First Portuguese Colonial Exposition, 1934

Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal

First Portuguese Colonial Exposition, 1934

Institutional Analysis and Irregular Warfare: Portugal's Involvement in Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (1961-1974)

by Pierre Pahlavi and Karine Ali

Dr. Pierre Pahlavi is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director for Research at the Department of Defence Studies of the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. Along with multi-disciplinary and international academic training, he holds degrees from the Université de Nice – Sophia Antipolis (MA), the Université de Montréal (MSc), and McGill University (PhD). His recent publications reflect his main areas of expertise, namely, influence strategies, Iran’s foreign policy, institutional analysis, and irregular warfare.

Karine Ali holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Université de Montréal. She has studied the impact of national security issues upon changes in Canada’s immigration and refugee protection policies. She is currently the Coordinator to the Vice-Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Foreign Affairs for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the Université de Montréal.

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.


The study of Portugal’s involvement in Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique offers a unique perspective to examine the adaptation of a Western army to irregular warfare. First, it is a case still conspicuously ignored by academic experts in this domain, the bulk of their attention being devoted to the study of the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, or the Americans in Vietnam or Iraq. However, Portugal’s COIN operations in Africa offer an exceptional illustration of a successful adaptation of a Western army to irregular warfare. As this type of war requires, by definition, a degree of adjustment, success in defeating the adversary is largely dependent upon the friendly forces’ capability to adapt to a new context. Organizational adaptation, however, is not simply a matter of reorganizing structures, or modifying ‘command & control’ (C2) and doctrine. It also requires dealing with deep and oftentimes very subtle institutional forces that facilitate or prevent effective shifts from taking place.
By going beyond traditional explanations usually limited to logistical, doctrinal, and geopolitical factors, sociological institutional analysis presents notable advantages to study and to understand how some institutional forces that are, in general, neglected by scholars specializing in this field, can lead to unwanted adaptation, or can provide a solid basis in an irregular warfare context. Using sociologist Richard Scott’s model of institutional analysis as a framework, this article emphasizes three key dimensions of Portugal’s counter-guerrilla warfare to prevent its three African colonies from becoming independent (1961-1974): the cultural-cognitive (or ideological ∕ideational pillar on which it rests), the normative (doctrinal and strategic basis of military action), and the regulative (laws, rules, institutions). The combined study of these factors will allow tackling the crucial question of legitimacy, the logic of stability, and the dynamic of change resulting from the interaction among the three pillars of institutions.

Continent of Africa

17 Wing Publishing Winnipeg

Continent of Africa

1. Theoretical framework

Émile Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology, emphasized that any institution can exist only if it serves a social function that can be legitimized. Hence, institutions will engage in substantial adaptation only if they have no other options available. One of the fruitful ways to look at institutional change is isomorphism. It has been noted that organizations in a similar field of activity tend to copy each other, in terms of formal structures, but also with respect to espoused values and shared world views. Indeed, expediency in the face of uncertainty (i.e., what appears to work for competitors) is often a key driver in effecting institutional change.

Sociologists have studied changes within institutions since the 1980s through institutional analysis. Yet, however powerful this approach may be, very few sociologists have applied it to the military institution. Therefore, it is not so well known how the military institution maintains its internal integrity when the challenges are coming from facing a new type of enemy that does not conform to the usual definition of the state-centric military warfare. Conventional military institutions tend to copy each other, but, as this case study illustrates, isomorphism can also occur when a conventional army faces an unconventional enemy. The outcome of such isomorphic dynamics, however, can seriously debase the core foundation of an institution’s capacity to maintain its social legitimacy.

Although there are several schools of thought with respect to sociological institutional analysis, one of the few authors who succeed in providing a comprehensive framework to study institutions is Richard Scott.1 Scott’s framework follows the main pillars of social order,2 but provides more details for one of them. The first pillar is defined as regulative, and it encompasses the notion of social predictability. It is made of both formal and informal rules, regulations, laws, and sanction systems. Scott divides the second pillar related to its cohesiveness into two pillars of institutional analysis, namely the normative and the cultural-cognitive. Social cohesion is possible if a number of implicit values and norms are shared about what is desirable and legitimate, and these shared notions form Scott’s second pillar. The third pillar, the cultural-cognitive, refers to shared preconceived notions, thought patterns, and world views that also contribute to maintaining social cohesiveness. These three pillars of institutional analysis provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the actions and decisions within an institution.

