People are shown at a Médecins Sans Frontières camp for refugees fleeing violence in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. File photo: SUPPLIED
People are shown at a Médecins Sans Frontières camp for refugees fleeing violence in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. File photo: SUPPLIED

The report of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) technical assessment mission regarding the situation in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique makes interesting, if worrying, reading.

It has clearly been drawn up by military professionals, but is concerning because either they were given an upper limit for force composition and level regardless of their findings, or they are dangerously confident that Ansar al Sunnah is an incompetent and inept force that will be easily suppressed.

The professionalism is in the phasing: first build an intelligence picture, follow up with special forces to develop it, and simultaneously deploy naval forces to interdict the insurgent’s maritime supply lines and the smuggling operations thought to provide part of the insurgency’s funding.

But the strength and composition of the envisaged force are worrying, and seem to be based on an assumption that either Ansar al Sunnah will be easily suppressed or Mozambique's armed forces will somehow magically become vastly more effective than they have been thus far.

Cabo Delgado covers 82,000km² and has a population of 2.3-million living in several small coastal towns and inland towns and villages, including 16 district centres that will, at the very least, have to be secured. The road network is sparse and mostly in poor condition.

Ansar al Sunnah is variously estimated at between 2,000 and 4,500 armed members, and has held Mocimboa da Praia since capturing it in August 2020. The Mozambique armed forces have not been able to recapture the town, nor to prevent other attacks since, most recently at Palma. They are too weak, poorly equipped and perhaps too poorly trained to be effective.

The force that is proposed to assist them to “neutralise the terrorism threat” and “create a secure environment”, is proposed as just one brigade of three light infantry battalions of 620 soldiers each, supported by two small squadrons of special forces (70 each), a field engineer squadron, a signals squadron and a logistic/medical company. That is about 2,000 combat troops, far too few for the mission assuming serious intention to achieve the stated goals.

Surprisingly, given the emphasis on intelligence and knowing that Ansar al Sunnah uses mobile and satellite telephones, there is no provision for communications intelligence. Worse, given that a small force will be operating in a large area, aerial reconnaissance is limited to two light unmanned aerial vehicles of limited range and endurance.

Worse still, in a province 290km north-south and 270km west-east with few and poor roads, mobility will be limited to roads and two “utility” helicopters. There is provision for one heavy, one medium and two light transport aircraft, but apart from the coastal towns the province has only three airfields, so their utility will be logistical, not operational or tactical.

Yet worse still, this small force of inadequate reconnaissance assets and limited mobility will have inadequate air support: just two attack helicopters (such as the Rooivalk) and two “armed helicopters”, the latter presumably light types with door-mounted machine-guns. Hardly adequate, even assuming all four aircraft are always operational.

The envisaged naval component is more realistic in terms of strength versus mission, comprising a submarine for intelligence collection, two “surface patrol ships” with organic helicopters, boarding boats and unmanned aerial vehicles, and a maritime surveillance aircraft. But that single aircraft is hardly adequate, and there is no provision for inshore craft that would be a valuable complement to the larger ships patrolling offshore.

The other challenge here is that the SA Navy is the only Sadc navy with ships operating organic helicopters — its four frigates and the combat support ship SAS Drakensberg. It does not seem likely that it would be able to sustain two of those ships on station for any length of time.

To cap things, the intention is for the main logistic base to be at Nacala, 170km south of Pemba as the crow flies but 420km by road, when there is a perfectly usable port and airport at Pemba itself. The logic of this is difficult to understand, unless the expectation is that Pemba will have fallen to the insurgency before the mission deploys.

Also concerning, though not the fault of the mission, is how slow everything is, beginning with the Mozambique government’s unwillingness to admit that there is a problem and that its armed forces cannot deal with it. Then, when the Sadc finally decides to do something it takes from April 8 to deploy the mission which, after spending a week in the country, then takes until the end of the month to produce its report. And then the “double troika” meeting that is to discuss the report and decide on a course of action is postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Ansar al Sunnah is strengthening its position and people are still being killed.

This criticism may sound harsh, but consider the speed with which Britain acted in Sierra Leone in 2000 (Operation Palliser) when Revolutionary United Front rebels besieged the UN forces in several towns. On May 6 the British government decided to intervene. An “operational reconnaissance and liaison team” flew to Sierra Leone the same evening. 1 Parachute Battalion and SAS elements deployed to Dakar on May 7, with one company and the SAS arriving in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the same day and the remainder on the 8th. A naval task group was off to Sierra Leone on the 14th.

That was a rapid response. What the Sadc is doing is anything but.

• Heitman is an independent security and defence analyst.

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