Algeria and Malaya: A Tale of Two Distinct and Dramatically Different Counterinsurgency Campaigns
Daniel T. Canfield
This article compares the British handling of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) with that of the French in Algeria (1954-1962). It analyzes and evaluates the aforementioned government responses with respect to four categories of analysis: environment, organization and cohesion, foreign patronage, and popular support. While acknowledging the fact that no two insurgencies are ever the same and that a strict adherence to a set of pre-established doctrinal principals is not only dangerous, but, perhaps more importantly, represents no guarantee of success - a careful examination of the two conflicts reinforces one of the most enduring and fundamental lessons of irregular warfare: the absolute requirement to gain and maintain the loyalty and allegiance of the indigenous population. That being said, perhaps the real legacy of the Malayan Emergency and the Algerian Revolution is not the obvious conclusion that the people represent the center of gravity for both the insurgent and the government in any intra-state conflict, but rather the more subtle realization that an ounce of political prevention is worth a pound of military cure.
Of course the differences brought about between one war and another by social or technological changes are immense, and an unintelligent study of military history which does not take adequate account of these changes may quite easily be more dangerous than no study at all. Like the statesman, the soldier has to steer between the danger of repeating the errors of the past because he is ignorant that they have been made, and the danger of remaining bound by theories deduced from past history although changes in conditions have rendered these theories obsolete.
This article compares the British handling of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) with that of the French in Algeria (1954-1962). It analyzes and evaluates the aforementioned government responses with respect to four categories of analysis: environment, organization and cohesion, foreign patronage, and popular support. While tempting, it would nonetheless be wrong to simply assume that British success in Malaya represents a cogent or all-encompassing model for effective counterinsurgency writ-large. In reality, the respective insurgencies in Malaya and Algeria were so dramatically different in character and scope that they almost defy objective comparison. Nevertheless, both conflicts, if studied objectively and placed in their appropriate historical context, offer a series of timeless lessons for contemporary students of irregular warfare. While acknowledging the fact that no two insurgencies are ever the same and that a strict adherence to a set of pre-established doctrinal principals is not only dangerous, but, perhaps more importantly, represents no guarantee of success - a careful examination of the two divergent government responses in Algeria and Malaya reinforces one of the most enduring and fundamental lessons of intra-state warfare - the absolute requirement to gain and maintain the loyalty and allegiance of the indigenous population.
The Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) were truly antithetical in terms of the physical and human environments.  Algeria, the world’s tenth largest country, encompasses approximately 2,381,740 sq kilometers. Its rugged and expansive terrain made securing or otherwise controlling the population difficult –if not impossible. The human terrain of French Algeria proved even more problematic. The one-million or so citizens of European descent (Pied Noirs) were awash in a sea of some nine-million disenfranchised indigenous Moslems. As the wave of Arab nationalism swept over North Africa in the aftermath of the Second World War, the French military faced the daunting prospect of attempting to secure the loyalties and allegiance of an exploding and increasingly hostile population, while their political masters in Paris remained unwilling to either extend the benefits of French citizenship to Algerian Muslims or otherwise grant them a level of political autonomy commensurate with their growing numbers. Both the physical and human terrain, therefore, compelled the French to deploy large numbers of troops. Unfortunately, this put a French face on the conflict from the very start and fueled the perception, both home and abroad, that France was engaged in a colonial war of repression in Algeria.
The environmental challenges confronting the British in Malaya paled in comparison to those of the French in Algeria. Approximately ninety-percent of the peninsula’s population resided along the western coast of Malaya in an area that encompassed less than one-fifth of the country’s total land mass. While the jungle provided cover and concealment, the combination of the peninsula’s relatively small size (329,750 sq kilometers) and British sea power forced the communist insurgents to seek sanctuary in the isolated mountainous terrain of the country’s interior. The human terrain proved even more advantageous to the British cause. The ranks of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) were filled, almost exclusively, by the peninsula’s ethnic Chinese minority. Native Malaysians generally viewed the upstart Chinese immigrants with a considerable degree of suspicion if not outright contempt. In stark contrast to the French situation in Algeria, the British confronted a communist insurgency led by a relatively small percentage of the country’s ethnic minority. The Chinese insurgents, therefore, enjoyed neither social, political, nor widespread ideological support from the vast majority of the indigenous population.  Fortunately for the Malayan authorities, both the physical and human environments precluded the deployment of large numbers of Commonwealth troops. Instead, the British shrewdly capitalized on the unique dynamics of the local situation to confront the fledging insurgency with an adroit combination of indigenous police forces, intelligence operations, and the judicious use of discreet Special Forces units. The British, by putting a Malayan face on the struggle from the very start, certainly demonstrated an exceptional degree of political and military foresight. It was an option, however, generally unavailable to the French.
