Rhodesia: Tactical Success, Operational, Strategic, and Political Failure – Peter A. Kiss


The Rhodesian Bush War was a multi-phase civil war which lasted nearly two decades, and climaxed with the birth of the modern state of Zimbabwe. The complexion of the warfare was a nationalist insurgency, which the Rhodesian military was initially prepared for. However, major operational as well as tactical successes for Rhodesia in the 1960s bred strategic complacency among the political elite, and the military high command. By the mid 1970s the nationalist guerrilla forces opposing Rhodesia had a large footprint within the state, and the Rhodesian military had effectively lost control over the eastern border region. In 1980 the Rhodesian political and military elite finally capitulated, and the Marxist–Leninist Robert Mugabe became the elected sovereign of Zimbabwe.


“Neither was Rhodesia strong enough to suppress the insurgency within the country and force the frontline states to curtail their support to the nationalist movements; it had no choice but to accept a protracted war. The government was constantly seeking reconciliation and a political solution (on its own terms), but neither the frontline states nor the nationalist movements were in a hurry; they felt that the ‘spirit of the age’ was on their side. Their calculation was correct: they managed to reduce Rhodesia’s initial advantages, survived the overwhelming tactical superiority of its security forces, prevented the international recognition of the majority-rule government that came about as a result of an internal settlement, and in 1980 won a complete victory.

“The commander, Combined Operations was first among equals – he had no command authority over either the commanders of the service branches or the chief of intelligence. Thus, instead of wielding a single military instrument consisting of highly specialized but closely integrated and mutually supporting services, the minister of Combined Operations (who had limited military experience) had to oversee and herd in one direction four separate organizations that competed with, and inevitably often hindered, one another.

“There were some effective and convincing radio programs and films, but communication directed toward the Africans was generally unsuccessful. The government effort to win over the undecided Africans by offering an alternative future was only half-hearted. This was a serious failure because the alternative future did exist.

“The Rhodesian authorities were not unprepared for the nationalist insurgency. Rhodesian forces had participated in the British Empire’s counterinsurgency operations… During the Malaya Emergency Rhodesian volunteers had formed one squadron of the Special Air Service (SAS), and between 1956 and 1958 an infantry battalion had also served in Malaya. In Kenya, Rhodesian officers had studied the causes of the Mau Mau rebellion, the tactics of the rebels and the security forces, and the measures applied in suppressing the insurgency.

“The forces available were simply too small to cover the huge border regions. Preventing the infiltration of small units is similar to looking for a needle in a haystack. In Rhodesia the force available to search was too small, the haystack was too big, and the needles were too small and too many.

*All excerpts have been taken from Winning Wars Amongst the People: Case Studies in Asymmetric Conflict, University of Nebraska Press.