The Malayan Emergency

In the wake of the US defeat in Afghanistan, I’ve reinforced my previous belief that outside powers (particularly Western democracies) are almost always going to lose in counter-insurgency wars of this kind. I covered this theme is a post from 2004.

But what was the source of the confidence that wars of this kind could be won? One of the most important was the Malayan Emergency, in which Britain defeated a communist insurgency, supported mainly by impoverished Chinese workers on British-owned rubber estates. The tactics included a reprise of the concentration camps used in the Boer War (though of course they had to be renamed “protected villages”), which were copied by the French and then the Americans in Vietnam. Even after the Vietnam debacle, Malaya was presented as an example of how to get things right.

It’s true that the insurgents were defeated (though a smaller group resurfaced later). But their support base was a minority of a minority (neither the majority Malays nor the urban Chinese business class supported them), they were heavily outnumbered by British forces, and they had no neighbouring power to provide them with refuge and military support.

Morever, most of the demands that had mobilised nationalist support were realised anyway: Malaysia became independent, the British planters left and their estates were ultimately taken over by Malaysian firms. And, a few years later, Britain abandoned its commitments “East of Suez” and the SEATO alliance, modelled on NATO was dissolved. Malaysia didn’t go communist, but even the countries in Indochina where communist insurgents were victorious have ended up fully capitalist.

Despite all this, the British continued to treat the Malayan Emergency as evidence of their superior skill in counter-insurgency, up to and including the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters.

All of this has been derived from a limited look around the Internet. If anyone has better sources to point to, I’d be interested to find them. (Just as I finished, I found this which covers much of the same ground. It’s from a journal of the Socialist Workers Party – I don’t know exactly where they fit into the scheme of things these days)

12 thoughts on “The Malayan Emergency

  1. The only way to win wars of invasion and occupation against a government with popular support is to;

    (a) Be a vastly superior military power to begin with; AND
    (b) Use total war.

    “Total war is warfare that includes any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all of the resources of society to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs.” – Wikipedia.

    In practice this means you bomb, shell and attack not only civil as well as military targets but also take in (all likelihood) no serious cognizance of how much collateral damage will be done in the target country or territory and how many non-combatants will be killed, including women and children.

    If you are not prepared to do this, for any reason from morality, to image, to other damaged alliances, to practical considerations of any kind, then don’t go in. It’s as simple as that.

    I am not sure why neoliberal numbnuts have a problem with such basic reasoning. I suspect it is because, under capitalism, war is a business and everyone knows we must have business as usual. (That last is sarcasm obviously.)

  2. The West never “gets it”.

    Or is it the case?

    They “got” there was oodles of oil in Iraq and still jealously guard the fiefdom against Iran (less obtrusively) and other outliers. Where/whenever there is something they actually want, the persistence is amazing.

    So what didn’t Afghanistan have?

    Follow the money trail and work out where material technologies and allied material and strategic resources have changed, became obsolete or improved in value over a generation. Commerce and economics will always work as cruelly as military subjugation and is much less expensive and obtrusive.

  3. Totalskrieg.. sturm und drang.. nacht und nebel.

    I remember, circa 1960, as a little tot, listening to a news reader on about West New Guinea (I think) and folk shooting at, “congulist gorillas”.
    At least, that is what it sounded like to me.
    Must be pretty tough wily gorillas, it seemed and fancy teaching gorillas to shoot guns.
    A bit later, Indonesia’s Dr Subandrio, who seemed a nice chap, criticising the Americans on a very early 4 Corners interview.
    I was shocked.
    First time I had ever heard the Americans criticised for anything.
    Later on still, I learned that Dr Subandrio had been killed in the coup against Sukarno (altho a quick fact check reveals he was not executed but jailed for nearly 30 years on trumped up charges)).
    No one on teev seemed to know who caused the coup that got rid of these two gentlemen and millions, eventually it came out, others killed. There were hysteric jabberings from the news reader, a different one this time, about it being a “communist coup”, some thing that sounded very nasty indeed.
    But some time later it gradually came out that it was ( then Colonel) Suharto responsible and I felt sorry for Dr Subandrio, Sukarno’s Foreign Minister who I thought had been actually killed by Suharto’s fanatics.
    Anyway, ’nuff for now.
    Dates change, but not events underlyingly and malice.

