Joe Geni, December 2013
Guerrilla warfare is nearly as old as warfare itself, and the problems of asymmetric conflict have bedeviled armies and governments for millennia. But whatever the motivations of the insurgents, the fact is that insurgencies usually only happen where they can—where the government is weak or corrupt, and where rebellion is geographically and financially viable. Northern Ireland notwithstanding, insurgencies in rich, developed countries are rare. Thus, when Western powers fight insurgents, both now and in the likely future, they will do so abroad in weak or failing states. This leaves the United States and its partners with two dilemmas:
1. How does a foreign power show the determination and staying power needed to win while simultaneously convincing everyone it will ultimately leave?
2. Are population-centric “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategies the best approach, or are other approaches better?
Just a few years ago, these were not even debates. Afghanistan was the “good war” and General David Petraeus’s success in reducing violence in Iraq had made him a national hero. But today, the war in Afghanistan is in its 12th year and in worse shape than a decade earlier, and both the strategy and the utility of counterinsurgency are in question. In these dark times, Washington can at least take heart in this: it is neither the first nor last great power to face these issues.
The phrase “hearts and minds” has been so overused that the man who popularized it, British General Sir Gerald Templer, would later call it “that nauseating phrase I think I invented.” This paper explores what the term actually means, and compares it to alternate counterinsurgency strategies. It then explores the campaign that popularized the term—the Malaya Emergency, 1948-1960—and attempts to determine what worked, what lessons can be applied to future counterinsurgencies, and which elements are unique to the time and place.
It offers this conclusion: “hearts and minds” is an attempt to win over the population, neither through pure control or pure kindness, but rather by the provision of security and governance. For a liberal democracy unable to commit mass punishment or exercise total information control, it is the best approach on offer. But it is not easy, it is time-consuming and costly, and it is sometimes impossible, so future military planners should proceed with grave caution and undertake such an effort only if it is truly strategically vital and geopolitical conditions exist that augur a successful outcome.
II. Hearts and Minds and its Discontents
T.X. Hammes wrote that counterinsurgency is not a strategy any more than anti-aircraft is a strategy. It is, rather, merely a type of conflict. All counterinsurgents face a basic problem: a challenge to their authority by asymmetric guerrilla forces. And every counterinsurgency has as its heart one basic goal: to demonstrate to the population the capacity and determination to govern. As French counterinsurgent David Galula wrote, “to command is to control.” Every counterinsurgency strategy seeks to control. Where they disagree is the method. Here is how population-centric counterinsurgency stacks up against its competitors.
Population-centric counterinsurgency: the "hearts and minds" method
When Templer famously remarked, “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the Malayan People,” he could not have known he was popularizing one of the more oft-used and misunderstood sentiments of the 20th century. Hawks dismissively conjure images of soldiers building playgrounds for children rather than fighting wars. Doves consider it Orwellian propaganda. Both miss the point. “Hearts and minds” distinguishes asymmetric warfare, where control and support of the population is vital, from conventional warfare, where battlefield superiority is the determining factor. It was never designed to be an either/or of catching flies with honey or a flyswatter. Its prime goal is to gain “popular support and legitimacy” through the provision of security and governance. It recognizes that, in the words of Roger Trinquier, insurgents use an “interlocking system of actions—political, economic, psychological, military—that aims at the overthrow of the established authority,” and that to defeat them, the counterinsurgent must do the same.
“Hearts and minds” cut its teeth in Malaya, but Washington and London would later belatedly apply these lessons to successfully swing the Iraqi Sunnis away from al Qaeda, and then with more mixed results among the Afghan Pashtuns. In the process, they again made “hearts and minds” the most viable model for liberal democratic counterinsurgency. In the introduction to Field Manual 3-24, released in December 2006, Petraeus and Lieutenant General James F. Amos wrote that a counterinsurgency is “a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations” that requires “Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.”
But the document also acknowledges the strategy’s drawbacks. It is “complex, demanding, and tedious,” without “quick solutions.” It forces the counterinsurgent to downplay its most decisive asset: military superiority. It requires political will for a long, often indecisive campaign. It requires greater control of media and propaganda than most liberal democracies are used to. And since the entire system is dependent on creating legitimate governance, a weak or corrupt administration like the current Afghan government can fatally undermine it, as can a lack of national reconciliation.
