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Can we liberate Zimbabwe?

Mike Dewar concludes that the best way to topple Mugabe is to enlist South Africa's help

23 August 2003

12:00 AM

23 August 2003

12:00 AM

As Mr Mugabe continues to flout international opinion, suppress democratic opposition to his regime, and reduce this once rich nation to abject poverty, some commentators are asking if it might not be desirable to remove this despot by means of military intervention.

I leave it to others better qualified than I am to debate the legality in international law of such an action. And, of course, whether or not the United Nations would sanction military intervention is a big question. But leaving aside these enormous issues, is it militarily practicable to mount such an operation?

Zimbabwe is bordered by Zambia in the north, Botswana in the west, Mozambique in the east and South Africa in the south. Only the last two have deep-water ports, of which Beira in Mozambique is the closest to Zimbabwe. A prerequisite for any serious military operation in Zimbabwe would be a port of entry in a neighbouring state to bring in the necessary logistical support and infrastructure to sustain any military operation. It would also be necessary to create a military base from which to mount the cross-border operation. This presupposes the political agreement of either the South African or Mozambique governments to such an idea. Again there are those better qualified than I am to make this call, but the likelihood of either agreeing is probably nil. Let us pursue the idea further nevertheless.

How seriously would any invading force have to take the opposition? The Zimbabwe army consists of about seven brigade equivalents (or about 40,000 men). The air force is some 4,000-strong, with some MIG-21s and some Hawk aircraft. The quality of the military is extremely suspect. But it would be foolish to undertake a military operation in Zimbabwe with less than an air-mobile division. This would mean a force of at least 20,000 men. It would require air support, mostly fighter ground-attack aircraft, attack helicopters, transport and reconnaissance aircraft. Even though a rapid collapse of the opposition would be likely, it is the occupation and subsequent peace-keeping task that would be the most manpower-intensive. We have recently witnessed this phenomenon in Iraq.


Zimbabwe is a large country, some 500 miles across and some 500 miles deep. The two main centres of population are Harare and Bulawayo, and it would be necessary to secure both. But it would also be necessary to clear remnants of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF supporters from towns and villages across the country. The so-called ‘war veterans’ have been particularly aggressive. They are poorly armed and organised, but would need to be policed following any military operations. To what extent the existing police force would be available is open to some doubt. Some sort of occupation over a period of years would be likely.

The next question is which country, if any, would be likely to provide a division to remove the regime in Zimbabwe. There are no likely European candidates. France, the only nation with a history of intervention in Africa, is unlikely to be willing to offer its troops, particularly in the light of M. Chirac’s invitation to Mr Mugabe to a recent conference of African leaders in Paris. The United States is very wary of intervention in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa is the only other candidate, and the likelihood of Mr Mbeki agreeing to armed intervention, let alone providing troops, is very low. That leaves the United Kingdom. The chances of the UK going it alone are virtually nil. Moreover the ability of the armed forces in the wake of the second Gulf war to mount yet another division-sized operation is suspect. Indeed, the Chief of the Defence Staff has made it clear that Britain will not be able to mount significant expeditionary forces for at least two years, except in circumstances of national emergency. It should not be forgotten that the UK sent some 45,000 military personnel to Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. Some 11,000 remain there. One third of the British army was deployed in Iraq, while other operational requirements were undertaken in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Afghanistan and in Britain to replace striking firemen. Even though 19,000 ‘extra’ troops are available for deployment with the end of the fire strike, the 11,000 extra troops still deployed in Iraq need to be subtracted from this number. To risk involving UK forces in another long-term occupation when they are likely to be in Iraq for years to come is unthinkable.

An operation in Zimbabwe would not be simple. It would probably not require armoured formations, although Zimbabwe does have a few ageing and ineffective main battle tanks. But it would require the deployment of three brigades. In that the army has only one truly air-mobile brigade, two brigades would need to deploy overland. This would be a time-consuming and possibly messy exercise.

It is arguable that some sort of coup de main undertaken with the support of special forces might be sufficient to topple the regime. However, it would be extremely embarrassing if such a high-risk strategy failed; and, in any event, there would be no troops available for the subsequent peace-making or peace-keeping tasks.

Given that such an undertaking is almost certainly impossible without US participation, and given US lack of interest in sub-Saharan Africa, it is safe to conclude that such an operation is a non-starter. Moreover the likelihood of a neighbouring African state providing either basing facilities or even an overflying agreement is extremely low. Add to this the recent over-commitment of Britain’s armed forces in the Gulf and elsewhere, and conventional military intervention is not going to happen.

So what is the answer? Some sort of destabilisation operation is a possibility, but no government is likely to own up to inserting special forces to lead a counter-insurgency operation. Serious sanctions are a possibility. Both the US and the EU have played at sanctions, but in a rather half-hearted manner. In any event the likes of Libya and South Africa will provide most of the goods needed by Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, sanctions might accelerate the implosion of Zimbabwe, which is bound to occur eventually – how soon is difficult to forecast. But if the internal situation gets a lot worse, South Africa may be persuaded to take a tougher line and perhaps even impose sanctions herself. South Africa’s support is crucial to toppling Mugabe. In fact it is the key. A serious diplomatic offensive by the British government to achieve a change of attitude by South Africa is the best chance of effecting regime change in Zimbabwe. And if troops were ever to be used, even if only as a peace-keeping force, the participation of South African troops would make the whole operation politically acceptable to Africa as a whole. But military intervention per se – it’s not on the cards.

Colonel Mike Dewar is a military analyst and commentator.


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