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The Malayan Emergency and Iraq

An ex-colleague sent me the article below, drawing on the Malayan Emergency to suggest that the situation in Iraq is far from hopeless. He'd been sent the article by one of his colleagues, described as "a little to the right of Attila the Hun on the political spectrum" and wanted my comments in response, given my Malaysian background and long-term interest in the Emergency, Vietnam and military history in general. I figured I'd post it and my response here too, just to see if anyone would care to comment. Oh, in case anyone hasn't twigged yet, my initials are KML...

The key theme of the article is correct about defeat in a guerilla war not being inevitable but only in the sense that few failures are inevitable, provided the right decisions are made and the right actions taken in advance, but it is not clear is the case in Iraq. The key thing is that there are lessons which can be drawn from the Malayan Emergency (chap needs a good kicking for talking about Malaysia – it didn’t exist at that time!) but it’s just as important to know what isn’t transferable from the Malaya experience…

National Review Online
January 18, 2005

Been There, Done That

Iraq’s not foreign territory.


By Rich Lowry, NR Editor

As the drumbeat of bad news continues in Iraq and calls for a U.S. withdrawal begin to take hold, a popular cliché will get increased currency: that it is impossible to win a war against a guerrilla insurgency. This is the historical inaccuracy that Vietnam wrought. Americans assume that since they lost a war that had a guerrilla aspect in Vietnam — never mind that it was a conventional North Vietnamese army that ultimately conquered the south — everyone must always lose guerrilla wars.
[KML: Important to note: There’s a lot of debate about whether US defeat in Vietnam was inevitable. I’d argue that, given the set of constraints the US set itself (e.g. not mobilising the reserves, fighting the war on behalf of the South Vietnamese, treating Laos and Cambodia as inviolate when the NVA didn’t etc) and the way it thus prosecuted the war, defeat was inevitable. However, given different strategic decisions, the outcome of the war could have been very different. Also, it’s hardly surprising that the US population believes it lost a guerrilla war when the US military in Vietnam took a long time to realise its primary foe was no longer the VC but the NVA]

Among other things, this ignores the American victory over an insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s, the Greek triumph over a Communist insurgency after World War II, El Salvador's defeat of Communist guerrillas in the 1980s, Peru's smashing of a terrorist insurgency in the 1990s, in the 1950s over a communist guerrilla movement.
[KML: The USMC also had a long history of successfully fighting insurgencies Central/South America – the Banana Wars etc – and even had a field manual on the subject. Unfortunately, this was all forgotten post WWII because the US thought nuclear weapons rendered all this obsolete]

The British experience is related in John Nagl's cult-classic book
Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. It has become must reading for high-level officers in Iraq because its lessons seem so directly applicable to the situation there. Nagl himself, an Army major, has been in Iraq, where we still can duplicate the British experience in Malaysia of stumbling initially, but prevailing through innovation, stick-to-itiveness and shrewd political maneuvering.

Communist guerrillas in Malaysia
[KML: It was Malaya at the time – Malaysia did not come into being until 1963, 3 years after the Emergency ended!] took up arms in the late 1940s, murdering Europeans, sabotaging industry and using terror to try to strengthen the insurgency's base among the country's Chinese minority. Given their colonial history, the British had plenty of experience with such low-intensity conflicts, but had forgotten it after the conventional warfare in Europe of World War II. The Brits at first considered the insurgency primarily a military problem, and tried to take the guerrillas on in conventional military formations. These tactics not only failed to engage the guerrillas, who easily evaded the large jungle sweeps, but their heavy-handedness alienated the local population. [KML: Partly true. Post WWII, the returning British set up the British Military Administration which had very few people who’d been in the pre-war colonial administration and hence understood Malayan society. Its heavy-handedness and corruption, combined with high expectations of the population for restoration of the pre-war order and chronic under-funding from Britain, managed to alienate pretty much every section of Malayan society, even the European miners and planters! Key thing is the Malayan Communist Party would have been unable to start its insurgency without some degree of popular support from sections of the population with a sense of grievance, in this case the Chinese population, particularly the rural Chinese. Note also the MCP was largely equipped with arms the British supplied them during the war. Also true the initial British response in the Emergency was that it was a military issue and focused on a largely unsuccessful “Coercion and Enforcement” approach]

