Small Wars Journal

A Tradition That Never Was

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Abstract: In recent years a number of commentators have posited that the British reputation for conducting small wars has suffered in the wake of setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The argument here contests whether such a tradition can be truly said to have ever existed. A close examination of this supposed tradition reveals itself to be highly elusive. Rarely has a facility for counterinsurgency or small war ever been claimed by the British armed forces themselves. Invariably, it has been a tradition ascribed to them by others. Most notably, the tradition of British COIN expertise has been a narrative generated by commentators in the United States who were keen to discern practices of minimum force or rapid institutional learning. While a later series of scholars came to question this narrative, arguing that the British conduct of small wars was often based on more coercive assumptions, ultimately, what this reveals is that it is political will, not an ingrained understanding of fighting insurgencies, that has determined Britain’s success, or otherwise, in so-called small-wars.

It’s hard not to have sympathy: the picture of a desolate British soldier, head in hands, despairing at the futility of it all on the front cover of Frank Ledwidge’s excoriation of British military conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, Losing Small Wars. Ledwidge’s book documents a litany of shortcomings and institutional failures afflicting the British armed forces in recent years that have contributed to malfunction and under performance on the ground. More than that, the book is one of the key works that have created a narrative that now stretches back the best part of a decade which proclaims that an Army with a venerated reputation for waging small wars and counterinsurgency has now gone off the rails through complacency, ineptitude, cost-cutting, and laurel sitting. Here’s the product description of the book on Amazon, which well summarizes the argument:

Partly on the strength of their apparent success in “small wars” such as Malaya and Northern Ireland, the British armed forces have long been perceived as world class, if not world-beating. Yet under British control Basra degenerated into a lawless city riven with militia violence and fear, while tactical mistakes and strategic incompetence in Helmand province resulted in numerous casualties and a burgeoning opium trade.[1]

But it gets worse. Not only were the armed forces woefully underprepared for their encounters in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when placed under the analytical microscope, the British Army’s vaunted capacity for handling small wars disappears. What was supposed to be a record of effective counterinsurgency campaigning actually reveals a legacy of failure and lack of achievement. More terrible still, even the occasional victories or partial successes were not the result of any real skill or finesse, but more often the product of the unsubtle employment of brute force that encompassed massacres and atrocities, and even, depending on whom you read, genocide.

It is not the intention of this short piece to maintain that there have been no shortcomings in recent British military operations. Serious deficiencies there have been and it is right that these are exposed. Nor is the intention to question the findings of the new historiography that suggest British counterinsurgency campaigning has been more coercive and brutal than has sometimes been appreciated. What this study does argue is that the “where did it all go wrong?” school of thought, which asserts a once esteemed tradition of small war fighting now lies in ruins, is itself a myth that deserves to be questioned. It is a myth because it conflates a number of different, and not necessarily related, analytical interpretations into single storyline that is neither accurate nor coherent.

The argument seeks to separate out some of these interpretations. When viewed in broad historical terms, the British military experience shows itself to be one full of problems, irony and paradox. It also shows, though, that what ultimately governs whether Britain has prevailed in its small wars and counterinsurgencies depends on political will. Where strong political will has been invested in a cause the British stayed and fought: they made mistakes, they learnt, they adapted, and mostly they were successful. Success here is defined in the only terms that matter, whether the actions of the British armed forces assisted in the attainment of political goals as determined by higher decision centers, that is, elected policymakers. Where political will was lacking, a decision was almost always made to withdraw quickly, or sometimes not even to contest the political space. Thus, running parallel to a record of prevailing in the small wars where it chose to fight, Britain has an equally honored tradition of cutting and running in wars where it didn’t.

Intellectually, then, it becomes difficult to sustain a narrative of a once proud “world beating” institution falling apart on instances where, though failures of leadership, doctrine and equipment there may well have been, the political will to stay the course was lacking, or in some cases, completely absent. The pronouncement of failure and a venerable tradition gone to seed can only be deduced from situations where military capability clearly failed to deliver despite strong political backing. With this consideration in mind, it is certainly possible to document disappointments arising from faltering political will – the 1956 Suez debacle for instance, and indeed quite possibly the loss of control of Basra between 2006 and 2008 – but equally it is difficult to pinpoint any generic failure where the British forces stood and fought with political support behind them. In fact, when the “where did it all go wrong” argument is itself subject to scrutiny, we find that the allegation of a once “world class” military reputation evaporating in a miasma of over-stretch and ineptitude is extrapolated from a single, and of itself somewhat questionable case, that of Basra.

Tradition, What Tradition?

Ledwidge and others allude to Britain’s “apparent success” in “small wars,” for which also read counterinsurgency. Therefore, to be clear in the first instance, what is meant by these terms? Small wars can be taken to mean military encounters where there is a large element of discretion in whether to be involved or not. That is to say, they are conflicts that reside below survival level threats that a country like the United Kingdom confronted in World War II, where the choice of not fighting (i.e. surrendering) possess far-reaching consequences. Decisions whether to invest causes with extensive time and effort that exist beneath this threshold, and which in all probability lie externally beyond national borders, are likely to be wars of choice rather than necessity. These can be said to constitute so-called small wars. Counterinsurgency campaigns are therefore likely to represent a particular form of “small war” that involves an attempt to confound an armed challenge to established authority.

Arising from its empire history where British forces found themselves frequently engaged in expeditions to conquer, occupy, or pacify foreign lands, a “tradition” of assumed expertise has grown up around Britain’s ability to wage small wars either for territorial gain or against attempted insurrections against colonial authority. We might note, however, the passive voice construction in the description of Ledwidge’s book, which claims “the British armed forces have long been perceived as world class, if not world-beating.” The question is perceived by whom? Once this the question is addressed, it becomes evident that rarely has this been a self-generated perception on the part of the British armed forces themselves, either at the time of, or even after, the campaigns that allegedly gave them such a revered name in this aspect of warfare. It is a reputation that has been largely ascribed to them by others.

Those who have extolled, or intimated, a British way in counterinsurgency or small wars have been diverse. They span ex-colonial civil servants, former soldiers, journalists, American academics and serving U.S. Army officers. A self-inculcated tradition of counterinsurgency campaign cannot, though, be found in any contemporaneous British Army doctrine or documents. If anything the later twentieth century British Army consciously overlooked any putative tradition of counterinsurgency expertise in favor of a focus on war planning for mass battle on the Central European Front. This in itself indicates an element of obfuscation in the “where did it all go wrong?” thesis that conflates a talent for small wars attributed to the British by analysts with the subtle, but erroneous, implication that this also coincided with the self-perception of the British armed forces themselves. There is scant evidence for this belief, and the little evidence that does exist is problematic.

So, who and what accounts for the ascription of a British proficiency for small wars? Undeniably, the Malaya Emergency informed much subsequent commentary, framing early perceptions of a British flair for such encounters. The work of Sir Robert Thompson, a former officer in the Malaya Civil Service, whose Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experience from Malaya and Vietnam (1966), provided the stimulus that intimated a British way in counterinsurgency. This was not so much because Thompson articulated a British approach, but because his five-step framework for orientating a counterinsurgency plan unambiguously drew on the Malaya experience, the success of which appeared to stand in positive contrast to the contemporaneous flailing American effort in South Vietnam with its seemingly misplaced emphasis on search and destroy missions. Following Thompson’s work, there were remarkably few direct allusions to a distinct British practice of COIN, the one exception perhaps being former Army officer Julian Paget’s Counterinsurgency Campaigning (1967).