The key unit of analysis in institutional analysis remains key decisions taken by key actors, which lead to real actions or inaction. It requires a degree of qualitative interpretation that is similar to the one done in the well-established field of organizational analysis. The main variables that determine why these real actions or inaction take the turn they do are based upon the three pillars; they are interdependent variables. For instance, rules and regulations can limit what is thinkable (cultural-cognitive), while the rules themselves can also be seen as an expression of some underlying norms and values. To overcome these overlapping dynamics, institutional analysis divides the three pillars, and uses some specific indicators for each.3 For the regulative pillar, the indicators are not only the formal and informal rules, regulations, laws, and sanction systems, but also how rules and sanctions are invoked when taking decisions. The normative pillar indicators are related to social expectations about espousing shared norms and standards of action. The invocation of ‘appropriateness’ and the ‘normal’ way of doing business are common indicators. Lastly, the typical cultural-cognitive indicators are specific beliefs, world views, thought patterns, and the invocation of what is ‘right,’ ‘good,’ or ‘true.’

Using as examples the Portuguese army’s counter-insurgency experience, the following sections will demonstrate how useful Scott’s framework is to study the influence of non-material factors with respect to the adaptation of a Western military institution in a non-conventional context.

The Guard of Honour on arrival of the Paquete Vera Cruz, the standard of the RIL – Infantry Regiment of Luanda, Luanda, Angola.

Photo by Pedro Mateus

The Guard of Honour on arrival of the Paquete Vera Cruz, the standard of the RIL – Infantry Regiment of Luanda, Luanda, Angola.

2. The cultural-cognitive pillar

The first pillar of this institutional framework is composed of the cultural-cognitive∕ideological elements, upon which rests the Portuguese counter-insurgency (COIN). Its components are fundamental because they provide the entire structure (normative and regulative dimensions), its coherence, as well as its legitimacy. The most important elements in this matter are territorial integrity and lusotropicalism.

Portugal’s presence in Africa dates back to the end of the 15th Century. Most of Portugal’s military, intellectual, and political elites, starting with former Prime Minister Antonio de Olivrira Salazar, perceived Portuguese presence overseas as vital for the nation. The colonies held an important economic promise4 and they were crucial to giving Portugal stature internationally.5 Portugal thus ignored significant international opposition to its colonial empire. In times when most colonial powers negotiated the independence of their colonies, Salazar’s regime inserted the narrative of modern Colonialism into one “… in which discovery, expansion, and colonization played an absolutely central role.”6 Portugal was thus among the last countries to grant independence to their colonies7 after the coup d’état against the Salazarist regime. Portugal’s determination to fight three counter-insurgencies simultaneously to retain these colonies is, in large part, linked to this importance given to territorial unity. Portuguese leaders thought of the colonies as a primordial part of their national territory, and of great strategic significance. Portugal wanted to be considered as an important player, like its French, British, and American counterparts; the small size of the metrópole was considered to be a major obstacle towards achievement of this objective. The Portuguese leadership thus devoted time and resources to reaffirm that Portugal was an empire; in school textbooks, the overseas territories were “… superimposed on maps of the United States and Europe, from the Mediterranean to Russia.”8 Territorial unity was notably put forward by President Américo Tomas, when he declared that the colonies had the “… same importance as [...] other sacred portions of national territory.”9 These claims of territorial unity were materialized by Portugal’s refusal to submit reports on its colonies, or to cooperate with any committee dealing with colonial areas.10

To defend its position, Portugal developed rhetoric to present the country as an atypical colonial power; one of its significant components was the lusotropicalist ideology, introduced by Brazilian intellectual Gilberto Freyre. Portugal used this concept to underline the distinct nature of its relations with its African colonies.11 According to anthropologist and social activist Miguel Vale de Almeida, lusotropicalism was “… a special kind of inclination or capacity for miscegenation”12 possessed by the Portuguese, essential to “transform the representations and practices of the anachronistic Portuguese colonialism.”13 Portugal wanted to be perceived on the international scene as a multi-racial and multi-continental nation, having “… cordial relations with the non-European populations [...] in the tropics.”14 In the midst of the creation of the UN and its Charter and anti-colonial conferences, lusotropicalism proved to be useful to defend Portuguese colonialism,15 with an emphasis on the “ideal of the harmonious blending of racial, religious, and cultural differences.”16

Lusotropicalism provided Salazar with both scientific validation and ideological justification for refusing to relinquish his country’s colonial empire.17 The vast majority of the Portuguese people were convinced that lusotropicalism represented their country’s practices, policies and goals overseas.18 This cultural cognitive pillar was strong enough to serve, not only as a basis for the political position, but also to impregnate the doctrinal adaptation to the African counter-insurgencies.