Organization and Unity
Cohesion and unity of purpose form the foundation for success in irregular warfare. The Algerian insurgents, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), employed the twin pillars of Arab nationalism and Islam to forge an exceptionally cohesive and committed movement. Conversely, the war in Algeria literally shredded the very fabric of French society. Intransigence over the Algerian situation brought civil-military relations to the breaking point on more than one occasion and threatened the very stability of metropolitan France itself. The burgeoning political and social unrest the war engendered at home eventually led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic, the reemergence General Charles de Gaulle, and an abortive military coup in April 1961. Successive French governments, after decades of denying the political underpinnings of the Algerian uprising, ultimately proved incapable of either imposing a military solution on the problem or securing and sustaining the necessary political will to continue the war at home. Paradoxically, it could be argued, with a considerable degree of legitimacy, that it was the disunity and political fragmentation of the French nation state, as opposed to the endurance and cohesive ideology of the non-state actor, which ultimately decided the contest in French North Africa.
Unlike the French in Algeria, the British reacted swiftly in the wake of the initial outburst of political violence in Malaya. They quickly consolidated all counterinsurgency efforts, both military and non-military, in the hands of the local civilian administrator. Sir Henry Gurney, the Malay High Commissioner, immediately placed military operations under political control and integrated them with police operations.  The marrying of the political and military ensured unity of effort, cemented civil-military relations, and lent much needed political legitimacy to military operations. Though Gurney eventually fell victim to an assassin’s bullet in October of 1951, his early and decisive actions, in hindsight, probably prevented the insurgency from metastasizing and contributed, in no small way, to the British government’s ability to muster and sustain the requisite levels of political support and national will to prosecute a protracted twelve-year counterinsurgency campaign.
External support in the form of money, logistics, personnel, and ideology represent vital components of most successful insurgencies. Throughout the war in Algeria, the FLN operated with virtual impunity in Tunisia and Morocco. While the construction of the Morice Line along the Tunisian border eventually impeded the flow of men and material moving into Algeria, it could not stop it. Nor did French diplomatic efforts prevent the FLN from gaining widespread international support abroad. In the end, the confluence of geography, anti-colonialism, and the rising tide of Arab nationalism precluded the French from politically, economically, or militarily isolating the FLN in Algeria. Fortunately for the British, the Malayan Peninsula’s geographic isolation made it virtually impossible for the MCP to develop external support networks. The Royal Navy thwarted the import of men and material by sea and Thailand, the only country that shared a contiguous land border with Malaya, remained unsympathetic to the communist cause. Moreover, the Thai government greatly facilitated the counterinsurgency campaign in Malaya by preventing its border areas from being used as sanctuaries or lines of communication for the MCP. The British, buoyed by the twin blessings of geography and command of the sea, therefore, inherited an ideal situation for isolating the MCP throughout the war. It was an opportunity the British did not squander and an obstacle the Malayan communists, in the end, could not overcome.
The deteriorating security situation in Algeria represented a political albatross, continually passed down from one French government to the next, since its incorporation into metropolitan France in 1848. For the sake of brevity, however, it may be succinctly stated here, that the political will to hold Algeria in Paris ebbed in direct proportion to the rising tide of Arab nationalism in Algeria. While the French military achieved stunning success identifying and dismantling the FLN, it could not defeat the insurgency’s central political message or idea. So long as the French government offered nothing more than continued economic, political, and social disenfranchisement, the rapidly burgeoning Arab population faced a stark and unequivocal choice: submit to continued French rule and cement their status as secondary citizens or create a new nation state encompassing the values and cultural identity inherent in the vast majority of the country’s indigenous population. The French authorities, with the clairvoyance of hindsight, found themselves in the unenviable position of trying to impose a military solution on what was essentially an untenable political problem from the very start.
Unlike the FLN, the Malayan insurgency never gained widespread support. The MCP, in theory, had the potential to unite the Malayan people under the banners of communism, anti-colonialism, and nationalism. The MCP’s ideology, however, never overcame long-standing ethnic tensions on the peninsula. The vast majority of the Malayan population rejected both the Chinese minority and communist ideology. Similarly, the British successfully parried the ideological appeals of nationalism and anti-colonialism by, very publicly, putting Malaya on a path to independence. Moreover, while the British authorities instituted a series of tough and aggressive security measures to identify and remove communist supporters, they were enforced, for the most part, by locally trained Malayan police forces, not foreign troops. In the final analysis, the British, unlike the French response in North Africa, were able to defeat the root political idea fueling the insurgency by capitalizing on long-standing ethnic divisions and shrewdly using both the path and promise of national sovereignty to counter and eventually overcome the ideological appeal of communism.