Going into the early 1970s with a spirit of post-imperial decline beginning to root itself in the British national psyche, a different, and more depressing, set of challenges arose that denuded any residual sense of achievement in successfully waging small wars. 1971 saw the publication Brigadier Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Peacekeeping and Law Enforcement, which chimed with the darker times, as the national gloom descended over the United Kingdom with rising levels of industrial unrest, economic despondency, social and moral decay, and crucially, the onset of the calamitous Northern Ireland crisis. Both in Low Intensity Conflict, and his later ruminations on the conflicts in Kenya, Malaya, and Cyprus, in Bunch of Five, Kitson makes no claims to discern a specifically British take on countering insurgency.

Interestingly, in September 1970 Kitson went onto command 39 Infantry Brigade in Belfast, a period during which Northern Ireland began its descent into chaos. Despite the fearsome reputation that Kitson possessed in Irish republican circles as a result of his experiences fighting in some of Britain’s more notable later twentieth colonial wars, there is little to suggest that Kitson, or indeed any other British Army commander in Northern Ireland then or since, implemented a systematic COIN plan based on any set of enduring British techniques developed in previous campaigns.

Here we can discern something of an irony in the current notion of a British COIN tradition being thrown away. During the years of the Northern Ireland tumult, which Ledwidge and others cite as a major source of Britain’s small wars heritage, the Army’s role was from the mid-1970s mainly devoted to supporting the police. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the British Army’s main focus remained on the planning for major battle against Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe. In fact, the years of the Northern Ireland troubles represents a curious lacuna in British military thinking, for it is clear that far from elaborating, let alone celebrating, some ingrained capability to deal with such conflicts, the British Army’s was – along with the rest of British defense thinking at the time – intent on ignoring the conflict as best it could. During this period the only work to appear that even hinted at some generalized British approach to small wars was former Army officer, Colonel Michael Dewar’s 1984 publication, Brush Fire Wars that comprised a broad account of Britain’s experience of “minor wars” since 1945.

Born in the USA: The Invention of a Tradition

In sum, from the 1950s through to the end of the century there was no enunciation in official United Kingdom publications, either by the Army or any other government agency, or from any other British military commentator, of a pre-existing facility for waging small wars. At most, there were intimations of an underlying set of values that might have governed conduct in Britain’s minor wars, but no more. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was only after 1990 that a systematic line of thought developed that sought to explicitly identify a British approach. More paradoxically still, this evolving understanding was created not by British observers, but by a set of American writers. In effect, the attribution of a venerable British tradition of small war capability was made in the USA.

We can date the evolution of an interest in, if not admiration for, British counterinsurgency practice to the re-publication to Thomas Mockaitis’ British Counterinsurgency, 1919-1960 (1990) that produced the first properly academic analysis of Britain’s colonial campaigns. Although he did not propose that the British had developed a war-winning formula, Mockaitis did suggest that the British had, during a long period of tough encounters, evolved a set of practices that accentuated the principles of minimum force and discriminate violence. It was John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (2002) that further elaborated this argument by extolling the virtues of the British Army as a learning institution that was readily able to adapt its military methodology in Malaya to suit the needs of the situation.

The timely appearance of Nagl’s thesis struck a resounding chord in American military circles in a period that witnessed the slide of post-invasion Iraq into sectarian strife and a Sunni/al-Qaeda sponsored uprising against the Coalition occupation. As the U.S. armed forces debated how to transition from a main invasion force into an effective occupying power capable of dealing with the complicated conditions of civil insurrection, another American commentator, Montgomery McFate rose to prominence. McFate also drew inspiration from the British experience but unlike Nagl who focused on British Army practices during the Malaya Emergency, McFate was impressed by the Army’s ability to acquire “cultural knowledge” of its enemy during the Northern Ireland Troubles.[2] This hard won knowledge, gained over many years of trial and error, she felt held important lessons for the U.S. military in attempting to operate in complex local environments such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To recapitulate, the attribution to the British armed forces of a special prowess in counterinsurgency was essentially one generated in the United States. Each observer emphasized an element of practice that they thought either distinguished a particularly British attitude towards small-scale military entanglements (Mockaitis and the principle of minimum force), or contained crucial lessons that could be adapted as best practice by the U.S. military (Nagl and the desirability of a flexible learning institution), and be useful in order to gain a sophisticated understanding of the challenges, subtleties and potential opportunities, in the specific theater in which U.S. forces were compelled to operate, especially those characterized by complex tribal interactions (McFate and the importance of acquiring cultural knowledge).

It was the construction of this American derived narrative about British counterinsurgency capabilities that led to further paradoxes. It was, ironically, only after the invention of this tradition that some sections of the British establishment consciously bought into this plotline. As the difficulties of pacifying post-invasion Iraq revealed themselves in mounting inter-communal violence and attacks on Coalition forces, the more turbulent American controlled sectors of the country seemed to stand in contrast to the quieter areas to the south under British tutelage. The perception grew that the harder, more kinetic American operations were creating more problems than they were solving, stirring up anti-Coalition hostility and generating further local resistance. In comparison, the southlands around Basra were characterized by a lower key British presence, where the Army patrolled in soft hats, and talked to the locals rather than engaged in frequent shoot-ups.

An Iraqi Aberration

Until the invasion of Iraq, it was uncommon for any official articulation of a distinctive British approach to COIN to be aired. One exception which came close to doing so was a House of Commons report in 2005 that took evidence from a number of serving and former soldiers, academics and other commentators who strongly intimated that Britain possessed an inherited knowledge of “post-conflict operations.” Explicit references were made to prior experience in places like Malaya and Northern Ireland as providing insights and lessons from which others (i.e. the Americans) might usefully follow.[3] Undoubtedly, this view did gain adherents within sections of the Army after 2005.

The most notable convert to this line of thought in the British Army was the Chief of the General Staff, Mike Jackson, who drew distinctions between how British forces conducted themselves around Basra and the harder edged actions of the U.S. military. In one broadside he asserted in 2004 that “We must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not mean that we must be able to fight as the Americans.”[4] In 2009 after leaving the Army, he stated in the Journal of Strategic Studies, that the British military experience was one that had extensive roots counterinsurgency that extended from its colonial policing encounters. “There is a sense,” he added, “of a real historical thread in this type of operation for the British Armed Forces.”[5]

For the most part, though, formal British Army pronouncements rarely venerated a British take on counterinsurgency. Most statements emanating from British military personnel were couched in modest terms, and if they ever came close to acknowledging a British approach, it was usually implied rather than overtly declared as is clear even in the notable House of Commons Defence Committee Report of 2005. Thus, the most celebrated public criticism of the U.S.’s supposedly heavy handed tactics in Iraq, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster’s 2005 article in Military Review entitled “Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” makes no mention of any presumed British penchant for counterinsurgency operations. Instead, Aylwin-Foster notes only John Nagl’s point in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, which distinguished the American Army’s facility for high end war fighting arising from its institutional experience and historical origins that emphasized “the eradication of threats to national survival” which contrasted, supposedly, with “the British Army’s history as an instrument of limited war to achieve limited goals at limited cost.”[6]

As a result of these kinds of commentaries the relative tranquility of Iraq’s south began to be explained in terms of the differing military cultures and traditions of the British and American armed forces. It was in this evolving context that established British approaches to counterinsurgency came to be raised as one explanatory factor that accounted for this apparent difference in operational styles and outcomes.[7] At this point a tone of self-congratulation did begin to creep into official British rhetoric. One Ministry of Defence report argued that the Army’s “positive start in Iraq” was attributable in part to the “counter-insurgency experience from Northern Ireland and Balkans.”[8]

We know, of course, that such a view heavily downplayed the fact that the Americans were compelled to operate in the Sunni badlands of the north in contrast to the anti-Saddmite Shi’a south. The British controlled areas were initially far less hostile to Coalition forces after the ousting of the old regime. Yet, and here we encounter a further irony, it was at this time in 2005 and 2006 that the British themselves were indeed running into serious difficulties in the south, with Basra degenerating into anarchy at the hands of Iranian backed Shi’a militia groups.