A Dornier Do-27 of the Portugese Air Force (FAP) at the airport in Nambuangongo, Angola.

Photo by Pedro Mateus

A Dornier Do-27 of the Portugese Air Force (FAP) at the airport in Nambuangongo, Angola.

3. The normative pillar

The study shows that the Portuguese concept of irregular warfare also rests upon a strong normative basis. A doctrine designed for this COIN was used by the Portuguese army, serving as solid normative pillar. The Portuguese counter-insurgency rested upon specific elements creating an original ‘way of war.’ Its careful analysis, in light of the historical military results and political changes, may lead to some useful lessons about institutional drivers of change or stability, of success or failure, in COIN operations.

To develop adequate counterinsurgency tactics adapted to the African conflicts, both the political and the military elites contributed to the thinking with respect to the use of the asymmetrical weapon. The Portuguese used parts of French and British doctrines and lessons learned from counter-insurgencies in Algeria, Indochina, Kenya, and Malaya.19 They sent officers to the Centre d’Instruction de Pacification et Contre-Guerrilla in Algeria in 1959, 20 and came to the conclusion that their army had to “… make the most urgent preparations to fight an insurgency.”21 From the French concept of guerre révolutionnaire, they learnt the importance of making social advancement a centerpiece of their efforts.22 They also followed France’s example by dividing the counter-insurgency into psychological war and psychological action – the first to undermine the insurgent’s will to resist, and the second to “… strengthen both the morale and allegiance of the people and the fighting will of the soldiers.”23 From the British experience in Kenya and Malaya, they used these general principles: minimum use of force, coordination of intelligence, civil-military cooperation, and small-unit operations.24 Considering the outcome of other equivalent counterinsurgency campaigns, but also the size of the territories, the resources limitations, and the probability of a long term war, the goal was to maintain a low intensity conflict, low casualties, and low cost. Therefore, a specific doctrine was written by the Portuguese Army General Staff in 1960, entitled O Exército na Guerra Subversiva (The Army in Subversive War).25 This doctrine demonstrated the will to take into account the particularity of the conflicts in Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique,26 and provided a solid normative pillar to the counter-insurgencies.

Given the nature of the warfare, the Portuguese Armed Forces chose to reorganize into small units of light infantry. Inspired by the British, Portugal used “… small patrols of well-trained men who could penetrate rugged terrain to gather intelligence, kill guerrillas, disrupt food gathering [...], and above all, make contact with the population.”27 Almost all Portuguese navy, air force, and army units – apart from cavalry squadrons and artillery batteries in some cases – were reorganized into infantry companies on a provisional basis.28 In accordance with the doctrine, the idea was “making them better able to keep up with the guerrillas on the ground” by giving up heavy weaponry to facilitate redeployment.29
Another normative characteristic of the counter-insurgencies was the Africanization of the troops. This practice, in itself, was not an innovation.30 However, with the counter-insurgencies, political and military elites provided a new logic to local recruitment.31 First, because of the necessity to limit metropolitan casualties; second, because a multi-racial army countered the criticism of a ‘race war;’ third, because it allowed maintenance of  “… a strong solidarity with the population;”32 fourth, because of the tactical advantages, such as the recruits’ knowledge of the local terrain, or the use of informers… Therefore, the miscegenation of units sets Portuguese armed forces apart from their French counterparts, and served as an important basis of their strategy. Portugal’s armed forces also trained para-militias, responsible for most of the defence of rural towns and fortified villages.33 In Mozambique, the use of tribal enmities when recruiting people from a certain ethnic group into defensive forces,34 gave the Portuguese a strategic advantage. Also, they developed an intelligence apparatus derived from the British system in Malaya; this political and military intelligence apparatus relied upon the use of agents and informers, air and ground reconnaissance patrols, and a system of intelligence coordination centres.35 Portugal also used “disgruntled nationalists to assassinate their one-time comrades.”36    

Sergeant Couto, a Portuguese parachutist trainer, and members of the GEP (Grupos Especialis Paraquedistas) training in Mozambique.

Archive Miguel Silva Machado & Antonio Sucena do Carmo.

Sergeant Couto, a Portuguese parachutist trainer, and members of the GEP (Grupos Especialis Paraquedistas) training in Mozambique.