  4. 2010 RAND study of 30 recent insurgencies here:

    Confining it to cases where AFAIK foreigners were the main combat power (as opposed to just providing guns & money), Sierra Leone is the only case they count as a win.

    They count Vietnam in Cambodia as a loss, but to me that seems like a clear win. Yes it was settled with a peace deal but Hun Sen is still in power. I guess both of those set a benchmark for how crazy and unpopular the insurgents have to be to lose!

    Tibet is before that study’s time. Second Chechen War was not included for some reason. Fine line between failed separatist movement and successful foreign invasion/counterinsurgency, but both places were de facto independent before being invaded (Chechnya only for a few years admittedly).

    I’d also be a bit provocative and add Iraq. A pyrrhic victory certainly but the state created by the Coalition of the Willing’s invasion is still there, and saw off ISIS. If Afghanistan looked like that we’d still be claiming it as a win.

    So not impossible, but to win looks like you either have to fight complete psychopaths with only minority support, or have a huge numerical advantage and be determined to absorb the territory into your own country (even if the locals don’t agree, it does create a higher level of determination, patience, and willingness to take losses).

  5. Further point is that the Khmer Rouge had launched raids into Vietnam. So you could argue self-defence, and say that the KR were too crazy to be deterred by limited retaliation.

    Iraq as Pyhrric victory looks believable. Though of course it looked that way in 2008 also.

  6. Another “success” for counterinsurgency was General Challe’s campaign against the FLN in the Algerian countryside in 1959. IIRC Challe had at his disposal a very large number of unenthusiastic conscripts, good enough for static defence, and a much smaller number of very effective if brutal career paratroopers, many the hardened mercenaries of the Foreign Legion. Challe placed the conscripts as blocking forces to seal off large perimeters, then sent in the paras on helicopters to hunt down the FLN guerillas.

    Challe just about destroyed the rural FLN. The problem was that France had already lost the war politically. The behaviour of the same paras earlier in the Battle of Algiers, plus that of the pied noir colonials. had definitively lost any acceptance by urban Algerians of the legitimacy of French rule De Gaulle saw this, but Challe could not, and joined the failed 1961 Algiers putsch.

  7. For a French colonial win, you have to go back to Lyautey and the Moroccan Rif. Lyautey had a lot going for him there; the Rif rebels were IIRC Berbers, the thing was always regional and tribal not national, and had no support among urban Arab elites. Also, Lyautey had kept out out French colonists.

  8. JQ, is it true that the oil TNC’s would regard Iraq as a victory, since they were the only beneficiaries of it apart from ordinance suppliers?

  9. Military officers in many countries get indoctrinated to express relentless confidence in their ability to achieve their mission for the same reasons that players in team sports do. Since senior officers were rotating in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq, it was safer for one’s career to write a report which described a bad situation and ended in hopes about how things would soon improve than to say frankly that the situation you inherited was hopeless and there was no realistic military prospect for changing it. And remember that those officers rarely spoke the local language, and rarely spoke to locals who were not trying to get money and/or violence out of them! People who have been in the big foreign bases in Afghanistan describe them as like an outpost on mars.

    In the US, this ties in to the broader cult of optimism.

    Journalist Thomas E. Ricks thinks General George C. Marshall imposed this kind of thinking on the US army in 1939

    Gwynne Dyer, who was teaching at Canadian and UK staff colleges in the 1970s, says that the doctrine he was told to pass on was that foreigners could not expect to defeat insurgencies in distant lands but it would not harm the foreigners’ national interest when they gave up and left. But if you are an ambitious climber in the military bureaucracy, its easier to get ahead by saying “maybe we can …” than by saying “no we can’t.” If the promise works, you can always shift blame or kick the ball down the road so it will be the next person’s problem.

  10. Hobbes: the problem was that in 2001 US objectives included building a series of Enduring Bases in Iraq from which they could dominate the region and especially Iran without bases in Saudi Arabia. That has all fallen to pieces, and the Iranian government is the foreign government with the most influence in Iraq today. People in the US and UK governments had a mix of confused, selfish, and unspeakable moves for invading Iraq but I am not sure they achieved any of them other than overthrowing Saddam and establishing a sort-of democracy.

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