The widely reported publication of Aylwin-Foster’s critique represented the height of a seemingly self-invoked, though again it should be emphasized, always implicit, sense of British superiority in matters of counterinsurgency. Feathers were ruffled with one U.S. officer, Col. Kevin Benson of the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced initially accusing Aylwin-Foster of being “an insufferable British snob.”[9] Paradoxically, again, at some level Aylwin-Foster’s remarks were probably accurate in the context of the time, which witnessed degrees of U.S. excess, notably around Fallujah. In hindsight, moreover, few could disagree with his observations the Coalition had “failed to capitalise on initial success” and that Iraq was in “the grip a vicious and tenacious insurgency,” or that there was need to “be better prepared for Irregular Warfare and post conflict stabilisation and reconstruction operations.”[10]

A careful reading of Aylwin-Foster’s commentary shows that it was delivered in respectful tones that paid fulsome tribute to American capabilities. It did not “slam” U.S. tactics, nor offer a “blistering critique”[11] which was the tone of much of headlines. Such inflammatory headlines coverage did, undoubtedly, create the impression that Aylwin-Foster was venting an overbearing sense of superior British counterinsurgency wisdom, but it is difficult to sustain this if one pays close attention to Aylwin-Foster’s argument. Even Col. Benson modified his position, acknowledging that “sometimes good articles do make you angry. We should publish articles like this. We are in a war and we must always be thinking of how we can improve the way we operate.”[12] In the end, Aylwin-Foster’s thoughts were an important prelude to the re-focusing of U.S. military efforts, which succeeded in realigning forces that enabled the stabilization of the country after 2007.

Banging on About Basra: The Decline of the Tradition that Never Was

Even though Aylwin-Foster’s article did not make invidious comparisons between the performance of the U.S. and British forces, there was no disguising that in the following two years the British controlled South was faltering around Basra. It was on this background that another false narrative was spun around the myth of British counterinsurgency, namely, the decline of a tradition. The relative quiescence of the south of Iraq was represented within some British defense circles as an exemplar of British competence in counterinsurgency, while other commentators also began to read the British Army’s preference for unobtrusive patrolling in berets and their apparent willingness to work with local leaders through the lens of an ostensibly British facility for counterinsurgency. What was ultimately going on, however, was that one questionable narrative was coming to be replaced by another.

A more skeptical analysis of the rhetoric and reality of British operations in the South of Iraq begged the question as to whether the Army was indeed practicing a counterinsurgency approach at all. The fact that British were patrolling in Basra without hard hats and governing – at first – with the consent of the local population, attested to the fact that in the aftermath of the invasion, Southern Iraq was not in a state of insurrection. The unobtrusive approach adopted by the British may therefore have been entirely appropriate at this stage. Why, it may be asked, was any heritage of counterinsurgency invoked when there was no insurgency to counter? It seems more accurate to claim that British forces were engaged in an occupying/peacekeeping effort, and it is this that failed rather than any counterinsurgency campaign.

Furthermore, given the decision to drawdown and pull out of Southern Iraq arose from the political unpopularity of the war among the British electorate, it can be argued that Britain never even attempted a concerted counterinsurgency program in the South. A political decision had been taken to leave. Without the political will, there can be no such thing as a coherent counterinsurgency campaign. Therefore, can Basra be said to represent a failure of a British approach to COIN? Most certainly operational shortcomings were revealed, as was the vaunted (but always inaccurate idea) about the Army’s capacity for rapid institutional learning, but categorical statements that an entire reputation – a reputation that the British Army itself never officially embraced – was jeopardized are wrong.

The Challenge of the New Historiography

The fact that the Ministry of Defence formally sought to identify a British capacity for “minimum force” practices by citing the examples of Northern Ireland (which was actually a bruising encounter characterized by a vicious undercover intelligence war) and the even more curious case of the Balkans (where nothing resembling a counterinsurgency campaign in any comparable sense ever took place) illustrated the tenuous grasp of even official viewpoints on a supposedly ingrained tradition. In the face of such self-regarding rhetoric and the declining hold on Basra it was understandable that commentators also began to identify the erosion, or even collapse, of that same tradition out of which grew the “where did it all go wrong” school.[13]

In the wake of the seeming failure of established British military virtues in small war came an even more potent threat to an assumed tradition of counterinsurgency expertise. This arose in form of a new historiography of the later British imperial era that demonstrated, often decisively, that the examples from which the canon of inherited counterinsurgency wisdom was drawn, particularly the legacy of colonial withdrawal, were far removed from any minimum force practices.

Although the slew of books and articles questioning the assumption of hearts and minds and minimum force grew rapidly in the late 2000s, the debate was not new. A decade beforehand Karl Hack had exposed the highly coercive methods employed by the British in “screwing down” the Communists in Malaya in his revisionist account of the Emergency.[14] Later in 2002 John Newsinger, coming from a Marxist historical perspective, developed a broader critique of a brutally suppressive tradition of British counterinsurgency.[15] From the late 2000s the work of archival historians such as Huw Bennett did much to reveal how British approaches colonial insurrections were often fiercely aggressive in orientation. Bennett’s work on the Mau Mau war in Kenya in the 1950s, for instance, presented sufficient evidence to suggest that extensive atrocities were committed by British forces.[16]

The revelations of coercive, sometimes ferocious, crackdowns on insurrectionary elements was sufficient for those like Newsinger and others to pronounce that the vaunted record of British military aptitude for counterinsurgency was misplaced, and more a product of political failure. Others like Douglas Porch similarly argued that the British Army “did not have a particularly exemplary record at COIN or at any warfare, for that matter, at the time of Malaya” and the evidence of “brutal COIN tactics” was sufficient in itself to discount any claimed successes. Further, to the extent that British forces demonstrated any aptitude for Nagl’s institutional learning, it was in Porch’s words a preference for learning “kinetic methods,” disguised under the cloak of hearts and minds, which were “every bit as repressive – even dirty as the French.”[17]

Ironically, though, such historical revisionism does not objectively undermine any assumed British capability for fighting small wars, but merely re-frames it in more contingent ways. Strategic success, it should be recalled, is the attainment of political goals. The fact that the British campaigns were often extremely violent does not, ipso facto, mean that they failed: it simply means that such victories were just more violent and coercive than subsequent commentary previously thought. This is the point: historical revelations of coercive, and sometimes excessive practices, merely contradicted the ostensible narrative of minimum force that had been built up by (often non-British) commentators.

To reiterate, this was a narrative to which the British Army had no institutional commitment. As this study has elucidated, over the years only a few military figures, along with the occasional House of Commons or Ministry of Defence report, ever referenced a presumed British tradition of counterinsurgency achievements based on hearts and minds/minimum force, and that they did so was largely the result of a lack of historical understanding about how the Army regarded its own contemporaneous performance. Arguably, such ignorance arose from the poor institutional memory about the legacy of colonial warfare within British Army itself, which throughout the years of the Cold War was heavily focused on major land battle in Central Europe.

A Tradition Not of Minimum Force but of Political Will

In broader historical perspective, when British “COIN” experience is examined, what is demonstrable is that, ultimately, what has determined the success or failure in any theater is political will. It is the political investment in the cause that has governed whether the British state has had the wherewithal to stay the course that, traditionally, has always provided the space and time for the learning/adaptation process to occur in the contingent environment. It is this factor that holds the key to understanding the British military experience in so-called small wars: that is to say, Britain does not have any tradition in counterinsurgency, which is, as this study has indicated, is at best a loose idea. What Britain does have, though, is an extended tradition of committing itself long-term to a series of external, and occasionally internal, engagements.

