Commitments questioned as Cabo Delgado bleeds

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As a Christian pastor roamed his fields outside Nova Zambézia village in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province on 15 December, insurgents surprised him and his wife. The terrorists accosted him, killed him and severed his head.

Then, they handed his head to his wife. They ordered her to carry it to village police with a message: “While you are walking on tarred roads, real men are in the woods,” according to an area source.

The woman arrived at the District Command of the Police of the Republic of Mozambique carrying her husband’s head in a bag, according to Mozambican digital news site Carta de Moçambique.

The extremists’ message serves two purposes, according to a report on the website Cabo Ligado, a conflict observatory that monitors political violence in Mozambique. First, it underscores insurgents’ confidence in their staying power in the area, which is overseen by the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC’s) Standby Force Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM).

“Second, the content of the message calls to mind the core tactical problem faced by Mozambican and allied forces for the vast majority of the conflict: their ability to operate is severely restricted once they leave main roads because their equipment and training is built around armor rather than infantry or air assault capabilities,” the report said.

The message seems to validate a criticism of the multinational military response to the extremists: Mozambique and its regional allies have not committed sufficient resources to crush the insurgency once and for all.

Nova Zambézia is in the Macomia district, which had been a frequent clashing point between government forces and extremists in the weeks leading up to the horrifying December attack.

In fact, violence has been relentless in the region. Insurgents occupied the nearby town of Macomia on 28 May, 2020, destroying public services, District Administrator Tomas Badae told Radio Mozambique in March 2021. As Badae spoke, only 2 300 of the town’s 16 425 inhabitants had returned.

Less than a month after the pastor’s brutal slaying, leaders from Southern Africa met in Lilongwe, Malawi, to plot the future of the SAMIM military response ahead of its 15 January mandate expiration. Leaders approved an extension of the mandate, though their communique after the two-day summit did not specify a time frame.

The Daily Maverick reported that officials said the mission would go on three more months at current levels, which has a few hundred special forces troops. The leaders said that after three months, SAMIM’s mandate would last an additional three months and would bring in additional infantry forces and other support to back up special forces.

“Today we took a bold and decisive step to extend the Mission in Mozambique so that we are able to consolidate and sustain the gains we have made thus far,” said Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, SADC’s chairperson, after the summit. “Until victory and peace is secured, we will not relent, we will not regress, and we will not retreat.

“We must finish the job and allow the Republic of Mozambique to pursue her development aspirations as she sees fit.”

SAMIM is composed of troops from eight countries: Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia. SAMIM forces work alongside Mozambican forces and Rwandan forces, which deployed separately.

Special forces troops from Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania are doing most of the fighting. Angola, the DRC, Malawi and Zambia mostly contribute logistics support.

Infantry support to the few hundred special forces now serving, as well as “several attack and transport helicopters and other air and naval support” still have not materialized, Daily Maverick reported on 11 January.

Two South African Air Force Oryx helicopters provide most airlift capability. The two helicopters are overextended and are “battling to supply reinforcements for forces that come under attack because of their many other assignments in a rising number of clashes with the enemy.”

Just four days after killing the pastor in Nova Zambézia village, insurgents ambushed a South African contingent of SAMIM in the forest in the northern part of Macomia district, fatally shooting a South African National Defence Force soldier. It was the first time in 32 years that a South African special forces Soldier had been killed in combat.

As of mid-January, officials had recorded 11 SAMIM casualties, according to one source.

Former South African ambassador Welile Nhlapo told a webinar organized by the civil society organization Southern African Liaison Office that the SAMIM intervention might be facing more challenges than leaders are willing to admit, according to Business Day.

“If we are funding this effort, is it sustainable? Given that we don’t have an end state, how will we make an assessment to say we now come at a point where we have defeated these insurgents?” Nhlapo asked.

“You can’t fight a conventional war against an asymmetrical terrorist offensive,” he said.

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier warned that SAMIM forces “are extremely capable” Soldiers but that too few are being required to cover too vast an area to sustain low casualty rates and avoid mission failures indefinitely.

“They have only two Oryx transport helicopters to support 300-400 troops deployed across a huge area and, worse, have limited vehicle mobility as a result of the region’s harsh terrain,” Olivier said. “This has meant that most engagements, actions, patrols, and similar have had to be done on foot and without support from either aircraft or heavy weapons, making the troops vulnerable.

“That there haven’t been more casualties is testament to the quality of the troops, but they’re being squeezed ever tighter and pushed to the point of exhaustion,” he said. “Mistakes will inevitably creep in, and even the best troops have limits.”

SADC leaders should rethink the mission and either bolster resources by adding troops, heavy weapons and air transport support or end active combat, he said. “Wars can’t be fought on the cheap without severe consequences arising sooner or later.”

Written by Africa Defense Forum and republished with permission. The original article can be found here.