Insurgencies represent complex political, social, and military problems. They require an adroit, sophisticated, and flexible integration of all instruments of national power to defeat or prevent. As such, there are a number of established principles or characteristics inherent in most effective counterinsurgency campaigns. Comparing the British handling of the Malayan Emergency with that of the French in Algeria generally reinforces the validity of these observations . Though both insurgencies were dramatically different, the contrasts between the two respective government responses, though perhaps unavoidable, are nevertheless stark and reinforce one of the most enduring and fundamental lessons of irregular warfare - the absolute requirement to gain and maintain the loyalty and allegiance of the indigenous population. That being said, perhaps the real legacy of the Malayan Emergency and the Algeria Revolution is not the obvious conclusion that that no two insurgencies are ever the same or that the people represent the center of gravity for both the insurgent and the government in any intra-state conflict, but rather the more subtle realization that an ounce of political prevention is worth a pound of military cure.
Successful and Unsuccessful Counterinsurgency Practices
Source: Sepp Kalev, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” Military Review, May-June 2005, p. 10. Colored evaluations with respect to the French handling of the Algerian situation and the British response during the Malayan Emergency reflect the author’s interpretations only.
British - Red
French - Blue
Both - Green
Unknown/Neither - Black
The historical interpretations and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the US Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other governmental agency.
 Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” The Causes of Wars and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 188-197.
 These categories of analysis are taken from Bard E. O'Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse; 2nd Ed., Revised. (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), pp. 71-191.
 For the Malayan Emergency see, Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (New York, NY: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1966); Edgar O'Ballance, Malaya: The Communist Insurgent War, 1948-60 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966); Richard L. Clutterbuck, The Long, Long War; Counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1966); Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960 (New York: Crane, Russak, 1975); John Coates, Suppressing Insurgency: An Analysis of the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1954 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992); and Donald Mackay, The Domino that Stood: The Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960 (London: Brassey's, 1997). For Algeria the classic English language account remains Alistair Horne’s, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (New York: Viking Press, 1977). Also see, Peter Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare from Indochina to Algeria, the Analysis of a Political and Military Doctrine (New York: Published for the Center of International Studies, Princeton University, Praeger, 1964); Edgar O'Ballance, The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967); John E. Talbott, The War without a Name : France in Algeria, 1954-1962 (New York: Knopf : Random House, 1980); Charles R. Shrader, The First Helicopter War: Logistics and Mobility in Algeria, 1954-1962 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999); and Paul X. Kelley, "French Counterinsurgency in Algeria 1954-1962: Military Victory - Political Defeat," Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, Air War College, 1969.
 O'Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism, pp. 143-150.
 Horne, A Savage War of Peace, pp. 44-49.
 Alistair Horne, “The French Army and the Algerian War” in Ronald Haycock ed. Regular Armies and Insurgency (London; Totowa, N.J.: Croom Helm; Rowman and Littlefield, 1979), p. 70.
 Ibid., pp. 70-71. For greater context and perspective on the political and social underpinnings of the revolution see Horne’s detailed treatment of the subject in, A Savage War of Peace, pp. 19-38 and pp. 44-82.
 Sam Sarkesian, Unconventional Conflicts in a New Security Era: Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Westport, Connecticut.: Greenwood Press, 1993), pp. 60-63. Also see, John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 60.
 There were long standing ethnic tensions and a history of violence between the Chinese immigrant minority and the native Malays see, Daniel Challis, “Counter Insurgency Success in Malaya,” Military Review February 1987, p. 57.
 Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, p. 60. Malayan society consisted of three separate ethnic communities: Malays, the peninsula’s native residents: Indians, largely Tamils, who were brought in by the British at the turn of the century to work in the rubber plantations, and Chinese immigrants, who had migrated on their own and threatened to dominate Malaya’s economy and politics. By the late 1940s the total Malayan population was approximately 5.3 million people consisting of forty-nine percent native Malayan, thirty-eight percent Chinese, eleven percent Indian, and slightly more than one percent persons of aboriginal decent.
 Challis, “Counter Insurgency Success in Malaya,” pp. 62-64. Also see Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, pp. 87-114.
 O'Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism, pp. 115-138.
 Horne, “The French Army and the Algerian War,” pp. 72-75 and A Savage War of Peace, pp. 436-460.
 Challis, “Counter Insurgency Success in Malaya,” Military Review February 1987, p. 60. Also see, John Coates, Suppressing Insurgency: An Analysis of the Malayan Emergency, 1948-54 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992), pp. 23-48 and 143-182.
 O'Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism, pp. 139-154.
 Horne, A Savage War of Peace, pp. 231-250.
 Horne, “The French Army and the Algerian War,” p. 70.
 For example, see Horne’s excellent account of the Battle of Algiers and its effect on the FLN in, A Savage War of Peace, pp. 183-207.
 Coates, Suppressing Insurgency: An Analysis of the Malayan Emergency, 1948-54, pp. 8-10 and pp. 16-17.
Challis, “Counter Insurgency Success in Malaya,” p. 60. Malayan authorities implemented a strictly enforced curfew, a system of national registration; death sentences for those caught with firearms, and authorized two year detentions for those suspected of supporting the communist insurgency.
 Department of the Navy, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, A Tentative Manual for Countering Irregular Threats (Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, VA, 2007), pp. 10-11.