As shall be shown, however, most of the alternatives are worse.
Long-time ideological foil of the counterinsurgent, the conventional warrior simply ignores the asymmetry and tries to defeat the guerrillas as he or she would a conventional enemy. The problems with this are manifest. Large-scale conventional weaponry is ineffective if insurgents hide in terrain or among the population. As Galula points out, the insurgent is too mobile and seeks not to hold territory but to terrify the population, which won’t cooperate with the counterinsurgent unless it feels secure. Only by “saturation,” which is seldom affordable, can conventional tactics yield victory. One need look no further into history than the endless resources, and painful losses, that first the French and then the Americans endured in Vietnam to see why the conventional approach is ineffective against asymmetric opponents. While conventional combat is the military’s first and most important role, employing it against guerrilla fighters is like fighting a mosquito infestation with a sledgehammer. Even if the sledgehammer is the most powerful tool on offer, it really isn’t going to help.
“The French Approach”
France learned all too well in Indochina and Algeria how draining asymmetric warfare can be. The French response to these wrenching campaigns was most forcefully advocated by Roger Trinquier in his book “Modern Warfare.” Trinquier recognized that “subversion and terrorism” would be used in the Cold War “to conquer territories without risking total war.” His was a clarion call for the army to either adapt or become irrelevant in a new age. His philosophy shares many aspects of the population-centric approach, notably an understanding that intelligence is necessary to identify the hidden enemy, and that firepower must be supplemented with political, economic, and psychological elements. It differs in emphasizing army over police; an instruction to torture and kill captured suspects; and a willingness to sustain an occupation of the countryside for as long as necessary to annihilate the enemy.
France’s other well-known counterinsurgent was Galula, whose writings later heavily influenced American military leaders like Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. Galula argued that since insurgents don’t hold territory and refuse to fight for it, “the support of the population is as necessary for the counterinsurgent as for the insurgent,” and that this support is conditional upon the counterinsurgent’s ability to provide security and governance. Galula posited a series of sequential steps; to concentrate forces to destroy the insurgent’s armed elements and political organizations; to deploy “the static unit,” or a prolonged occupation of the countryside to prevent the reemergence of the insurgency; to set up new provisional authorities, and to make sure these authorities are competent; to then win over or suppress the last insurgent remains.
There are several weaknesses to the French approach. Neither Trinquier nor Galula offered much of a solution to the crucial issue of cross-border sanctuary. Surprisingly, neither listed many actual historical examples of success, preferring to bitterly lament the unnecessary loss of L’Algérie. The most important failing of the French model, however, is the preclusion of any possible political settlement or legitimate grievance on the part of the population. While the tactics may be similar to a population-centric approach, the political mindset is anything but. Both men were disgusted by Paris’s capitulation in Algeria. Both leave open the possibility of indefinite deployment of the static unit. And although Galula included the necessity of elections, this would likely not have saved the Pieds-Noirs, who were outnumbered in Algeria nine to one. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry wrote that “Galula described a path for counterinsurgents to follow but did not specify a destination.”
If an insurgency is dependent on a charismatic leader, it can be easily done away with by capturing or killing that leader. This is especially true if the insurgent chooses, rather than building a movement over time as Mao did, to follow Régis Debray’s largely-discredited “Focoist” strategy of inspiring the population through spectacular acts of violence by a few dedicated individuals. When Bolivia captured and executed the 20th century’s most famous Focoist, Che Guevara, in 1967, the embryonic insurgency he led died with him. The Romans used assassination as an effective means to end rebellion, and Peru was able to defeat the Shining Path after capturing its leader Abimael Guzmán, although it helped that he publicly renounced violence while in prison.
The primary weakness of decapitation is that, if a movement has broad ideological or identity-based support, simply killing top leadership officials may be insufficient or may even create martyrs. Al Qaeda endures despite the death of Osama bin Laden, just as al Qaeda in Iraq did after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In Malaya, the mythic Communist leader Lai Tek was exposed as a British double-agent in 1947 after he spirited away with the party’s funds. Not only was he replaced by Chin Peng, a 26-year old son of a bicycle-shop owner, but his nonviolent path was discredited in the process, and the resulting insurgency lasted 12 years. And in Algiers, the Front de Libération Nationale divided itself into small cells, none of which knew the identity of other cells’ members, and each of which could carry on even if another cell was destroyed, undermining any attempt to behead the leadership. In short, Foco is the easy way to insurgency, and decapitation is the easy way to defeat it, but neither is usually sufficient.