The capacity to enact long-term commitments can be discerned across the spectrum of the British experience: initial mistakes, lead – eventually – to learning and adaptation, and invariably success in terms of the attainment of designated political goals (which is, to reiterate, the only objective measurement of success). We can see this in numerous examples from the Boer War onwards; Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Oman, and Northern Ireland.

One sees this process at work in Afghanistan. The initial British deployment to Helmand was certainly under-resourced and poorly thought through. British forces, though under pressure, did not buckle and retained their presence arising from the broader commitment of the British government to resolving the Afghan problem.[18] It was the long-term investment in the problem that enabled considerable improvements in operational effectiveness to be gained. In other words, British forces learnt and adapted.

The capacity to change, stay the course, and achieve results, has little to do with an imagined sense of proficiency in “small wars.” It has everything do with the strategic calculations of elected decision makers about where the balance of the national interest resides. If that calculation is that it is worth the cost to stay and fight, the British have usually succeeded either in whole or in part in attaining their political objectives. Conversely, where the calculation has gone the other way, an entirely different set of imperatives has come into play, which brings us to the next crucial aspect of Britain’s engagement with so-called insurgencies.

A Fine Tradition of Running Away

Where political will has been lacking because calculations of the national interest have been deemed to lie elsewhere, decisions have invariably been made to minimize losses and quit. Hence, in addition to a reputation for “COIN,” there is an equally venerable British tradition of cut-and-run withdrawals. Examples are numerous. There is the case of the Palestine in the 1940s, a UN mandated territory, where Britain had no intention of staying following the agreement of a UN plan to partition the country. Aden is another example. The British evacuated the territory in 1967 because of a political decision to withdraw forces East of Suez as a result of financial stringency at home, which meant that, unlike Malaya, there was little strategic interest in stabilizing the country before leaving.

One of the most interesting cases was the participation in the multinational effort in the Lebanon in the 1980s. While the British have usually not been shy to send forces on peacekeeping missions, particularly in support of American initiatives, in this instance the British sent only a token force of 90 troops into Beirut. This was, somewhat unusually, dwarfed by the commitment of thousands of American, French and even Italian forces. Subsequently, after a few months, the British government unilaterally withdrew the force. The political assumption was that persisting with a presence in a rapidly deteriorating security situation was likely to be costly. Arguably, it proved an accurate calculation when in 1983 the U.S. Marines and French military headquarters in the city were attacked by Hezbollah backed suicide bombers resulting in the deaths of hundreds of troops.

It is in the context of the parallel British tradition of cutting-and-running that the supposed failures of British counterinsurgency in Basra should be seen.  So here is the point: few serious analysts proclaim the failure of British COIN based on prudential withdrawals in places like Palestine, Aden or Beirut. There is no suggestion that just because the British failed to pacify Afghanistan in the nineteenth century or decided to quit India in 1947 that it failed in small wars or counterinsurgency. What the British external and colonial military engagement demonstrates is the deeply contingent character of war that involves constant assessments of the willingness to invest troops, money and material for a particular cause. Thus, alongside a legacy of often hard won and hardnosed success for British forces there is an equally fine tradition of running away. This is not a symptom of cowardice, weakness or failure, just political calculation – and arguably quite astute calculations at that – for if there is any wisdom contained in the British experience of contending with small wars, perhaps knowing when not to fight is just as important as committing to stay over the long term.


If one surveys the history of so-called British counterinsurgency encounters over the longer view, what is revealed is an extended and varied legacy of external entanglements (or in the case of Northern Ireland, an internal entanglement) ranging from colonial intervention, colonial withdrawal, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement. The outcome of each of these encounters has ultimately been based on the degree of political commitment to the cause. The legacy is one which – from the Boer War, to Malaya, from Kenya to Kuwait, to Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, to Helmand, reveals a remarkable degree of operational success, but most importantly where the British authorities were fully committed, the attainment of political goals was almost always achieved. Arguably, perhaps with single exception in recent times of the Suez intervention in 1956, all the other examples of assumed failure were based on political decisions to withdraw from entanglements where there was no political commitment to stay.

Finally, then, we return to the key question, which is why so many commentators end up drumming on the cases of Basra and the initial commitment to Helmand, to build up a disproportionate argument about British operational failure within a presumed tradition of expertise in counterinsurgency? As has been demonstrated, if one looks closely at the evolution of this supposed tradition, it reveals itself as highly elusive. Rarely has a facility for counterinsurgency ever been claimed by the British armed forces themselves. Invariably, it has been a tradition ascribed to them by others. Ostensibly, it has been a narrative generated by commentators in the United States who were keen to discern practices of minimum force or rapid institutional learning. Such practices were deemed to constitute lessons from which the U.S. armed forces themselves could learn. A later series of scholars came to question a number of these lessons, suggesting instead, that British success was often based on more hard-head assumptions rather than on clichéd ideas of hearts and minds.

Seemingly, it is always attractive for commentators to filter their analysis through the lens of contemporary events, like the military commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and via popular tropes, like the assumption that Britain has an established tradition of counterinsurgency, to project arguments that assert the decline of a once esteemed reputation. Such plotlines are not historically grounded but are narratives that possess a certain broad though inevitably simplistic appeal for audiences that may not have the time or willingness to examine the British Army’s experience of military engagement in so-called small wars in all its historical complexity.

A longer term perspective, in fact, is likely to reveal that the examples of Helmand and Basra are exceptional, even aberrations, in relation to the vast majority of instances of British military interventions over the past 150 years, not least because in Iraq and Afghanistan Britain has functioned as a junior partner to the United States (though a significant partner in a broader coalition of nations) in an extensive nation building capacity. It is, in other words, a consequence of the over-stretch of resources in potentially unlimited commitments that weaknesses of early twenty first century British military capacities have revealed themselves, rather than any failure of a non-existent tradition of counterinsurgency.

[2]. Montgomery McFate and Andrea Jackson, “An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs’, Military Review (July-August), p.18.

[3]. House of Commons Defence Committee, Iraq: An Initial Assessment of Post-Conflict Operations, Sixth Report of Session 2004-05, Vol. 1 (London: The Stationary Office, 2005), pp. 27-35.

[4]. Richard Norton-Taylor, “General Hits Out at US Tactics,” Guardian, April 21, 2004.

[5]. Mike Jackson, “British Counter-insurgency,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (2009), p. 347.

[6]. Nigel Aylwin-Foster, “Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” Military Review (November-December 2005), p. 8.

[7]. House of Commons Defence Committee, Iraq, p. 4.

[8]. Ministry of Defence, Stability Operations in Iraq (Op Telic 2-5): An Analysis from A Land Perspective (London: MOD, 2005), p. 14. Available at (accessed 11 July 2006).

[9]. Qoted in Matthew Davis, “UK Officer Slams US Iraq Tactics,” BBC News, January 11, 2006, available at (accessed June 21, 2012).

[10]. Aylwin-Foster, Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” p. 4.

[11]. Richard Norton-Taylor and Jamie Wilson, ‘US army in Iraq institutionally racist, claims British officer’, Guardian, January 12, 2006.

[12]. Quoted in Davis, “UK Officer Slams US Iraq Tactics.”

[13]. David Betz and Anthony Cormack, “Iraq, Afghanistan and British Strategy,” Orbis (Spring 2009), p. 321.

[14]. Karl Hack, “‘Iron Claws on Malaya’: The Historiography of the Malayan Emergency,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1999), p. 102.