The British were losing.
[KML: Bit of an exaggeration. The Emergency quickly settled into a stalemate] One observer thought the guerrillas were "probably equal to that of government in the matter of supplies and superior in the matter of intelligence." Guerrilla attacks had been fewer than 100 a month in mid-1949, but spiked to more than 400 a month by mid-1950. This is when, had the Brits operated in our media and political environment, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would have witheringly declared all lost, and calls from across the political spectrum would have gone up to quit. [KML: The US population has long had an aversion to long wars and high casualties. There is nothing new about this, there’s evidence of this even during the Revolutionary War and Civil War! Modern media comments are just a more visible symptom of this. Everybody round the world now knows this and that the key to defeating the US military is to inflict enough casualties, especially large numbers in a single incident – note US withdrawal from Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing and from Mogadishu after the whole Blackhawk Down incident (note that Aideed was in a seriously weakened position after that and the US could probably have finished him off at that point…). 9/11 seems to have raised the US people’s tolerance for casualties but I strongly suspect it’s still there]

With a patience born of fighting many "small wars" in dusty parts of the world, the British simply set about fixing what they had done wrong. Most fundamentally, they realized that counterinsurgency depends on winning a political battle for "hearts and minds" (a famous phrase that originated in the Malaysia fight). Military operations were conducted on a smaller scale. The Chinese population was secured from guerrilla influence. A Malaysian army was built, with Chinese involvement. Elections were organized and independence promised. Slowly, the air went out of the insurgency, which was officially declared over in 1960, 12 years after it began.
[KML: The British and Malayans had several advantages not applicable in Vietnam and Iraq though – Malaya had no long land borders with states likely to be supportive of the insurgents. It was only the rural Chinese population which needed relocation, a comparatively small number but even then the expense was considered almost prohibitive – it was only the Korean War and the accompanying boom in rubber and tin prices which allowed the government to fund the New Village plan and similar initiatives. Also, the Chinese involvement in the Army and Police was very minor and remains so to this day. In fact, one major source of tension was that it was largely Malay Special Constables guarding Chinese New Villagers. Right though that the British, in the form of Generals Harold Briggs and Gerald Templer did a good job of identifying the need for a joined-up policy and fixing their earlier mistakes. Another thing which helped the government is that the MCP remained almost exclusively Chinese, a minority forming ~25% of the population, and indeed did a great job of alienating the Malay population. The rebel movements in Iraq have a much larger proportion of the population they can recruit from.]

Iraq is not the same as Malaysia, of course, but it presents a very similar problem
[KML: Not sure how much I agree, for the reasons given above]. The Malaysian example has been on the Pentagon's mind from the beginning, and is one reason it has placed such an emphasis on training Iraqi troops. Ultimately, just as important as establishing security in Iraq is having a political program more attractive than that of our revanchist enemies [KML: True up to a point. When the Emergency began, political institutions had been restored, however flawed and unpopular they might have been. They came under strain but never collapsed the way they did in Iraq and it’s not clear how easily they could have been built if an armed insurrection was already under way]. Which is why — just as in Malaysia — holding elections and maintaining a glide path to full sovereignty are so crucial [KML: A few major problems with the comparison: 1. In addition to the British getting it right, the MCP also got things wrong. 2. The role of the foreign military power: In Malaya, the British might have squandered much goodwill but they still retained a certain legitimacy from the pre-war colonial period. The US military doesn’t have the same benefit.].

We should be clear-eyed about the fearsome difficulties in
Iraq. But we shouldn't give in to despair, let alone an unjustified metaphysical despair about the possibility of ever defeating a stubborn insurgency. It's been done before. [KML: Nice words but just as important as learning the lessons of history is not learning lessons that aren’t there. Also, the current US military is still largely designed for the very specific job of destroying a vastly numerically superior Soviet bloc enemy as efficiently as possible through the use of overwhelming firepower, not the most promising doctrinal base for a counterinsurgency mission…]

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

Tags: military
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