Now we come to a spate of strategies that are not “appropriate for a liberal democracy,” most of which involve various forms of brutality. Regimes that never have to face an election do not need popular support and can employ a range of harsh tactics to terrify their people into submission. Like other strategies, punishment is a means to control the population and make supporting the government more attractive than opposing it. The difference is that the means of doing so is terror. This is the original counterinsurgency strategy, attributed as far back as the Romans—“They create a desert, and call it peace”—but it is alive and well in Sri Lanka, where in 2009 the government ended a 25-year civil war by crushing the rebel Tamil Tigers and killing up to 30,000 civilians in the process, many of whom were being used as human shields. The devastating Russian crackdown in Chechnya is another example.
Of course, punishment can be used as a strategy by insurgents too, especially if they can fund their insurgency with a lootable resource or outside backing, rather than depending on popular support. However, domestic populations are likely to turn against these insurgents, as they did against al Qaeda in Anbar Province, and this strategy has a lower success rate than more traditional guerrilla or conventional tactics. Likewise, indiscriminate punishment by the government may alienate the local population or even lead to outside intervention, and insurgents will often try to goad the government or occupier into overreacting for this purpose.
Not surprisingly, ruthless suppression thus has a mixed track record. It often creates more enemies than it destroys, and is likely to ultimately fail, and fail badly, if the counterinsurgent is a foreign power, a puppet state, or becomes too weak to continue the effort. It is no coincidence that Moscow found success with punishment in Chechnya, its own territory, but not abroad in Afghanistan. And no amount of slaughter could prevent South Sudanese secession from Sudan. Just as democracies do not always “fail at small wars,” authoritarian states don’t always succeed.
That said, if the government has a domestic base of support to draw on, it very often will. As Galula wrote, “However unpopular he may be, if he is sufficiently strong-willed and powerful, if he can rely on a small but active core of supporters who remain loyal to him because they will lose everything including their lives if the insurgent wins, he can maintain himself in power.” The Tutsi-dominated minority government in Burundi in 1972 responded to a Hutu uprising by slaughtering some 200-300,000 Hutus and sending as many into exile, and Bashar al Assad’s survival shows that such tactics still have currency today.
This leads to the most extreme form of counterinsurgency: the ethnic cleansing or even genocide of whatever population is seen as supporting the insurgents. There are several reasons a government would resort to this. One is financial: as Khartoum showed both in South Sudan and Darfur, it is much cheaper to pay militias to engage in scorched earth tactics against villagers than it is to deploy the static unit for years or decades. Weak, authoritarian states with limited resources and no concern for human rights can respond to ethno-regional uprisings by slaughtering or displacing everyone of that ethnic group from the disputed territory, in what Alex de Waal calls “counterinsurgency on the cheap."
Another reason is a desire to solve an ethnic security dilemma by enforcing ethnic dominance over disputed territory, or to achieve international legitimacy by normalizing new facts on the ground. This was widely practiced during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, where the Serbs attempted to create “Greater Serbia” by cleansing Bosniaks and Croats out of Serb-held areas of Bosnia and Croatia, only to have Croats return the favor in 1995 by evicting 300,000 Serbs from the Krajina. Ethnic cleansing and genocide can succeed: the Krajina today is indisputably Croatian, and the Burundian Tutsis in 1972 cemented nearly two decades of unchallenged state control. These tactics may shock the conscience of mankind, but given the stakes, they shouldn’t surprise us. As John Mearsheimer wrote in 1998, “history records no instance where ethnic groups have agreed to share power in a democracy after a large-scale civil war.”
An alternative way of achieving this same end has been demonstrated by the Chinese in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet. In addition to locking down the territory, Beijing has imported vast numbers of mostly Han Chinese settlers, make the Uyghurs and Tibetans a minority in their own lands. It was Mao who said that insurgents are fish, and the population the sea in which they swim. Taking a cue from their liberator, the Chinese Communist Party has, in effect, “changed the salinity of the sea." Call it the soft genocide of population demographics and resource expropriation.