[15]. John Newsinger, British Counter-insurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland (London: Palgrave, 2002).

[16]. Huw Bennett, “Soldiers in the Court Room: The British Army’s Part in the Kenya Emergency Under the Legal Spotlight,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 39, No. 5 (2011), pp. 717-730.

[17]. Douglas Porch, “The Dangerous Myth and Dubious Promise of COIN,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2011), p. 249.

[18]. See Theo Farrell, “A Good War Gone Wrong?” RUSI Journal, Vol. 156, No. 5 (October-November 2011), pp. 60-64.



About the Author(s)


M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London. Among his publications are Fighting For Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (1995) and The Strategy of Terrorism: How it Works and Why It Fails (2008). He is Associate Editor of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Strategic Studies and Small Wars and Insurgencies.


Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 11/09/2015 - 10:21am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Tribes are important. Bing West says Sunni tribes are the key in iraq, or should have been so that ISIS didn't rise.

Tribe A, tribe B, a tribe for you and a tribe for me....

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 11/09/2015 - 10:19am

I know I'm strange but no one is reading anyway (sorry SWJ, I think people are just tired of certain subjects and I don't blame them. I should have commented on the "should women be in combat arms" or whatever thread but it was just so typical DC advocacy groups against each other without any real concern for real people, either proponents or detractors.)

<blockquote>General McChrystal had known Sir Graeme since they were Field Grade Special Operations officers in the First Gulf War and had just worked with him a couple years earlier where Sir Graeme was charged by General Petraeus to deal with the Sunni leaders in Anbar Province, Iraq and build the foundation for the Sunni Awakening and set the conditions for the surge. In this endeavor he put his years of expertise in Special Operations and his insights about how “small wars” end to good use. General Lamb, as the Deputy MNF Commander, was the catalyst behind General Casey and later Petraeus moving the campaign towards a counter-insurgency model.</blockquote>

Strategy Bridge (Medium), "In Command and out of Control".

While I'm at it, and on a different subject, "Chas Freeman 1991 WMREA"

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 12/09/2013 - 12:25pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Nothing new under the sun....

<em>All the Way with JFK? demolishes the myth that Britain always worked for peace in Indochina. Drawing on new evidence from archives all over the world, Peter Busch shows that the British government whole-heartedly supported John F. Kennedy's Vietnam policy. It opposed negotiations, and even sent its own experts in anti-guerrilla warfare to Vietnam. Ultimately, British decision-makers were no wiser than Kennedy and his advisers; they all believed that the communist advance in Vietnam had to be resisted by military force.</em>

But you can get that from Douglas Porch's work or whatever, my emphasis is just a little different.

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 12/09/2013 - 12:05pm

I wrote the following at WOR:

<blockquote>I think the reason is something I’ve been talking about for some time now and I’ve alluded to it in my other comments here. There is a sort of oral culture, there must be, a shared Anglo-American mythology and one part of the mythology is the stories those interested in counterinsurgency told themselves: the British are a learning organization, we should have done what they suggested in Vietnam.

So, the COINdinistas and their historical mythos, arising from that traumatic period in Vietnam, combined with the other trends in the American military (NATOization, the Cold War and its peacekeeping 90′s extension) brought up all their old stories and myths when it came time to deal with the violence in Iraq.

Some of the books mentioned in this post talk about that mythology but I think one area that deserves more study is the Anglo-American angle and the cultural back and forth.</blockquote>…

Once, searching for something on Malaya, I came across a so-called "Coindinista" oriented Power Point that mentioned Robert Thompson and his memoirs; he suggested in the memoir I believe that the British as a learning organization in Malaya ought to be studied.

I think I've got that right, not sure.

Social networks and shared cultures.

Madhu (not verified)

Mon, 04/29/2013 - 11:22am

<blockquote>There were so many British books mentioned that I moved them into a second category. The first part here is genuinely foreign books -- not necessarily written by foreigners (though most are) but about wars in which the British and Americans were not major players, or at least not written from the Anglo-American perspective.</blockquote> - Ricks' Best Defense…

See? Makes sense given American culture and our roots. It also explains a lot (my pet theory) about the views of Afghanistan and the larger West/South Asian region within the military and larger foreign policy culture.

That was the point I was trying to make earlier about CENTCOM and its view on how South Asian regions work into the Mid East and its security.

Back to the Truman/Eisenhower era it goes, even before the Carter Doctrine, and back into the British history of the region. We've always had a militarized view of Afghanistan and Pakistan, even our non-military institutions do that, in the way the geography was imagined as a sort of 'bulwark' for American security. Look at William Lind's latest piece in the American Conservative....

The world is changing, the 'map' is changing, and our Afghan campaign in some ways did not reflect the shifts. Can't bet the whole farm on the Gulf regions....

I'm still stuck on this because I find it interesting. My usual caution (because I got Iraq) wrong: I could be totally wrong about this.

I'm betting British folk are aware of some of the American romanticism and are a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. Just guessing, I'm terrible with the pop psychology, which is usually hugely inaccurate, but it seems weirdly important for some reason given all that has happened.

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 03/03/2013 - 3:28pm

Okay, I'll stop posting on this thread after the following which is going way off track. Guess I'm practicing Design. Let it go. I am naturally sarcastic, I don't really mean anything by it:

<blockquote>The British always did this (to the annoyance of the <strong>non-Anglophiles</strong> in the agency), but Dearlove did it particularly well. 'We used to joke that Tenet was Dearlove's best recruitment,' recalls one CIA officer.</blockquote>

Oh, everyone does this all the time to everybody else. It's not unique to any one nation but Americans don't seem to think about it much for some reason. Don't know why.

<blockquote>He continued, talking about developing a corps of Afghan-area experts within the United States military akin to the American “China hands” of the early and mid-20th century, and “British East India Company types” who went out for years and learned the local languages.</blockquote>…

Yeah, I don't know. I collect puzzle pieces because I just like to, but I have no idea if the pieces are correct or if they fit together in any way.

<blockquote>To fight future counterinsurgencies effectively, the US military must alter its culture so as to create a cadre of officers with linguistic, intelligence, and advisory skills, together with heightened “cultural awareness.” He also proposes the institution of a complementary corps of civilians able to assume some of the non-security-related tasks of nation building. All of this makes sense—indeed, many of these innovations were being worked out beginning around 1999 as part of the military’s anti-drug-trafficking initiative known as Plan Colombia, so one must wonder whether Central Command in Tampa has been in contact with Southern Command in Miami.</blockquote> - review in Bookforum

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 02/27/2013 - 8:41am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I am being cautioned by a friend via email that "I'm not sure that the British ever claimed such an expertise. They just got on with it."

I'm not sure how to interpret certain passages in the Mader book now.

Chasing down ideas in order to understand how they embed themselves into an institutional "consciousness" is a difficult thing to do, isn't it? I don't just mean the coindinista vs. cointra part, I'm talking an even larger template of thought.

I really have no wish to play "gotcha." While there might be a cause to do so, I'll leave that to others that are more capable.

You know what's funny? Or terrible? While we may be reevaluating ideas about counterinsurgency, many of the bad old defense ideas (look at planners in the Truman era to see the continuity of discussion) about various Asian regions haven't been vetted or challenged with the same vigor. Yes, even with arguments about Asian pivots. I'm talking about understanding regions. It's still pretty shallow, isn't it? 12 years in Afghanistan and I still see the same old ideas about motivations posited and with everything that has happened. So, so odd.

While it's useful to look through the eyes of Brussels (I know, I know, my old "Natoist" chip-on-the shoulder never goes away) for some areas of international or global or American defense, it doesn't work in other areas IMO. How to find balance in a world of austerity and competing agendas?