Where the French failed to kill Ho Chi Minh in 1952, the Portuguese were able to eliminate many insurgents, including two prominent nationalists in Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.37 To convince the local population to join or to cooperate, the use of propaganda proved to be crucial: “subversion [was] fought by means of wall papers, placards, pamphlets, etc.”38 The field and bush newspapers published by the army were of the foremost importance, destined to the soldiers, but also distributed among the population; they served purposes of information, propaganda, and counter-propaganda.39 Pamphlets also played an important role by requesting the local population to leave the bush and report to the armed forces, thus disrupting the support they provided to the liberation movements; one stated: “   [that] straight thinking people live in the village.”40 Propaganda has always been part of any counter-insurgency campaign; what gives the Portuguese approach its specificity was the message promoting the multi-racialism of Portugal’s colonial policy.41 This aspect is crucial as it clearly reflects lusotropicalism, which served as a major legitimizing pillar upon which rested the institutionalization of the counter-insurgencies.
To limit the military involvement and cost, various socio-political initiatives completed the military strategy. The tactical use of the populations was, in this matter, of foremost importance. First, Portugal favoured the settlement of Metropolitan Portuguese citizens in its African colonies to reaffirm the indivisibility of its territory.  Portuguese settlements in Angola and Mozambique were also seen as necessary to “ensure resistance to any spread of the liberation movements;”42 Portugal thus encouraged workers and convinced ex-servicemen to settle in the colonies.43 In addition, Portuguese officials tried to favour the resettlement of the local population in villages they built, despite the existence of land laws stating that only vacant land could be given as land concessions. This policy was well-perceived by military, government groups, and civilian officials because it allowed them to control insurgent activities, detect guerrilla infiltrators, and better extend services, such as education, medical care, and sanitation.44  This resettlement into small guarded artificial villages proved to be a major aspect of the Portuguese counter-insurgency campaigns. In terms of psychological war, it allowed the Portuguese to satisfy military requisites of defence and population control, while freeing land for future European settlement.45 It also stimulated the economic and social development of the local population, which was crucial to winning hearts and minds.46 In Angola alone, more than one million people were resettled.47

These resettlements regrouping the local population in gated villages were notably used to serve the socio-economic promotion mission of the counter-insurgencies. Indeed, psychological action in the form of socio-economic development programs was another important asymmetric strategy used by the Portuguese. Portuguese soldiers took part in psychological action missions, built hospitals and schools in the fortified villages and sometimes performed teaching duties. Portugal understood the importance of the support of the local population and thus wanted to address their grievances to counter the arguments put forward by the insurgents with respect to the iniquities of the society in the colonies. The military aspect of the war was considered to be a secondary issue.48 Portugal developed various types of socio-economic programs, but put a special emphasis upon their educational effort to provide an “… avenue of opportunity for the population rather than the frustration of a dead end.”49

Finally, one other characteristic was the containment of warfare to the rural areas; the insurgents surrounded the cities but, apart from minor sabotage, did not cause much urban disruption.50 Various security measures – curfews, dragnets, barbed-wire fences, skilled secret police, torture, and censorship – were among the means used to maintain the peace and quiet in cities and towns in the three theatres.51 The expertise derived from France’s COIN in Algeria proved to be useful.52 Each Command of the Military Region was divided into zones, further divided into sectors, and lastly, sub-divided into zones of operation under the responsibility of a battalion commander.

Captured insurgent weapons and ammunition.

Parachute Company CCP112 in Guinea Bissau.

Captured insurgent weapons and ammunition.

4. The regulative pillar

From a regulative point of view, this study demonstrates that Portugal’s counter-insurgencies in Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique rested upon a series of both formal and informal rules, as well as laws enacted to facilitate their conduct. Various measures were adopted by the Portuguese leadership to make the use of O Exército na Guerra Subversiva possible.