Many of the above approaches employ similar elements, and in fact they are not mutually exclusive. A liberal people in illiberal circumstances, British Imperialists employed both population-centric counterinsurgency and punishment to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. And even as the Russians were leveling Grozny, they created a genuine alternate Chechen political process, curtailed corruption, and used intelligence-and-strike operations more associated with the “hearts and minds” approach.
But for an American policymaker today, whether punishment tactics work is somewhat academic: in the current era, no liberal democracy can likely get away with them. Even by 1948, the British had sufficient concern for international public opinion, especially from the Communist press, that they dared not use the same indiscriminate suppression in Malaya that they had relied on in earlier colonial times. What they did instead yielded the the most successful Western counterinsurgency campaign of the post-war era, one whose lessons have been copied, with varying degrees of success, ever since.
III. Case Study: The Malayan Emergency
The Malayan Emergency continues to resonate down to our current time, and for good reason: it shares many parallels with Afghanistan today. Then, as now, the battle was seen as part of a wider war against a global ideological foe. Then, as now, a revolutionary movement the West had supported out of expediency turned to bite the hand that had fed it. Then, as now, key skills in asymmetric warfare, intelligence-gathering, and security had lapsed, requiring the government to relearn them on the fly. And then, as now, the insurgency was confined to a large but marginalized ethnic group.
The year was 1948, communism was spreading—the following year, China would fall—empires were crumbling at their foundations, and the security situation was so tenuous in Southeast Asia that just three years earlier the British had had to redeploy surrendered Japanese troops to restore security when ethnic rioting broke out in Malaya and Singapore.
Malaya, a British colony since 1874, had long been economically important for its rubber and tin. Now, to a bankrupt post-war Britain on the cusp of losing the Subcontinent to independence, it was vital. British policymakers planned “to make the most of the region’s resources” in the post-war reoccupation, and “[t]he prospect of bankruptcy hardened Britain’s resolve to profit from its empire." Malaya had received “large-scale British capital investment in primary production” during the inter-war years, and by the 1960s British investment returns from Malaya and Borneo would exceed £10 million, putting it “on a par with India and Pakistan." Malaya was also producing huge trade surpluses with the United States, to whom the British were deeply indebted. Even as independence loomed, British business interests gave London more reason than ever to demonstrate its commitment and staying power.
Malaya, however, had been devastated by the war. The Japanese had wrecked Malaya's economy and currency and “behaved so brutally to their forced labourers that nearly a third of them died.” The colony was beset with a host of problems that would all contribute to the insurgency: food shortages, corruption, and employment discrimination and abusive labor practices toward ethnic Chinese. It also faced destructive ethnic politics on questions of citizenship. In preparation for independence, the British organized a Malay Union in 1946, only to find it boycotted by Malays who feared newly enfranchised Chinese would take their jobs. After just two years, the British reversed course, creating a new Federation of Malaya which excluded Chinese. (Of some two million Chinese, only 350,000 now qualified automatically for citizenship compared to virtually all 2.5 million Malays.) These excluded Chinese would later form the backbone of the insurgency.
The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) dated to 1930, and had fought the Japanese during the Second World War. It was mostly Chinese, not surprising since the Japanese had a penchant for “decorating bridges over the Singapore River with severed [Chinese] heads.” After the war, it renamed itself the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) and commenced armed struggle in 1948. Chin Peng, its leader, was young and inexperienced and so were the 4,000 fighters he mobilized, some of whom set off for jungle warfare “in clogs rather than boots.” Nevertheless, British planters soon found their bungalows being set aflame nightly. “Trains were derailed, rubber trees slashed, factories set afire.” Insurgents quickly became more adept at hit-and-run and “committed terrible atrocities such as disemboweling their victims” before disappearing into the undergrowth. By 1954, the United Planting Association of Malaya estimated that 7% of all European planters had been killed by insurgents. The raiders targeted the means of production, but took care to avoid undermining the livelihoods of the Chinese peasants they depended on. British trade associations became spooked about skyrocketing insurance costs, and beseeched London to employ more forceful and extensive counterinsurgent efforts than it was willing or able to authorize.