Well, that's MY theory. Could be as deluded as the rest of them out there....

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 02/26/2013 - 10:43am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Okay, now I see why I have been confused:

<em>"In Pursuit of Conceptual Excellence: The Evolution of British Military-Strategic Doctrine in the Post Cold War Era 1989-2002," by Markus Mader</em>

(On Google Books, the interested can look for the link there.)

The current formal academic claims were generated by a section of the American military intellectual community based on a historical misunderstanding of the nature of colonial counterinsurgency campaigns, but there also existed a supposed oral tradition (claimed by some academics) within some members of the British military or ex-military that claimed a light handling ("hearts and minds") understanding of imperial policing or counterinsurgency?

Am I closer to the mark now? But how did the self-identified misperception-as-tradition (if true) become formalized? Studying an oral tradition claimed by another and maintaining that it is accurate in reality or practice are two different things. One is a cultural misperception of past behavior and history, one is a more formal study meant to illuminate. What happened during the American written translation of an oral tradition (Well, that's only a part of it. There is Galula and all that....)?

Am I being too hard here? It's still confusing.

PS: Galula traveling to the States and Rand and everything? Elite relationships between various international stakeholders (Huntington's "Davos Man") shows a more durable connection between nations than is suggested by the vagaries of policy. Interesting.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 02/20/2013 - 8:56am

Very interesting paper. Fascinating read.

How does one define a military tradition? It can't be captured in its entirety by doctrinal manuals, can it? It must be a part of a larger institutional culture which might include oral traditions handed down from one group to another. If a myth is a part of the emotional or psychological make-up of a group of stakeholders, what is myth and what is the acted upon reality based on a perceived shared historical perspective?

Are there studies examining the shared American and British NATO military experience and how it affects decision making (well, of course there must be)? What is that shared culture?

But American Anglophilia (especially within the American military) is a complex topic. There seems to be a fascination for books like <em>Soldier Sahibs</em> and William Dalrymple and the British Raj as seen through the eyes of a colonial officer in some corners of the military blogosphere. Being an American of Indian origin, I always notice this fascination.

I'm not complaining, I feel it too, but in reverse, if you see what I mean. Oddly enough, closer to how colonial Americans must have felt, I'm imagining....

Patrick Porter's book <em>Military Orientalism</em> talks a bit about this Anglophilia within the context of current American COIN doctrine.

Still, something is missing for me, something I can't quite put my finger on. I somehow can't believe that the myths are entirely American or that the myths don't sometimes have the substance of reality, but I suppose that is the point of the paper.

I know I've come across some papers on the oral or regimental traditions of the British military that address some of my questions but I've stupidly lost my notes on the subject. I'll have to come back to this thread. (I may be wrong about this, however, my note keeping skills have always been atrocious. Good thing I never ventured into PhD territory, I'd be terrible attempting any kind of dissertation. I'd read and read and never get around to writing anything....)

I'm not trying to embarrass anyone or call anyone out with this line of questioning, I mean, we are only human and I don't see why it should be embarrassing to recognize that fact. One thing that I like so much about the different military blogs or sites that I read is that you will consider anything intellectually, that you will take ideas seriously. It's refreshing.


Mon, 08/13/2012 - 9:46am

In reply to by roger in florida

Simple need. There was no need for all this effort prewar or even postwar. Not until the worm turned.

The British, Commonwealth and Malayan forces had become extremely adept by Independence at isolating the CPM and neutralizing them as an existential threat to the new nation. There were still problems in Singapore, but that was a slightly different kettle of fish as it remained a British posssession though not for long. The dynamics there were different, with the Communists operating far more as unionists.

The campaign could have been lost, and easily. Gurney represented a nadir, a time of ineffficient and uncoordinated responses with CTs roaming the country using the jungle spine and drawing intel and supplies off the Min Yuen. Templar took the step to choke off the Min Yuen support with the New Villages so that the CTs had to produce and carry their own food. Tapioca became a staple for them as it could be grown inconspiciously but the 'wood root'(ubi kayu) is not very nutritious and regarded as a poor man's food.

Army units were more efficiently used to interdict key transit points while the job of chaisng CTs was led by specialists like the Senoi Praq and increasingly the use use of turncoat guides.

There is a painful lack of depth in the ubderstanding of the Malayan Emergency.

roger in florida

Sun, 08/12/2012 - 5:08pm

In reply to by stanman

Well they should know, although what would account for such a level of institutional incompetence is beyond me.
The article questions whether there is such a thing as a particular British skill at COIN, any such claim would have to rest almost entirely on the Malayan experience. I am old enough to remember a series of plummy voiced British "experts" basking in the glory of victory in a campaign impossible to lose, offering advice to US neophytes as they tragically embarked on a campaign impossible to win.


Sun, 08/12/2012 - 2:30pm

In reply to by roger in florida


My sources are in Special Branch of the Royal Malaysian Police, including intel people at the pointy end. The British liasion activity in Malaya was small and had only a vague idea of cadre strength. This is why one of the most important steps taken was the introduction of government issued Identity Cards with fingerprints and their mandatory carraige. Till this day, not having your IC is a criminal offense.

Once they had the fingerprints of just about everyone, it was difficult to run aliases and such, severely curtailing the activities of the Min Yuen.
The Registration Dept. ran one of the most effective fingerprint ID ops, turning around requests 24 hours a day.

Your lack of knowledge of the intel war is unsurprising as it is not widely written about. Much of it is still regarded as Classified though there are specialist publications that have picked some of it up. SB people are well conditioned not to talk shop.

Please do not try and muddy the waters by diverting to the US experience in VN. It was not simply a numbers game etc. Don't simply look at it through the American lens. I was priveleged to have the opportunity to befriend the senior COSVN man for the Central region before his death. He spoke little of operational details and you really have to read between the lines as to their motivations and issues. That is another story and has no relevance to the question at hand.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/12/2012 - 8:43am

In reply to by gian gentile

Gian, I believe the British "won" by giving up the very control they returned to Malaya post-WWII to re-exert. By recognizing Malayan independence and bringing them into the Commonwealth as an ally, rather than as a subordinate ward.

But that was not their intent at the outset, at least not according to my dog-earred 1962 Insurgency Casebook:

"After the war (WWII) the British had devised a plan to create a Union of Malaya in order to strengthen British central authority over the area. This plan was announced as a fait aacompli in the British Commons, but was not acceptable to the Malay elite and old Malayyan civil servants. A federal system was instituted instead which discriminated heavily against the Chinese and Indian communities. Violent riots broke out between the Malay and Chinese communities and the Communist Party used them to promote its own aim of overthrowing British rule and establishing a People's Democracy. In 1948 the British instituted the "Emergency," which became an all-out drive against the Communists."

Now, I realize that the cost of empire was coming to exceed the benefit of Empire, and that Britain was looking form a new, less costly model to exercise control over old colonies and to continue to profit from those relationships. The Commonwealth was the end result, but I really don't think it was "plan A." No, the British did not get what they wanted. Neither did the Communist party. Both "lost" in that regard. The populace as a whole got to a system of governance that was far more inclusive than either of those aforementioned contestents intended. So, to my original point which I believe is valid. In Malaya it was a true victory because the people won by expanding the percentage of the populace included in governance and opportunity far beyond what either the Communists or the British originally intended.


gian gentile

Sun, 08/12/2012 - 6:57am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I differ a bit and think that in fact the British did win. But to accept that argument one must cast it within the larger geostrategic situation that Britain found itself in after World War II (which actually started as a result of World War I)which was of de-colonization and the breaking up of the empire. Within this context the British political aim for Malaya was to leave, but to leave with a government in place that was non communist and friendly to British interests. In that sense its defeat of the Malayan communist insurgents was a political victory for Britain in war.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 7:42pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Actually neither Britain nor the insurgents won. The insurgents were defeated and Britain gave up control and went home. The people won. That is the true success story of the Malaya.

