Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

October 11, 2007

Malayan Emergency: A Counterinsurgency That Worked

Filed under: history, politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 8:48 am

I asked the question a while back whether anyone could point to a campaign in which a counterinsurgency campaign worked.

I have not seen a single case in history where the type of adventure the U.S. has currently embarked on has worked. Although, I would be open to someone suggesting such an example. There are large lists of counter-examples including the American Revolution, American Reconstruction, American-Filipino war, Soviet-Afghanistan war, and the Vietnam War.

Fortunately, Rich Lowry provides an example via Gleen Greenwald.

It is time to say it unequivocally: We are winning in Iraq.

If current trends continue, our counter-insurgent campaign in Iraq will be fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the British victory over a Communist insurgency in Malaysia in the 1950s, a textbook example of this form of war. Our counterinsurgency has gone through the same stages as that of the Brits five decades ago: confusion in the initial reaction to the insurgency, followed by a long period of adjustment, and finally the slow but steady erosion of the insurgency’s military and political base. Even as there has been a steady diet of bad news about Iraq in the media over the last year, even as some hawks have bailed on the war in despair, even as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has become everyone’s whipping boy, the U.S. military has been regaining the strategic upper hand.

Here is the ultimate source. This is apparently from an April 27th, 2005 article in the National Review called “We’re Winning: How the U.S. Learned the Art of Counterinsurgency in Iraq” by Richard Lowry.

It should be noted that it took 12 years to end the insurgency (June 1948-July 1960). I’ve made the prediction that I’m 90% sure the Iraq War will last anywhere from 5 years to 34 years. The low end of this estimate comes from my almost certainty that the war will not end as long as George W. Bush is in office, the high range is by taking the length of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and doubling it.

As the Wikipedia article about the conflict notes, comparisons were made between the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam war. The MLNA is the Malayan National Liberation Army which was mostly limited to support from ethnic Chinese in Malaysia which accounted for about 500,000 of a population 6.11 million in 1950.

  • The MNLA was isolated and without external supporters.
  • The MNLA was politically isolated from the bulk of the population. It was, as mentioned above, a political movement almost entirely limited to ethnic Chinese; support among Muslim Malays and smaller tribes was scattered if existent at all. Malay nationalists supported the British because they promised independence in a Malay state; an MNLA victory would imply a state dominated by ethnic Chinese, and possibly a puppet state of Beijing or Moscow.
  • Britain never approached the Emergency as a conventional conflict and quickly implemented an effective combined intelligence (led by Malayan Police Special Branch against the political arm of the guerrilla movement) and a ‘hearts and minds’ operation. At all levels, command was through a small committee of army, police and civilian administration officials, which allowed intelligence to be rapidly evaluated and disseminated.
  • Many Malayans had fought side by side with the British against the Japanese occupation in World War II, including Chin Peng. This is in contrast to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) where French colonial officials often operated as proxies and collaborators to the Japanese. This factor of trust between the locals and the colonials was what gave the British an advantage over the French and later, the Americans in Vietnam.

So, the key questions to be answered is whether the insurgency enjoys broad base support, or is limited to a minority of the population? Has the United States won the “Hearts and Minds” of the Iraqi people? Can the United States provide a political solution that undermines much of the rationale for the insurgency?

So, is the the insurgency limited to a minority, or does it enjoy broad base support? The answer appears to be that the insurgency, as such, are local militias created by the immediate aftermath of the invasion. They have infiltrated security and political arms of the government and will use violence to achieve political ends. In this respect, the insurgency is not limited to small minority of the population for support in the way the MNLA was.

Has the United States won the “Hearts and Minds” of the Iraqi people? No. The U.S. has built unpopular walls. The U.S. has tortured (warning: graphic). The U.S. hires contractors to do the reconstruction in the face of massive unemployment. The U.S. has hired security firms that show a callous disregard of life for the average Iraqi citizen.

Can the United States provide a political solution that undermines much of the rationale for the insurgency? No. The insurgency exists as separate sectarian groups struggle for power in the new government. In this respect, the “surge” is dramatically counterproductive. Making security agreements with Sunni tribes in exchange for political compromises demonstrates that violence works to achieve political ends. In addition, it has the effect of discrediting moderate elements as different groups become more radicalized and demanding so the U.S. intervenes on their behalf. In this respect, the U.S. has already sold out the majority of the population in Iraq to pacify an extremist Sunni minority. The ultimate result of this policy is an escalation in violence as the minority uses violence to get more of their demands met and the radicalized factions on the other side start responding. This is supported by recent news that “Top Iraqis Pull Back From Key U.S. Goal: Reconciliation Seen Unattainable Amid Struggle for Power.”

In short, instead of highlighting the likelihood of success the Malayan Emergency seems to show vast deviations from a successful counterinsurgency policy the U.S. has made.  Given this is one success surrounded by a litany of failures, in conjunction with the fact that the British did cede colonial ties with Malaysia as a result of the “state of emergency,” it is increasingly difficult for me to see what “Victory” in Iraq even means, or how we can possibly force the competing factions to compromise by mediating a sectarian conflict that the U.S., by in large, manufactured in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.


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