The British were initially woefully unprepared for the campaign, and there was a “distinct lack of urgency at Whitehall." The Malayan police, decimated by the Japanese occupation, were “badly-equipped, poorly-trained and under-staffed.” The fighting forces scarcely outnumbered the insurgents. The early response of the men on the spot was both harsh and self-defeating. British troops conducted ineffective and oft-ridiculed wide sweeps, “burned whole villages in retaliation for attacks,” and locked up over 200,000 suspects, frequently for weeks at a time. Torture during interrogation was commonplace, and the High Commissioner Henry Gurney in 1948 privately admitted “the police and the army are breaking the law every day.” Other policies included identity cards for everyone over 12 years of age; movement restrictions; the death penalty for bearing arms; detention without trial for up to two years; deportations (over 10,000 in 1949 alone); controls on food and shops; arson against the homes of communist sympathizers; censorship; collective punishment through curfews and fines; “indiscriminate shooting” of Chinese squatters if they fled patrols; and the hanging of hundreds of prisoners. The High Commissioner felt the Chinese would “lean towards whichever side frightens them more,” but in practice, “[m]any Chinese thought the British were behaving worse than the Japanese.”
The British could rely on the conservative Muslim Malays, who disliked Chinese and Communists alike, but their response to the Chinese population was tone-deaf. Lacking an understanding of Chinese grievances, they initially treated the uprising as a crime problem, not a political one. They failed to protect Chinese squatters but still demanded their assistance against the MRLA. While Gurney recognized the importance of winning the Chinese population, he and other top officials held “a tangible, and ever-growing, anti-Chinese bias.” In October of 1951, he complained at length that Chinese leaders were content to live in luxury in Singapore while having “done absolutely nothing to help their own people resist Communism." Two days later, his convoy was ambushed and he was slain by insurgents. The ex-pat community was left demoralized.
Although no one could have guessed at the time, the assassination of Gurney was to be the last major success for the MRLA. The arrival of General Templer in 1952 would coincide with a decisive shift in the campaign. The British had learned from their early mistakes, and four key developments would help turn the tide:
- Reforms to win over the population
- Better intelligence
- Mass resettlement
- Independence for Malaya
“That Nauseating Phrase”
General Templer had the misfortune to arrive shortly after his predecessor’s assassination, when British morale was at a low ebb and “a general feeling of hopelessness” had set in. Once installed in Kuala Lumpur, Templer quickly lit a fire under the ex-pat community and colonial administration. He “galvanized his subordinates.” He tried to get bureaucrats “out of their offices, and make them talk about the Emergency with the people on the ground, in whose head ultimately lies the solution.” He made it a point to get to know the population, shaking hands with his servants and eating durian, and at one point told the scandalized members of one exclusive British-only club in Kuala Lumpur that Chinese Communists “seldom go to the races. They seldom go to dinner parties or cocktail parties. And they don’t play golf!”
Even before Templer’s arrival, the British had switched from ineffective wide sweeps to more targeted efforts. Large sweeps did have their purpose: the MRLA admitted the sweeps prevented them from holding territory and setting up bases. But the rebels easily adapted, traveling in small groups to avoid the sweeps. And the British army then had to adapt as well. By 1949, they had some 250 “jungle companies” of 10 to 15 officers per squad, and a Jungle Warfare School was set up at Kota Tinggi in 1953. Templer would additionally put a stop to the burning of villages and mass arrests.
Templer, shortly after arriving, stressed that Emergency and normal civil government were “completely and utterly interrelated,” and that “the shooting side of this business is only 25 per cent of the trouble”—Galula would put it at 20%—“and the other 75 per cent lies in getting the people of this country behind us.” Unlike his predecessors, Templer would be given both the top civilian and military position, allow him to coordinate all phases of the campaign. Winning the population meant demonstrating both the government’s capacity and its legitimacy. What it did not mean, however, was playing nice, and indeed British historian Piers Brendon calls the “hearts and minds” idea “something of a myth.” Templer’s Malaya was “a police state” where the prisons were reputed to be worse than those of the Japanese. The campaign “involve[d] high levels of force, was not fought within the law and led to abuses of human rights.” The British used collective punishment and linked food distribution to cooperation. When one village would not name the attackers involved in a nearby ambush, Templer “imposed a twenty-two hour curfew and cut the rice ration in half.” Later, a scandal erupted when photos emerged of a smiling Marine Commando holding two severed Chinese heads. Templer brushed it off, saying that “decapitation was necessary for identification.” In the words of Hew Strachan, “hearts and minds” was not “about being nice to the natives, but about giving them the firm smack of government. Hearts and minds denoted authority, not appeasement.”