It is also the main lesson not learned. Winning is not defeating some insurgent group or the preservation of some particular government. Winning is when the total % of the populace who perceive themselves to be included in the governance and oportunity of a country increases.

Once we learn what winning is, it will be far easier to actually "win" in COIN.

gian gentile

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 7:23pm

In reply to by roger in florida


Agree stridently that the British could not lose the war; it was only a matter of how long it would take. Although much has been made of Gurney's assassination in October 1951 (to which Chin Peng has affirmed that it was blind luck that they had caught him in the ambush)and that it was a point where people then believed the war was lost, that attitude is not reflected in the documents. To be sure there was concern, but the concern was really over the length of time it would take to defeat the insurgents.

Which is why comparisons between Malaya and Vietnam that say the British won because they learned and adapted toward proper coin methods and the United States lost in Vietnam because they did not are preposterous. The NVA and VC main force units were first class light infantrymen, of which Bernard Fall said of the former that pound for pound they were one of the finest light infantry forces in the world! Chin Peng's Malayan insurgents were sophomores compared to what the US faced in Nam; moreover, Chin Peng made some really stupid strategic decisions early on that also helped the British. And in the end about 470 British soldiers were killed over 12 years in Malaya (and about half of them were men of color from the commonwealth regiments) whereas in Vietnam the United States lost 58,000. In short Malaya was nothing like Vietnam.

If the United States had never fought and lost in Vietnam Malaya would have been banished to the dustbin of history. But because of Vietnam, even in the early years when Thompson was peddling his strategic hamlet program based on what he thought happened in Malaya to Diem, Malaya has come to be seen as the model for doing coin right.

Essays like Professor Smith's are helping to shatter that myth.

roger in florida

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 1:48pm

In reply to by stanman

Please consider the following:
Britain was the Colonial authority in Malaya pre-war. The Colonial police would certainly have conducted research and maintained files on the MCP, as it was a direct threat to the Colonial administration.
At the end of hostilities Britain resumed it's role as the Colonial authority, it then had access to all the Japanese files on the guerillas. The Japanese had conducted extensive operations against the MPAJA and must have left a lot of intelligence files.
Colonel Chapman, who had lived with the guerillas in various of their camps for three years, became for a brief period, an administrator in the civilian authority. He was also de-briefed extensively by SEAC, describing in detail the organisation, command structure, locales, etc. of the MPAJA.
Colonel Jim Hannah had liased with MPAJA, on behalf of SEAC, at a high level to co-ordinate attacks against the Japanese during the presumed battle to eject the Japanese from Malaya. He had organised supplies to the guerillas and discussed ongoing supply requirements in order to maintain them as an effective fighting force.
In light of these facts, your assertion that British intel on the guerillas was non-existent is simply unbelievable. But suppose you are correct, that would only re-inforce my argument that the campaign was almost impossible to lose, whereas the US campaign in Vietnam was impossible to win. what the US faced was "Total Revolutionary War" as developed by Mao and Ho Chi Minh, amongst others. In this theory war is defined as any activity directed against the enemy, this could be activities as seemingly innocuos as holding political education sessions in a peasant village, up to full scale military operations against enemy forces. The beauty of this theory is that war is maintained permanently somewhere on this ladder, if you suffer setbacks you scale back to a sustainable level of offence. This approach was not available to the Chinese Guerillas in Malaya as they were a minority population, unlike the homogenous Vietnamese.
In addition the British employed up to approximately 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops against at most 8,000 guerillas, a numerical superiority of 5 to 1. In contrast US forces in Vietnam were always outnumbered by NVA and Viet Cong.
Another huge advantage was geographical, the Malayan guerillas had great trouble maintaining supply lines, whereas North vietnam's long border with China provided safe transit of weapons and supplies and ultimately, if necessary, a bullet proof sanctuary.
I do not mean to say that the Malayan campaign was easy, it was not, the terrain alone was very difficult to operate in, the fighting was hard and the campaign went on for twelve years.
To the point of the article; it may be that the British Army, being battalion-centric is somewhat better prepared for low intensity conflicts where battalion commanders are expected to use discretion and initiative where battalion operations may be conducted over hundreds and perhaps thousands of square miles of territory. This against the division-centric US Army with it's more centralised decision making, I am not saying this is true but I throw the idea out for comment.


Fri, 08/10/2012 - 6:02pm

In reply to by roger in florida

Not at all. British intel on the CT (Communist Terrorists) was almost noexistent when the CPM decided to launch its armed campaign. They had little or no idea of the organization and disposition of the CTs and no real idea of extent of the Min Yuen. The learning curve was very steep.

The major change was the appointment of Gerald Templar, the hard man to repace Henry Gurney who had been assassinated in Cameron Highlands. He acted as generalissimo, combining the military, LE and political response to the CTs. Carrots like bounties to surrendering CTs, sticks like rationing and flying tribunals. There is NO way that the hard side of the campaign would pass muster today.

Ultimately, the CPM became bottled up and irrelevent. Forced into their jungle hideouts and then into southern Thailand, the exploits if CTs after the end of the Emergency are largely unknown. The Malaysian security forces spent 2 decades on pretty much full COIN footing and losses were censored and surpressed.

Chin Peng, head of the CPM gives a very interesting and believable view from the other side. I was one of 3 people to buy the book before it was banned in Malaysia. It has since been allowed for sale but for a while, it was awesome contraband.

M.L.R. Smith

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 12:22pm

In reply to by roger in florida

Hi Roger, thank you for the comments. If you go into it, the campaign in Malaya was a pretty hard fight, though for sure, as you note, the British colonial authorities began the Emergency with certain comparative advantages over the position, say, the Americans encountered when they became heavily involved in South Vietnam. Ironically, if it hadn't been for the advent of the Cold War, the U.S. would almost certainly have sided with the Viet Minh against the French in some kind of Southeast Asian anti-colonial Spring...Ho Chi Minh admired the U.S. in many respects, and both sides gained a high regard for each other during the struggle against the Japanese in World War II. Just goes to show how quickly geo-political goals and political commitments can change.

You make an important point that the military in most democratic societies will always undertake the mission that politicians set for them. That mission might, though, be subject to change and be at the whim of policy makers, the mental capacities of which may be open to question as you say. The only consolation here is that elective democracies are usually capable of undertaking changes in political goals without destroying their own societies. I still don't know how we should evaluate decision making process that led to the intervention in Iraq, but with respect to Vietnam the ultimate decision to re-evaluate American intervention was that it was reflective of a calculation about the proportionate cost to society of remaining involved versus withdrawal. This was classic strategy at work, and in the end, the strategically "correct" (i.e. the proportional) choice was probably made.

