces’ approach lacked an overall national strategy, and they failed to acquire and retain the loyalty of the majority African population – whether by defeating the guerrillas or by negotiating a political settlement that was acceptable to the guerrillas and the wider international community.