As for the Communists, defectors were well-treated, getting rewards and business opportunities, which were then advertised to the other rebels. Templer offered safe passage, food, and medical care to any Communist who would surrender. Psychological operations were honed to a science, with Police Commissioner Sir Arthur Edwin Young having created by 1952 “an interrogation centre staffed entirely by former rebels who were adept at convincing recently captured or surrendered cadres to speak.” Those who did not surrender, however, got the hammer. Starvation was a key tactic. When insurgent crops were discovered, they were napalmed, forcing the Communists to boil rubber leaves to survive. About 10,000 “alleged hard-core troublemakers” were deported to China. Nearly 7,000 were ultimately killed.
All this required money, and fortunately, Malaya had just received a windfall. The outbreak of the Korean War caused a spike in the price of rubber and tin, helping the British to finance the operation. Indeed, “[t]he scale of the civilian contribution” needed to run “political, economic, and development aspects” of the campaign “has rarely been replicated since.”
Templer had served as Director of Intelligence in the War Office, and knew how critical intelligence was to his strategy. Small patrols would be useless if they didn’t know when and where to strike. And prior to his arrival, the intelligence services had been ineffective due to a lack of Chinese representation and institutional discord.
Shortly after arriving, Templer announced, “My absolute top priority is to get the intelligence machine right.” The system was dramatically scaled up and its command structure streamlined. An independent Special Branch for intelligence was set up in the Malayan police, which would prove key to winning the war, along with a Director of Intelligence post that would coordinate all intelligence branches and report directly to Templer. Representatives of the military, Special Branch, and police would actively share information, allowing for “a rigid structure allowed the flow of intelligence to be shared and coordinated at all levels.” This approach would subsequently be put to use in Kenya and elsewhere.
On the ground, Templer “gave huge rewards to informers and defectors” and “cranked up the propaganda war.” Security forces were able to use surrendered Communists as “running dogs” to hunt down and engage the remaining fighters in the jungle. The British clamped down on the media, leaving the Communists isolated. Newspapers and “voice aircraft” called on the rebels to surrender, and some 93 million pamphlets were dropped in 1953 alone. The MRLA seemed to especially fear the latter trick: Chin Peng made “even picking up a leaflet” a capital offense. Guy Madoc of the Special Branch would later say that the British victory “depended on intelligence.”
Draining The Sea
It should not be forgotten that the single most effective strategy the British employed would be unthinkable for a liberal democracy today. From the beginning, the main source of support for the insurgents had been the some 400-600,000 Chinese squatters living without titles or citizenship at the edges of the jungle. When British General Harold Briggs arrived in 1950, he came up with a solution: forcibly resettling half a million of them (at that time a quarter of Malaya’s entire Chinese population) into Resettlement Areas and holding them there for years until the resistance petered out. Briggs likened it to “defeating malaria by depriving mosquitoes of their breeding grounds.” Neither the problem nor the solution were new—the Japanese had tried something similar—but the Chinese hadn’t liked it before and still didn’t. “They hated being torn from their homes, smallholdings, fishponds, poultry, and pigs. ... They detested the barbed wire and searchlights, the curfews and food searches, the continuing insecurity, the inadequate schools and health care.”
Templer’s contribution was to dramatically improve the conditions in the Resettlement Areas, which he euphemistically renamed “New Villages.” He created a quality-of-life checklist and empowered locally elected village councils. The former squatters were still closely monitored, “but were also offered land, employment, education, and an opportunity to engage in local politics,” leaving them materially, at least, better off than they had been before.