Similarly, you make an interesting, and often under-appreciated point in strategy that all war - no matter how destructive - is ultimately about changing the mindset of the enemy; that is about generating political effects.

roger in florida

Thu, 08/09/2012 - 4:13pm

Good article. Many people bring up the British success in the Malayan Emergency as an example of how to win a low level campaign against a guerilla force. actually the campaign would have been almost impossible to lose. The guerilla forces were almost 100% Chinese, who were (and are) a much envied and despised large minority community in Malaya. There was almost no Malayan or Indian participation in the uprising. In addition the Chinese guerillas were actually what had previously been "The Malayan Peoples anti-Japanese Army". Towards the end of WW2 British personnel had landed in Malaya (Force 136, Jim Hannah, Freddie Spencer-Chapman, etc.) to work with the guerillas and supply them with weapons and to co-ordinate with them attacks on the Japanese as Malaya was invaded. The A-Bomb changed all that, but the result was that the British colonial authorities who resumed control of Malaya knew exactly who, where and what the guerillas were, also pretty much all of their supply lines.
Contrast this with the seemingly total ignorance of the US military as to what the Nationalist forces in Vietnam were comprised of and what their capabilities were, these being hugely more than the few thousand Chinese fighters in Malaya. The US Generals and State Dept. folk may have felt contemptuous of the Viet Minh because, for example, it had almost no motorised transport, it did however have a quarter million peasant porters!
As the article states; sometimes the most important decision is whether to fight at all, this definitely has to be made by politicians, generals will almost always accept a mission. It is also crucial to have the decision made by a mentally stable person (I am serious, think about the trouble that various headcases have caused). Do we really know why we invaded Iraq? I know Saddam used chemical weapons on his own people, disgraceful behaviour, but it occurred in 1978! It seems to me that the outrage was very slow in building, but then perhaps that was a card kept for use at a more advantageous moment.
In any war, big or small, victory will come when you change the enemy's mind, defeat comes when you change yours. Sometimes changing the enemies mind requires only patience, thus the crazy young republican soldier Martin McGuinness learns to appreciate the advantages and comforts of holding Govt. office, so lays down his car bomb.
What the British are masterful at is sowing discord and promoting disunity amongst their enemies, and this is a very useful skill when dealing with such people as the Afghans. Americans, I fear, tend to the utopian. Afghans do not want our democracy, they are quite happy to live in squalor, as long as they feel they are the kings of their own little dung pile. Although whether we are in Afghanistan to improve the lot of Afghans is an open question.

M.L.R. Smith

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 11:38am

In reply to by gian gentile

Gian, thank you for the kind comments. Your original work on "Counter-COIN" started the ball rolling in my mind. Look forward very much to your myth-exposing book next year.

gian gentile

Thu, 08/09/2012 - 10:27am

What a breadth of fresh air. This is a timely and excellent piece and I believe it to be spot on correct. It agrees with my own research and conclusions. I will include professor Smith's article in my own book that aims to expose the myth of American coin which is due out in April 2013.

M.L.R. Smith

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 11:35am

In reply to by ganulv

Thank you. Indeed, as Prof Hobsbawm would no doubt maintain, the notion of a British Tradition of COIN is an "invented" one (and one largely invented in the US, I would suggest). That is not to say, of course, that it is completely made up out of thin air, but that is is tradition that is attributed to the British military premised on a set of partial understandings based on what analysts want to believe about what the British experience represents for their arguments (quick learning/minimum force/ a facility for acquiring cultural knowledge), rather than what the actual military British experience was in practice.

M.L.R. Smith

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 11:28am

In reply to by David Ucko

It is true, David, that the notion of political will is an intangible, and quite possibly, an elusive concept to try to calculate with any degree of accuracy.

That said, as Carl von Clausewitz would tell us (and I am a Clauswitz junkie, I am afraid) "passion" (which can be construed as one element of political will) is one of the major variables in war. Certainly, I would maintain that in cases like Palestine, Aden and the Lebanon, that a strong political commitment was lacking within the British polity from the start and cannot simply be attributed in hindsight when failure arises - in fact I recall the real hand-wringing and temporizing over whether and for how long to commit troops to Beirut in the early 1980s. This was a sign of a complete lack of willingness to get involved in the first place.

Let me provide another counterfactual example that might illustrate that the argument is not tautological, which might be if the Task Force in the Falklands had failed to re-capture the islands from Argentina in 1982. Here, political will to re-take the islands was undoubtedly very strong, and any miitary failure could not have been attributed to the lack of political investment in the cause (short of launching a disproportionate nuclear attack on Argentina and other desperate measures).

Finally, political will is always subject to change through the course of any campaign and reflects the movements within Clausewitz's trinity of war (passion, chance, and reason). As Clausewitz states, 'war always moves on its own goals with varying speed'. This is what makes war unique in its physical manifestations on each and every occasion, and explains why theoretically and practically speaking there can, ultimately, be no such thing as a "tradition" or "theory" of counter-insurgency.

David Ucko

Thu, 08/09/2012 - 9:24am

Second thought arising from this text.

You note that "perhaps with single exception in recent times of the Suez intervention in 1956, all the other examples of assumed failure were based on political decisions to withdraw from entanglements where there was no political commitment to stay".

It strikes me that to judge past successes and failures on the level of political will can quickly become a circular argument. Where there was success there was political will and where the force was withdrawn, well, the political will wasn't so great. Unless there is some way of proving or measuring political will, its absence can quickly become a synonym for failure or withdrawal at which point your argument becomes tautological or self-fulfilling.

Furthermore, political will is never static throughout a campaign but shifts in response to events on the ground. Thus, to focus so heavily on political will risks underplaying the reasons for why events on the ground evolve as they do: the operational and tactical dimensions.

M.L.R. Smith

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 11:06am

In reply to by David Ucko

Thanks, David, I appreciate your take on the article. I am quite sure that serious analysts like yourself were always somewhat skeptical to overblown claims of a British COIN tradition (and glad to hear it).

As the article sought to convey, most of the evidence that I have been able to uncover at least, suggests that an assumed tradition of COIN expertise has never been officially proclaimed in the UK; nor - in my view - is there sufficient evidence of a critical mass of opinion, or "regularity of statements" (as Foucault would have it) to constitute a systematic self-invoked British disourse of COIN. At most, I think, there is a patchwork of occasional utterances emanating from semi-official commentary or independent analysis. Elsewhere, much of the rhetoric surrounding a British tradition of COIN I would contend has been generated outside the UK, though of course I accept that this is a legitimate matter for academic debate (after all, that's what makes academic exchange valid and interesting).

Likewise, it is difficult to assess the influence of individual thinkers like John Nagl or Montgomery McFate. From my general understanding I would tend towards the belief that the "big names" that are often associated with the evolution of COIN thought in the United States, and across the realms of social thought more generally, are invariably reflections of changes already underway rather than orginators of change themselves.

Look forward very much to your book on British COIN. A much needed evaluation I am sure it will be.

David Ucko

Thu, 08/09/2012 - 8:48am

Mike, thanks for this fascinating and much-needed corrective to some of the wilder ideas on the British legacy or lack thereof. You find a nice nuanced way of teasing out a version of events that is more sensitive to the record and flexible in its interpretation.

I do think, however, that the "we didn't built that" approach to the British legacy is somewhat questionable - and possibly an institutional defence-mechanism. For sure, not everyone bought into it - I remember being approached along with several King's College London colleagues to write something for the US DoD on 'the British approach'. We reported back that there wasn't really an "approach" at all. Still, to suggest that it was all "made in the US" I think is to over-state the point. Of course it is difficult to find concrete evidence as these things were not laid out in peer-reviewed journals and there were fewer sites such as Small Wars Journal at the time. Had the notion been put to the test of publication, it wouldn't have gone far - for the reasons you highlight. Still, as just one example, in 1995, way before Nagl or McFate (whose influence on the narrative I think you somewhat overplay), Gavin Bulloch - lest we forget a leading doctrine writer for the British Army at the time - wrote an article in Parameters that began with: 'The experience of numerous "small wars" has provided the British army with a unique insight into this demanding form of conflict.' I think many at the time, also in the UK, would have accepted that hypothesis without much thought.

Anyway, I am thankful for this contribution to the discussion and, if I may, will take this opportunity to alert you to forthcoming book of mine, with Columbia University Press, on the topic.