Portugal’s counter-insurgencies in Africa were undertaken in conformity with a body of acts and laws adopted by the métropole, ranging from a Constitutional Law, to laws specific to the overseas territories. The formulation and amendments of these laws after 1945 were mainly guided by the will to project the image of a united Portugal in accordance with the cultural cognitive understanding of the African colonies, therefore legitimizing a fight to keep them under Portuguese rule. The Organic Charter of the Portuguese Colonial Empire was renamed the Organic Law of the Portuguese Overseas Provinces in 1953 in an attempt to erase references to the notions of ‘colonies’ and ‘empire’ in Portuguese Law. However, the legislative changes that took place appear rhetorical, without a significant impact upon the local population, merely to project a positive image of the conditions of the locals abroad. Indeed, the status of the indigenous populations versus the Portuguese settlers was one of the great concerns expressed by international observers. In the 1960s, Portugal abolished its colonial forced labour laws as well as the special statute excluding the local population from citizenship.53 Since citizenship was granted to the population in Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique, the Electoral Law of 1968 also gave them the right to vote, as long as those doing so could read and write Portuguese.54 Land laws were also enacted; the control and the use of land proved to be a crucial aspect of Portugal’s counter-insurgencies with the resettlement policies. To protect the local population from wrongful appropriation of their properties, land laws officially stated; “[that] only vacant land [could] be given as land concessions;” some Portuguese settlers nonetheless took possession of land made vacant by the resettlement of the local population.55 Despite these unlawful appropriations, Portugal did not make these land laws more precise to avoid such practices, due to a significant European campaign for more land concessions.56 Other institutional changes highlight the Portuguese will to disguise the colonial nature of its Empire in response to the strong decolonization movement in the international community after 1945. Portugal’s Constitutional Law was revised in 1972. Even though the change was sometimes deemed “superficial,”57 it reaffirmed the equality of status between the colonies and Metropolitan Portugal. However, being recognized as autonomous regions did not come with the power to make decisions in matters related to diplomatic and consular relations, laws, nomination of the Governor, control of the financial administration, and so on.58 Therefore, it appears that the regulative pillar was more fragile than the first two pillars, more open to criticism and more susceptible to rapid changes.

However, from a purely military point of view, the regulative basis appears to be more solid. As was the case at the doctrinal level, Portugal made changes and adaptations to various military and defence organizations to prepare the armed forces to the conduct of the counter-insurgencies in Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique. Until 1950, prior to its adhesion to NATO, Portugal had two different forces; the first was stationed in the metrópole under the authority of the Ministry of War, while the Ministry of the Colonies was responsible for the second force, stationed in the ultramar.59 To coordinate the military efforts in the colonies, those forces were unified and put under the responsibility of the Ministry of National Defence, thus relegating the Ministry of War (renamed Ministry of the Army) to the same standing as the Ministries of the Navy60 and the Air Force. 61 Portugal, learning from the experiences of fellow NATO members, decided to merge the two forces to facilitate a more coherent and centralized approach to the African counter-insurgencies. 1950 was also a turning point in terms of management of military affairs. Before that year, this management was exclusively coordinated in the political sphere through the work of the ministries.62 However, starting in 1950, “… joint operational activity of the armed forces was channeled through the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and the various Commanders-in-Chief.”63 By facilitating a better coordination between the political and the military leaderships, Portugal hoped to secure victory in the three counter-insurgencies. Maintaining a close relationship between those leaderships was notably necessary to allow a coherent counterinsurgency strategy, mixing both elements of psychological war and psychological action. To put in practice lessons learned from the guerre révolutionnaire, adaptations to the military command on the field were also deemed necessary. The Commander of the Military Region and the Commander-in-Chief of each theatre had separate duties,64 and, to insure the coordination of psychological war with psychological action, the Commander-in-Chief was also made local Provincial Governor, first in Angola, and later in Guinea Bissau and Mozambique.

Control post manned by members of the PAIGC (African Party for the independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde) in Guinea Bissau, 1974.


Control post manned by members of the PAIGC (African Party for the independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde) in Guinea Bissau, 1974.

5. Integrated analysis

To better understand to what extent the three pillars play a crucial role in the overall institutionalization of Portugal’s African counter-insurgencies and the role they may have played in the dismantling of the military operations, it is necessary to analyze their inter-relation and their relative importance with respect to the solidity of the entire construction.