Without question, the Briggs plan accomplished its primary aim: it robbed the rebels of their primary source of recruits and materiel. Without the squatters’ support, the MCP decided to appeal more broadly, and in an October 1951 directive fatefully decided to cease indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The Communists then retreated deep into the jungles. As Mao or Che could have predicted, this decision backfired. By sacrificing fear, the insurgents lost their primary weapon. By withdrawing, they became more isolated. And with fewer attacks, the government could claim credit for heightened security.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go
Perhaps the most important element of British strategy, however, and one that distinguished their efforts from those of the French in Algeria, was that they offered a viable political path forward to the population. Colonial authorities continuously made it clear to Malayans that independence was coming soon. This was convenient enough for Whitehall, as the British were overstretched and reckoned, rightly, that granting Malaya independence within the Commonwealth would let them keep their economic benefits without the cost of having to run the place. But the political path to independence that the British were offering was also key to delegitimizing the resistance.
The British worked for years to strengthen Malaya’s domestic politics, forming a Communities Liaison Committee (CLC) to bridge ethnic differences in 1949. The CLC would play a key role in resolving Malaya’s most divisive issues. In fact, the British could barely keep ahead of the Malayan nationalists’ stampede toward self-rule. Malay, Chinese, and Indian political parties formed an Alliance, collaborated on writing a new federal constitution, and then swept to power in federal elections in 1955, “thus making revolution redundant.” Abdul Rahman, the Malay Tunku (or Prince) and the Alliance’s leader, proved to be a moderate and a bridge-builder. When he met Chin Peng in December 1955 for talks, Rahman told him, “I did not come here as the spokesman for the British government. ... I am a servant of the people and I represent the people who have elected me to power.”
Templer’s Citizenship Bill in May of 1952 granted citizenship to an additional 1.157 million Chinese, and sought to break the Malay stranglehold on administrative service jobs, especially the police force. Getting the Chinese into Malay political life also got them out of the resistance. Meanwhile, the British worked to build a more inclusive security apparatus, encouraging both Malays and ethnic Chinese to join. About 30,000 Malays were trained as “special constables” to secure villages and fight the insurgents. After initial missteps, the British retrained and equipped the Malayan police, allowing armed citizens to protect their villages. By the time of independence in 1957, all the chairmen of the state and district executive war committees were Malayan. While most officers remained British, they were officially servants of the Malayan government, an important symbol of trust that undercut nationalist support for the Communists.
The debate continues as to what ultimately broke the insurgents: Templer’s strategies, the Briggs resettlement plan, or their own incompetence. Karl Hack maintains that population control was more important that hearts and minds, and that the MCP’s shift in late 1951 to stop indiscriminate attacks and retreat to the jungles was an admission “that it could not defeat resettlement." But in fact, MCP’s shift from military to political tactics also had several other explanations, including advice from China and Russia, internal party divisions, and the realization that acts of terror intimidation were alienating the population. Also, the Communists were always weak. They never had more than a few thousand followers, got no significant aid from China or Russia or from the diaspora—the latter often a critical bulwark to an ethnic rebellion—and had no support from the Indian or Malayan communities or even from Malaya’s Chinese leaders. Conservative Muslim Malays were hostile to atheist communism, and “Malay farmers or fishermen sometimes butchered armed guerrillas who strayed into their territory.” The Communist movement “lacked the capability and audacity to infiltrate the main Malayan cities, its communications network was sluggish and unreliable and its recruitment relied more on indoctrination, terror and intimidation than genuine political appeal.”
By the time Templer departed in 1954, the Communists were effectively finished, though mopping up continued until 1960. Director of Operations said in 1956 that “in spite of a sullenly hostile population, we are making very good military progress by screwing down the people in the strongest and sternest manner.” Chin Peng, meanwhile, was suing for peace in exile in Thailand, where he would spend the rest of his life. (A peace deal was finally agreed in 1989.)
IV. Policy Implications
Malaya has become a Rorschach counterinsurgency, to be interpreted as one would like. In one narrative, it was a victory for coercive control; in another, an affirmation of the importance of appealing to the population. “Hearts and minds” can mean a soft approach or a firm demonstration of the strength and determination of the state, or it can be seen as irrelevant, given the specificity and context. The popularity of employing Malaya to justify the policy du jour stems not from a clear message it offers, but rather that, unlike in Vietnam, the British won and the Communists lost.
Nevertheless, several lessons can be drawn.
