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Comment: What Was the Strategy of the NRA Struggle?

posted onJanuary 26, 2022

By Dennis Katungi

This is a question that has intrigued Military strategists for some time.  Did the 27 armed men who stormed Kabamba on the 6th February 1981 consciously adhere to a strategy or were they simply resilient and adept than the UNLA/UPC junta they confronted? Some leaders of the resistance will claim that they had prescient knowledge of events and things went more or less according to plan. 

However, others within the upper crust of NRA are more humble and guarded about the way things progressed and eventually turned out.

What is strategy? To answer this, we must turn to the instruction of the master of ‘Strategy’ in the military sense – Carl von Clausewitz. For him, ‘strategy’ represented the link between military power and the political goals for which that force is required.  ‘Strategy’, Clausewitz said, is the use of engagements for the object of the war.  He was concerned with the ‘real conditions of the war; what he called ‘grammar’ of war.  The difficulty, he said, was to link the dirty and messy business of tactical engagements with the higher realms of strategy. He saw the clear relationship between the tactical level of war and the political purposes of the war.  He asserted that ‘war is the continuation of policy by other means’.  Politics is what gives war and strategy their purpose; otherwise war would be pointless.

The critical ingredient it seems for war is that it must be organized violence and must serve some political goal. Clausewitz explained that ‘everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not make everything easy’.

In 1981, at the start of the resistance war, Museveni laid out his thinking on the strategy of a people’s protracted struggle. In his emotionally charged document, ‘Why we fought a protracted People’s War’ he explains his understanding of strategy. He says strategy means the methodology one uses to solve a problem as a whole, that is, to solve a problem from A to Z.

Tactics on the other hand, are the methods one uses to solve parts of the problem from A to B or from C to D.  In this definition of strategy, Museveni showed an understanding for the broadness of strategy.  He appreciated that strategy is composed of a number of dimensions, of which the military tool is but one component. His understanding of tactics focused on the military instrument. It shows that Museveni had studied Mao Zedong throughout the 1970’s in Tanzania and absorbed his writings with the fervor of a man seeking revolutionary redemption.  Whenever he was racked by doubt, he would return to the orthodoxy of Maoist thought.  Additionally, Museveni read British and Canadian field manuals surreptitiously given to him by one of the TPDF’s most revolutionary and dynamic officers  Col Ali Mafudh, an avowed pan-Africanist. This highly cerebral officer had helped restore order in Zanzibar after the assassination of Sheikh Abeid Karume, the first President of Zanzibar.  Col Mafudh rose to become the TPDF’s Chief of Operations and Training (COT) and it was in this capacity that he quenched Museveni’s thirst for military pamphlets. Mao talked of attaining a favourable ‘correlation of forces’ before the revolutionaries could launch their strategic counter-offensive. 

Museveni spoke of ‘balance of forces’ in his 1981 tract. He wrote: ‘When the balance of forces has shifted to our favour, we shall launch conventional warfare’. This entails fighting positional warfare for control of towns and strategic points.For both Mao and Museveni, it was only through the adept wielding of these elements of strategy that victory would be achieved.

Ironically, in the Ugandan experience it was the military dimension in the form of the matchless NRA that assured the sustenance of the revolution and final victory.  The resolute support of the people of Luwero, Ngoma, Singo and Bulemezi in general has to be understood in the context of their inextricable ties to the NRA.  The support was for the fighters whom the population had an affinity with and who they saw meting out punishments on the dictatorship for the unspeakable atrocities committed against them.  It was an empirical relationship based on the numerous struggles they had jointly endured. Had NRA just been a talking shop, it would have soon lost credibility with the people.  Successful armed action was a necessity for the support of the peasants in the Luwero Triangle.

Museveni’s obvious disappointment in the External Committee reveals that the other dimension (diplomatic efforts to procure arms) did not work out well, yet this was compensated for by the brilliance of the NRA at battlefield successes.  We can conclude that although NRA started off with a Maoist conception of strategy, it eventually mutated into something akin to Clausewitz’s ‘grammar’ of the resistance war strategy.

This brilliance of NRA’s Commanders led by Museveni was a consequence of a pragmatic approach to the challenges of the war.  Museveni’s force devised solutions after a careful process of observation, orientation and decision-making. Once the decision was taken, action based on those decisions would follow promptly and as such, incremental tactical changes were implemented that bore strategic fruit. 

This system is known as the ‘OODA loop’ (Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action) or ‘Boyd’s cycle’ after Colonel John Boyd of the US Airforce who first described it after the Korean War.This ethos, combined with the maneuverist approach to operations by the NRA is what eventually bore fruit. 

The NRA had a unique approach to the war in which they sought to shatter the enemy’s overall cohesion, dampen enemy morale and the will to fight.  It calls for an attitude of mind in which doing the unexpected, using initiative and seeking originality is combined with a ruthless determination to succeed. 

This seems to have been the unwritten, unspoken creed of the NRA.  It was in their actions that one can deduce that the defeat of the enemy by means other than the destruction of his mass was achieved through a maneuverist approach to operations. 

This can be equated to the stunning maneuverist victory the Israeli’s achieved over an Egyptian force twice their size in the Sinai in 1967. Edited Extract from Battles of the Ugandan Resistance by Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

Dennis Katungi is Head of Communications & Media Relations – Uganda Media Centre.

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