Magazine article The Spectator

Can We Liberate Zimbabwe?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can We Liberate Zimbabwe?

Article excerpt

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. …

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