The cultural-cognitive pillar appears solid. Indeed, facing an increasing international anti-colonization movement, Portugal tried to strengthen the acceptance of its empire and the legitimacy of its counter-insurgencies by putting great emphasis upon its singularity as an atypical colonial power. Therefore, its propagandistic effort was largely based upon the lusotropicalist ideology, according to which the Portuguese were better colonizers, due to an historical and cultural inclination towards adaptation and miscegenation.65 Lusotropicalism put a great emphasis upon mutual understanding and equal treatment of the local population, and it was used to reaffirm that the overseas territories were willingly a part of Portugal. Moreover, lusotropicalism was also made part of the curriculum of various administration schools. Notably, it was taught in the School of Colonial Administration, and in the social and political science institutes.66 Sustained by a large propagandistic campaign, lusotropicalism quickly became a consensual idea, allowed Portugal to showcase the country as an example living up to its reputation in terms of good practices in its colonies, and it served as a cultural-cognitive basis for the counter-insurgencies’ institutionalization. On the political side, lusotropicalism was used to improve Portugal’s image as a united country, composed of overseas provinces willingly a part of Portugal, and served as a basis for the legislative changes presenting Portugal as a multi-continental nation – differentiated from being a colonial power. Thanks to lusotropicalism, Salazar’s regime was able to reaffirm the legitimacy of his country’s presence in Africa, and it therefore faced little-to-no opposition when the time came to make fundamental institutional changes, such as the amendment of Portugal’s Constitutional Law just two years before the coup d’état. Information control and propaganda insured the delivery of the message in favour of Portugal’s colonial empire. Widely used to spread the lusotropicalist ideology, they created the conditions necessary for the acceptance of the institutional changes and adaptations made for the counter-insurgencies. The recuperation of lusotropicalism by Salazar’s regime allowed Portugal to justify the use of force to defend the country’s territorial unity. From a military point of view, it played an important part in various doctrinal decisions, for example by ‘opening the door’ for a greater integration of African personnel in the armed forces. In addition to resolving Portugal’s manpower problems and helping the Portuguese counter-insurgency units to achieve “notable levels of tactical success,”67 the use of local population troops also legitimized Portugal’s counter-insurgencies by depicting Portugal’s armed forces as allies fighting at the side of the local population. Moreover, this specific approach, based upon equality, allowed them to claim a distinct contrast with previous COIN operations, such as France’s guerre révolutionnaire in Algeria. The fact that Salazar’s regime held on to its colonies longer than most of the former colonial empires, and that, even after the coup, the idea of African independence was perceived as “treason,”68 tends to prove that the cultural-cognitive support for colonization was strong.

From a normative point of view, various measures were taken to strengthen the new operational norms, including the implementation of new doctrine in the field of military planning and training. Thanks to the initiative of writing the doctrine O Exército na Guerra Subversiva, the Portuguese counter-insurgencies present a great originality: no soldier was sent to fight without a clear idea of what he was going to fight, how he was going to do it, and the result he was supposed to expect. Military training was redesigned to familiarize the personnel with both psychological war and psychological action initiatives to undertake in the African colonies. Since the ‘psychological weapon’ became very central, PSYOP doctrine and principles were taught to Portuguese soldiers before their deployment to the three theatres. 69 Elite commando unit training was undertaken in Angola and in metropolitan Portugal to accomplish a three-fold mission: “… to defend territorial borders, to ensure internal security, and to develop a program of psychosocial activity.”70 While training their troops, the Portuguese made sure to address the following interrelated issues: making the troops capable of understanding subversion and insurgency,71 teaching the importance of the integration of both civil and military measures, developing leadership skills adapted to counterinsurgency warfare, and teaching tactics used in a counter-insurgency environment.72 A Centre for Special Operations Instruction was also created to provide training in acção psicológica (psychological action) – which later became APSIC or PSICO (psycho-social action).73 This large diffusion of the new doctrine helped to solidify the normative pillar by contributing to the easy acceptance of all its specific components.


Thanks to a large consensus among the political elites and the public with respect to the need to maintain dominion over the African colonies, the regulative pillar also seems strong enough to prevent any unwanted institutional change. With well-broadcasted and controlled rhetoric designed to idealize Portuguese nationalism, Salazar’s regime was able to rally Portugal’s population, as well as NATO allies, and it demonstrated the will to take the military leadership’s expertise into account in 1950 when it agreed to share the management of military affairs with the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and the Commanders-in-Chief.74 Various institutional changes resulted in a greater decision-making power to the military leadership, then made free, for instance, to design, teach, and implement elements of the singular Portuguese counter-insurgency doctrine.

Some may have argued that African loyalty was not gained,75 or that the intended counterinsurgency goals of strategic resettlements were not achieved because the insurgency spread.76 However, most analyses tend to acknowledge that the military strategy was successful. For almost fifteen years, despite the lack of human, material, and financial resources, the size of the territories to defend, significant international disapproval, the absence of an historical example of successful comparable counterinsurgencies….the Portuguese maintained a low-intensity conflict and a low level of metropolitan casualties at relatively low cost. It is commonly accepted that, in 1971, military victory was acquired in Angola, and that the Portuguese Army was able to contain the Mozambican insurgency, at least until 1970. There is no doubt that the robustness of the three aforementioned pillars played a crucial role in these achievements.

