The Logic of Pseudo-Operations: Lessons from the Rhodesian Bush War

By: Xander Causwell, Columnist

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During the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979) the white minority-controlled Rhodesian government carried out a remarkably successful counterinsurgency campaign against insurgent groups representing the disenfranchised black majority by relying heavily on the use of pseudo-operations. Pseudo-operations constitute a set of tactics government-controlled paramilitary units use to infiltrate insurgent-controlled territory and networks by imitating the actions of insurgent groups. Pseudo-units may damage infrastructure, set fire to farmlands, or commit general acts of violence while disguised as insurgents. These actions often have one of two primary objectives: turn the non-combatant population within the territory against an insurgent group they once supported or enable pseudo-operators to gain enough credibility to infiltrate the actual insurgent network. Pseudo-operators thereby strive to alienate insurgents from the non-combatant population and gain human intelligence (HUMINT) on insurgent safe havens. The HUMINT garnered through pseudo-operations informs more conventional military assaults on the insurgent garrisons. Employing this operational model, Rhodesia’s Selous Scout units overcame several chronic challenges of collecting HUMINT in a counterinsurgency campaign. The ways in which the Selous Scouts, as well as a handful of other governments throughout the twentieth century, executed this strategy illustrates how well pseudo-operations can serve the HUMINT aspect of insurgency wars.

Challenges to Counterinsurgency Intelligence

Insurgent groups strive to deny state intelligence collection efforts by operating out of remote safe-havens, maintaining near-impenetrable organizational structures, and integrating seamlessly into non-combatant populations. Counterinsurgency is inherently HUMINT-intensive, and the remoteness of insurgent camps exacerbates efforts to penetrate guerrilla strongholds.[i] Insurgent groups persist in guerrilla warfare by taking advantage of rough terrain to conceal their bases from state intelligence. Penetrating insurgent networks can reveal camp locations, which is why insurgent organizations take steps to harden those networks against penetration. For example, various insurgent leaders have sought to deter defection or betrayal through hierarchical system of sacrifice and reward.[ii] Furthermore, since insurgents can only succeed with the tacit or active support of the local population, HUMINT penetration of insurgent networks must begin with the non-combatant population.[iii] Therefore, HUMINT professionals must ferret out members of the insurgent network from among the population to minimize the possibility of further alienating non-combatants. Gaining the intelligence necessary to annihilate an insurgency requires a HUMINT regime capable of overcoming these challenges.

How Pseudo-Operations Overcame HUMINT Obstacles

Though international pressure—vis-à-vis neighboring countries who harbored and trained insurgents, United Kingdom-led economic sanctions, and a United Nations denunciation—eventually forced the Rhodesian government into negotiations with the opposition parties, the Selous Scouts’ HUMINT operations afforded the Rhodesian security forces supremacy over the theater of war inside the country. The Selous Scouts, formed out of collaboration between the Rhodesian police’s Special Branch and the government’s civilian intelligence service, operated as paramilitary units rather than as part of the military intelligence structure. Although the Scouts conducted a series of violent direct actions against insurgent camps, their main role throughout the war was to gather intelligence on those camps and alienate the rebels from the non-combatant population. After locating concentrations of rebel activity, the Selous Scout teams informed the Rhodesian military’s designated Fireforce via embedded liaison officers. The Selous Scouts’ success forced both the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army and Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army insurgent factions to operate from bases outside Rhodesia’s borders, in Zambia and Mozambique respectively. Even those external camps, however, were covertly raided by the Scouts. Toward the end of the war, the overwhelming majority of insurgent deaths at the hand of the state security forces were attributed to intelligence gained by the Selous Scouts, and the insurgent groups had been forced to operate from friendly territories outside of Rhodesia’s borders.[iv]

The Selous Scouts demonstrated that pseudo-operators can overcome HUMINT challenges through directly capturing and turning enemy insurgents. Under their founder Lieutenant Colonel Ron Reid-Daly, the Selous Scouts refined the practice. Daly explains that their members were trained to be resourceful trackers, capable of operating in insurgent-held territory without needing to be resupplied from their home base. Typically, the Scouts were deployed to hunt and ambush active insurgents in the bush. The insurgents who survive this initial attack were then captured and brought to the pseudo-unit’s base. While captured insurgents were treated humanely during interrogations, they were promptly made aware of their options: cooperate with the Scouts or be sent inland to face a likely death penalty. From then, the Scouts tested their turned insurgents’ loyalty in the field, and the latter were used to ferret out their previous insurgent comrades. Wherever possible, the turned insurgents’ families would be kept at the Scouts’ base to both ensure their welfare and further bind turned insurgents to the pseudo-operators. The captured insurgents were systematically incorporated into the Selous Scouts and many came to identify with the Scouts’ cause.[v]

While the Rhodesians were the first to conduct pseudo-operations in such a centralized and systematic manner, these kinds of operations were successfully employed to varying degrees in prior counterinsurgency campaigns.[vi] Frank Kitson, who ran pseudo-operations in against the Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, expressed surprise at how easily the insurgents his team captured could be convinced to turn on the rest of the Mau Mau in response to material incentives for themselves and their families.[vii] During the Malaya rebellion, British colonial pseudo-units struck a deal with an insurgent commander that permitted government forces to enter the jungle disguised as guerrillas in order to coordinate surprise raids on other insurgent camps.[viii]

Present Utility of Pseudo-Operations

The Selous Scouts conducted impressive raids and other direct actions against the insurgent groups. However, it is their demonstrated HUMINT collection capabilities that make the model worth revisiting. Contemporary counterinsurgency campaigns must overcome the same broad challenges facing HUMINT-intensive intelligence collection. The Scouts and their predecessors developed a strategic answer to those challenges. Furthermore, modern social network analysis (SNA) techniques offer the potential to amplify the HUMINT collection efficiency of pseudo-operations against both insurgent and terrorist groups. If SNA allows security forces to reliably map insurgent networks, then pseudo-operators can target key individuals in that network to capture and turn more efficiently. Alternately, SNA can illuminate crucial connections in the network that pseudo-operators can work to disrupt, thereby disintegrating the insurgencies.[ix]








[i] Dan Zeytoonian, Intelligent Design: COIN Operations and Intelligence Collection and Analysis, Military Review (2006), 188.

[ii] Eli Berman, “The Defection Constraint,” in Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009) 29-59.

[iii] Mao Zedong, On Guerilla Warfare (Thousand Oaks: BN Publishing, 2007).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ron Reid Daly and Peter Stiff, Selous Scouts: Top Secret War, 2nd ed. (Alberton: Galago Publishing, 1982), 176-200.

[vi] Peter Baxter, Selous Scouts: Rhodesian Counter-Insurgency Specialists, Vol. 4 (Pinetown: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2011).

[vii] Lawrence E. Cline, Pseudo Operations and Counterinsurgency: Lessons from other Countries (Carlisle Barracks: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2005).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Matthew D. Erlacher, Fighting Dark Networks: Using Social Network Analysis to Implement the Special Operations Targeting Process for Direct and Indirect Approaches (Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School, 2013).

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