First, counterinsurgency is not for the faint of heart. Modern insurgencies last an average of 10 years, often with long decelerations in the case of government victories. The British had enormous tactical advantages, facing a weak, marginalized, unpopular rebellion with a clear military advantage and with an economic windfall from the Korean War. Nevertheless, the Emergency persisted until 1960, and losses, though small compared to other insurgencies, came to 3,283 civilians, 1,865 security personnel, and 6,698 Communists. While the British demonstrated that it is possible to fight insurgents in jungles, Malaya was also small and peninsular, with only one border country—Thailand, which was friendly to the West. Occupiers, interveners, and counterinsurgents apply the lessons learned in successful small country operations to larger ones like Iraq and Afghanistan at their cost.
Second, intelligence is critical for the “minimum force” approach. If wide sweeps are to be eschewed in favor of targeted attacks, security forces must know who, where, and when to target. Later, as Chief of Imperial Staff, Templer would seek to expand police and intelligence services around the Empire, lamenting their neglect in peacetime and saying that “had our intelligence system been better, we might have been spared the emergency in Kenya and perhaps that in Malaya.” When he received pushback from the Treasury, he noted that the outlay of implementing his reforms would be a bargain compared to the cost of military operations, to say nothing of the millions spent annually by British firms on private security. The lesson to today’s leaders is clear: how much you spend is less important than how you spend it, and intelligence now can prevent insurgency later.
Third, it is not enough to defeat insurgents military: the domestic population must be given a viable political path forward. It was easier for Imperial Britain to ensure good government when it was that government than it is for the U.S. to cajole highly unreliable Afghan officials today, but today’s counterinsurgency outcomes are just as dependent on the establishment of viable domestic political institutions. Foreign powers must “invest heavily in finding out about the specific context” and give power and authority to local leadership through elections as soon as possible, as local leaders “appointed by foreigners ... will find it very hard to assume responsibility.” As T.E. Lawrence wrote in Arabia, “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” Domestic leaders must also be legitimate: “anocracies” (pseudo-democracies) have a poor track record both at defeating insurgencies and democratizing. No amount of resources can bypass this problem: in fact, lavish intervention into weak states practically invites procurement fraud and corruption. USAID can train Afghan judges in law but cannot prevent those judges from being so corrupt that the population prefers Taliban justice meted out under trees. Domestic governments must have strong organizational capabilities and capable administrators to deliver the goods, and they must stamp out corruption, or they will lose popular support. And for foreigners, time is of the essence. As David Edelstein wrote, “military occupation is among the most difficult tasks of statecraft [because] both occupied populations and occupying powers grow weary of extended occupations, undermining their success.” In Afghanistan, for example, it may already be too late.
Fourth, Malaya suggests that Gerald Knaus and Rory Stewart are right to argue that there is no “universalist” policy for intervention. The British had to learn on the fly, and it took them four years of trial and error to put together the ideal tactics and command structure to change the course of the war. Governments must have flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, as no two insurgencies are alike. Malaya as it was will not come again.
Finally, liberal democrats will be disappointed to learn that is difficult to defeat an insurgency without employing at least some illegal or morally questionable tactics. As John Newsinger wrote of Malaya, “something like half of the Chinese population was forcibly resettled, brought under government control and police supervision. Their homes were destroyed and they were herded into the new villages at gunpoint. There was nothing ‘hearts and minds’ about it.” Any attempt by a Western power to forcibly resettle hundreds of thousands of civilians today would be met with howls of scalded outrage by the international community, and even at the time, the Daily Herald likened Templer’s policies to Hitler’s.
As Templer first prepared to take up the High Commissioner post, Winston Churchill told him, “You must have power—absolute power—civil and military power. And when you’ve got it grasp it, grasp it firmly. And then never use it. Be cunning—very cunning. That’s what you’ve got to be.” Certainly, the “absolute power” of the counterinsurgent should be used judiciously, and to the specific end of demonstrating to the population that the government works and is here to stay.
The British were able to exit in a timely manner, and leave a stable, independent, and thoroughly non-communist Malaysia behind them. Their strategy was the best a liberal democracy has seen, but even then, it took over a decade to accomplish; took liberties with Western norms and values; benefited from sui generis circumstances and weak opposition; and only succeeded because the British voluntarily agreed to end their Imperial rule. Templer broke the back of the insurgency in two years. Three years after he left, Malaysia was independent. Just like the Americans in Vietnam and the French in Algeria, the British ultimately bowed to the will of the people and withdrew. We consider them victorious not because they stayed, but because they left on their own terms.
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