However, political obstacles were too high. From the beginning, the African insurgents had little hope for military victory, but they waged a “war of attrition to drive up Lisbon’s costs in blood and treasure,”77 to weaken Portugal’s will to fight. Indeed, after many years of sacrifices, even the Portuguese Army was realistic with respect to the military indefensibility of the area on the long term, and was conscious of the fact that “no amount of military verve could overcome the political problem of legitimacy in Africa.”78 Despite global acknowledgement of success in the implementation of the various institutional changes, and adaptations made to fight the counter-insurgencies, strong criticism from the international community proved to be the most important obstacle for Portugal.

Contrary to the Algerian case, the Portuguese Army decided to move forward and create the political solution that the civil government was refusing to provide in order to end the conflict. Members of the army usurped power in 1974, notably because of the ‘dead end’ their country was facing in the three counter-insurgency campaigns that kept “… pumping in men and money” without resulting in clear victory.79 Soon after the coup d’état orchestrated by officers of the Armed Forces – 25 April 1974 – Portugal negotiated the decolonization of its African colonies. Guinea Bissau was granted independence in September 1974, Mozambique in July 1975, and, lastly, Angola in November 1975.

The end of Portuguese rule in Angola, 1 July 1975.

UN photo 171153 by J.P. Laffont

The end of Portuguese rule in Angola, 1 July 1975.

The Portuguese counter-insurgencies, drawing lessons from past insurgencies, and based upon a doctrine of their own, accepted by the military and the population, were based upon really solid cultural, normative, and even regulative pillars. However, what this case study tends to prove is that, no matter how efficient the COIN strategy, or how strongly institutionalized it is, the main motor of change remains political. No military campaign can be won without concomitant political support.


  1. Richard Scott, Institutions and Organizations: Ideas and Interest (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).

  2. Michael Hechter and Christine Horne, ‘The problem of Social Order,’ in Michael Hechter and Christine Horne (eds.), Theories of Social Order (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); and Dennis H. Wrong, The Problem of Order (New York: Free Press, 1995).

  3. Marc Schneiberg and Elisabeth Clemens, ‘The typical tools for the Job: Research Strategies in Institutional Analysis,’in Sociological Theory 24/3 (2006), p. 209.

  4. John P. Cann, Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961-1974, in Contributions in Military Studies, No. 167. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997, p.13.

  5. Ibid, p. 17.

  6. Miguel Vale de Almeida, "Portugal’s Colonial Complex: From Colonial Lusotropicalism to Postcolonial Lusophony," in Queen’s Postcolonial Research Forum, Queen’s University, Belfast, UK:, 2008, p. 5.

  7. Yves Léonard, "Salazarisme Et Lusotropicalisme, Histoire D'une Appropriation," in Lusotropicalisme : Idéologies Coloniales Et Identités Nationales Dans Les Mondes Lusophones, edited by Centre national de la recherche scientifique, pp. 211-226, Paris : Talence : Talence: Karthala ; Maison des pays ibériques ; Centre d'études d'Afrique noire, 1997, p. 217.

  8. David Corkill and Jose Carlos Pina Almeida. "Commemoration and Propaganda in Salazar's Portugal: The Mundo Portugues Exposition of 1940," in Journal of Contemporary History 44, No. 3, 2009, p. 397.

  9. George Martelli, "Conflict in Portuguese Africa," in Portuguese Africa; a Handbook, edited by David M. Abshire, Michael Anthony Samuels and Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, New York: Published in cooperation with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University: Praeger, 1969, p. 419.

  10. Edward T. Rowe, "The Emerging Anti-Colonial Consensus in the United Nations," in Journal of Conflict Resolution 8, No. 3, 1964, p. 222.

  11. Armelle Enders, "Le Lusotropicalisme, Théorie D'exportation: Gilberto Freyre En Son Pays," in Lusotropicalisme : Idéologies Coloniales Et Identités Nationales Dans Les Mondes Lusophones, edited by Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris: Talence: Karthala; Maison des pays ibériques; Centre d'études d'Afrique noire, 1997, p. 201.

  12. Vale de Almeida, "Portugal’s Colonial…", p. 1.

  13. Miguel Vale de Almeida, "From Miscegenation to Creole Identity: Portuguese Colonialism, Brazil, Cape Verde," in Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory, edited by C. Stewart, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007, p. 23.

  14. Gerald J. Bender, Angola under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality, Perspectives on Southern Africa 23, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1978, p. 3.

  15. Vale de Almeida, "From Miscegenation…," p. 21.

  16. Felix Driver and Luciana Martins, "Views and Visions of the Tropical World," in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire, edited by Felix Driver and Luciana Martins, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 4.

  17. Léonard, "Salazarisme…," p. 211.

  18. Bender, Angola under the Portuguese…, p. 3.

  19. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 43.

