How CIA Covert Operations Work: The Angolan Civil War
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Published on Jun 2, 2012
The Angolan Civil War was a major civil conflict in the Southern African state of Angola, beginning in 1975 and continuing, with some interludes, until 2002. The war began immediately after Angola became independent from Portugal in November 1975. Prior to this, a decolonisation conflict had taken place in 1974--75, following the Angolan War of Independence. The Civil War was primarily a struggle for power between two former liberation movements, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). At the same time, it served as a surrogate battleground for the Cold War, due to heavy intervention by major opposing powers such as the Soviet Union and the United States.
Each organisation had different roots in the Angolan social fabric and mutually incompatible leaderships, despite their sharing the aim of ending colonial occupation. Although both the MPLA and UNITA had socialist leanings, for the purpose of mobilising international support they posed as "Marxist-Leninist" and "anti-communist", respectively. A third movement, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), having fought the MPLA alongside UNITA during the war for independence and the decolonization conflict, played almost no role in the Civil War. Additionally, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), an association of separatist militant groups, fought for the independence of the province of Cabinda from Angola.
The 27-year war can be divided roughly into three periods of major fighting -- between 1975 and 1991, 1992 and 1994, and 1998 and 2002 -- broken up by fragile periods of peace. By the time the MPLA finally achieved victory in 2002, an estimated 500,000 people had been killed and over one million internally displaced. The war devastated Angola's infrastructure, and dealt severe damage to the nation's public administration, economic enterprises, and religious institutions.
The Angolan Civil War reached such dimensions due to the combination of Angola's violent internal dynamics and massive foreign intervention. Both the Soviet Union and the United States considered the conflict critical to the global balance of power and to the outcome of the Cold War, and they and their allies put significant effort into making it a proxy war between their two power blocs. The Angolan Civil War ultimately became one of the bloodiest, longest, and most prominent armed conflicts of the Cold War. Moreover, the Angolan conflict became entangled with the Second Congo War in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as with the Namibian War of Independence.
President of the United States Gerald Ford approved covert aid to UNITA and the FNLA through Operation IA Feature on July 18, 1975, despite strong opposition from officials in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Ford told William Colby, the Director of Central Intelligence, to establish the operation, providing an initial US$6 million. He granted an additional $8 million on July 27 and another $25 million in August.
Two days before the program's approval, Nathaniel Davis, the Assistant Secretary of State, told Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State, that he believed maintaining the secrecy of IA Feature would be impossible. Davis correctly predicted the Soviet Union would respond by increasing involvement in the Angolan conflict, leading to more violence and negative publicity for the United States. When Ford approved the program, Davis resigned. John Stockwell, the CIA's station chief in Angola, echoed Davis' criticism saying the success required the expansion of the program, but its size already exceeded what could be hidden from the public eye. Davis' deputy, former U.S. ambassador to Chile Edward Mulcahy, also opposed direct involvement. Mulcahy presented three options for U.S. policy towards Angola on May 13, 1975. Mulcahy believed the Ford administration could use diplomacy to campaign against foreign aid to the communist MPLA, refuse to take sides in factional fighting, or increase support for the FNLA and UNITA. He warned however that supporting UNITA would not sit well with Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire.
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