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)

Frozen conflicts and forever wars

The chaotic scenes now playing out as the Taliban take over Afghanistan have unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. But there have been many similar instances, though most were a little slower: the end of Indonesian rule in East Timor (now Timor L’Este), the French withdrawal from Algeria, and the earlier Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The common feature in all these cases is the attempt by an external (sometimes neighbouring) power to impose and then sustain a government of its choosing, usually in the hope that it will ultimately secure the support of the majority of the population along with international acceptance. The usual outcome is a long period of relatively low-level conflict, during which it can be made to appear that a successful outcome is just around the corner. In some cases, actual fighting ceases and is replaced by a ‘frozen conflict’, in which life proceeds more or less normally most of the time, but without any final resolution.

Very occasionally, these attempts succeed (the US invasion of Grenada is one example, and I expect commenters can come up with more). But far more commonly, the external power eventually tires of the struggle and goes away. Alternatively, frozen conflicts can continue more or less indefinitely, as with Israel-Palestine.
If successful interventions are the exception rather than the rule, it’s natural to ask why they are so popular? Certainly, the military-industrial complex benefits from war and lobbies for it, but the same is true of any activity that involves spending a lot of public money. Then there are psychological biases which seem to favor both starting wars in the expectation of an easy win and persisting when the conflict drags on.

But learning takes place eventually. After taking part in centuries of bloody conflict, all around the world, Europeans seem mostly to have tired of war. And in the US, weariness with ‘forever wars’ seems finally to be eroding the belief that armies can solve complex problems in other countries

Recipe for a one-term government

Labor’s capitulation on tax policy may help them regain government, but what then?

That’s the headline and standfirst for my latest piece in Inside Story. Key paras

What can be said with more certainty is that, even if Labor wins the 2022 election, its capitulation on tax policy will make holding office for more than one term very difficult. The concession on negative gearing, while regrettable, was mainly symbolic. The lost revenue could be made up in other ways, or else with tolerance of a modestly higher budget deficit.

But the tax cuts are big. They will cost the budget around $15 billion in their first year of operation and the cost will rise steadily after that. That’s more than the entire annual value of the spending commitments Labor took to the 2019 election, which would have reached $11 billion in 2022–23, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.

In other words, to offset this concession, Labor would need to abandon its entire program, and then find even more savings.