  20. Ibid, pp. 40-41.

  21. Ibid, p. 41.

  22. Ibid, p. 144.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid, p. 44.

  25. Ibid, p. 37.

  26. Paul Melshen, "Mapping out a Counterinsurgency Campaign Plan: Critical Considerations in Counterinsurgency Campaigning," in Small Wars & Insurgencies 18, No. 4, 2007, p. 667.

  27. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 79.

  28. Lawrence E. Cline, Pseudo Operations and Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Other Countries. Edited by Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2005, p. 14.

  29. Jason Heretik, "Counter-insurgency Lessons for the Afghan Case," University of Illinois, 2004, p. 28.

  30. “Portuguese policy-makers generally favoured using African soldiers in their colonial armies in the three major African territories during both peacetime and during colonial emergencies.” See Douglas L. Wheeler, "African Elements in Portugal's Armies in Africa (1961-1974)," in Armed Forces & Society 2, No. 2, 1976, p. 234.

  31. Melshen, "Mapping out…," p. 678.

  32. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 104.

  33. Martelli, "Conflict…," p. 427.

  34. Ibid, p. 423.

  35. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 193.

  36. Thomas H. Henriksen, "Lessons from Portugal's Counter-Insurgency Operations in Africa," in The RUSI Journal 123, No. 2, 1978, p. 34.

  37. Ibid, p. 34.

  38. Eduardo de Sousa Ferreira, Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The End of an Era: The Effects of Portuguese Colonialism on Education, Science, Culture and Information, Paris: Unesco Press, 1974, p. 134.

  39. Ibid, p. 147.

  40. Ibid, p. 148.

  41. Henriksen, "Lessons…," p. 34.

  42. De Sousa Ferreira, Portuguese Colonialism…, p. 49.

  43. Ibid, p. 52.

  44. Bender, Angola under the Portuguese…, p. 337.

  45. Gerald J. Bender, "The Limits of Counterinsurgency: An African Case," in Comparative Politics 4, No. 3, 1972, p. 336.

  46. Ibid.

  47. Bender, Angola under the Portuguese…, p. 159.

  48. Heretik, “Counterinsurgency…,” p. 31.

  49. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 149.

  50. Henriksen, "Lessons…," p. 32.

  51. Ibid.

  52. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 38.

  53. Vale de Almeida, "Portugal’s Colonial…," p. 8.

  54. The vast majority of the African population was unable to exercise this right because of this requirement; in 1969, only one percent of local Mozambicans were entitled to vote. See De Sousa Ferreira, Portuguese Colonialism…, p. 38.

  55. Bender, "The Limits of Counterinsurgency…," pp. 347-348.

  56. Ibid, p. 350.

  57. De Sousa Ferreira, Portuguese Colonialism…, p. 38.

  58. Article 136 of the Constitutional Law, in Ibid.

  59. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 61.

  60. Until 1952, Portugal did not have a national air force.

  61. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 61.

  62. Ibid, p. 38.

  63. Ibid.

  64. Ibid, p. 63.

  65. Vale de Almeida, "Portugal’s Colonial…," p. 1.

  66. Ibid, p. 7.

  67. Melshen, "Mapping out…," p. 678.

  68. William Minter, Apartheid's Contras: An Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique. Johannesburg; London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Witwatersrand University Press ; Zed Books, 1994, p. 94.

  69. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 53.

  70. Martelli, "Conflict…," p. 427.

  71. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 75.

  72. Ibid.

  73. Portugual sent delegates to the United Kingdom and the United States to learn about counter-insurgency tactics and the use of marine commandos. See Marcus Power, "Geo-Politics and the Representation of Portugal's African Colonial Wars: Examining the Limits of 'Vietnam Syndrome,'" in Political Geography 20, No. 4 (2001), pp. 472-473.

  74. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 38.

  75. Bender, Angola under the Portuguese…, p. 159.

  76. Bender, "The Limits of Counterinsurgency…," p. 345.

  77. Thomas H. Henriksen, "People's War in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau," in The Journal of Modern African Studies 14, No. 3, 1976, p. 387.

  78. Cann, Counterinsurgency…, p. 194.

  79. A journalist for Newsweek summed up the complexity of Portugal’s campaign: “It is hard for a visitor to see any early end to a conflict fuelled and supplied from outside, where guerrillas have sanctuary in neighbouring nations and protective terrain that enables them to move easily around the country.” Al J. Venter, Portugal's Guerrilla War; the Campaign for Africa, Cape Town: J. Malherbe, 1973, p. 185.