Small Wars Journal

Setting the Record Straight on Malayan Counterinsurgency Strategy

Fri, 02/11/2011 - 9:56am
Setting the Record Straight on Malayan Counterinsurgency Strategy:

Interview with Karl Hack

by Octavian Manea

Download the Full Article: Setting the Record Straight on Malayan Counterinsurgency Strategy

You are a long time researcher and observer of the Malayan Emergency. What were the core key ingredients that broke the back of the communist insurgents in the Malayan Emergency? The primary cause for putting the campaign on a firmly winning path? The game changer that helped at the end of the day to regain the initiative?

That is a bit like asking, 'In making a cup of tea, which action is the game-changer: the heating of the water, the addition of the tea bag, or the correct amount of steeping? If you don't heat the water, or don't add the teabag, or under or over-steep, you don't get a drinkable cup of tea. In addition, if you do things in the wrong order, it may turn out disgusting. You can't just skip a stage and go to the one and single 'really important' bit of tea-making.

The same goes for counterinsurgency. You cannot, for instance, go straight to a comprehensive approach for 'winning hearts and minds' and expect it to work, if you have not first broken up the larger insurgent groups, disrupted their main bases, and achieved a modicum of spatial dominance and of security for the population in the area concerned. Local fence-sitters are, quite rightly in terms of family survival needs, likely to regard personal safety and avoiding 'collaboration' with you as overriding concerns, especially after contractors and officials who help you are assassinated or tortured.

Yet for counterinsurgency, people do sometimes ask 'what is the one key ingredient'? The answer is, menus do not work like that, and neither did the Malayan Emergency. There were distinct phases or stages. I would argue that many other insurgencies are also likely to have distinct stages, and indeed that within a single insurgency different provinces or regions may be at different stages at any one time. It is quite possible that Helmand and Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar, could simultaneously be at very different stages, requiring very different policies.

The question above, therefore, encompasses what I would like to dub the 'temporal fallacy' (that policies abstracted from one defining moment might be equally valid in qualitatively different phases), and the spatial fallacy (that different geographic regions will be in the same phase, so allowing a single strategy for a country no matter how fractured and diverse).

Download the Full Article: Setting the Record Straight on Malayan Counterinsurgency Strategy

Interview with Karl Hack conducted by Octavian Manea (Editor of FP Romania, the Romanian edition of Foreign Policy).

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


GOM's are always an excellent source of concise analysis :-)

However, the goobledegook generally supports your underlying argument that you cannot compare different insurgencies (or in this case COIN strategies)due to the unique context of each.


Sun, 02/13/2011 - 7:19pm

I used to have a GOM (Grumpy Old Major) working for me - his description of that paragraph would be 'goobledegook'...

Another unique factor in the Emergency was that it was the first challenge to imperial (lower-case after WW2) after India and the decision had already been made to 'release' the colonies in a controlled manner. Thus there was probably already a glimmer at the end of the tunnel to work towards...

The para below is cut and paste from the article, so at least to some extent I think the author addresses some of the critiques above. True the Chinese weren't satisfied, but the resolution to the problem was no longer reliant on the insurgency, which was defeated or suppressed enough to become a non-factor. It was more of a political process.


The question above, therefore, encompasses what I would like to dub the 'temporal fallacy (that policies abstracted from one defining moment might be equally valid in qualitatively different phases), and the spatial fallacy (that different geographic regions will be in the same phase, so allowing a single strategy for a country no matter how fractured and diverse)

Bob's World

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 5:08pm


Actually I just don't buy into "you have to beat them down, and then let them go" approach. But if you want to convince me that it is the counterinsurgent, or the intervening party that has to work through a physical and mental transition prior to being willing to adopt changes that actually get at the heart of the matter, I think you may be on to something.

When the legal government is challenged illegally, the last thing on their agenda is "oh, well let me fix that." The natural response is to seek to defeat that illegal challenge. It only after the counterinsurgent has had a chance to evolve a bit himself that he gets to adopting the changes that really take hold.

Unfortunately, sometimes the counterinsurgent is successful in suppressing the insurgent and claims "victory" prior to getting to that point of self-awareness and change. Those are the insurgencies that tend to come right back in short order.

I read the article with interest. I think it lays out how the counterinsurgent/colonial power saw and continues to see the situation very well. I just think that from that biased position the wrong lessons learned are taken away. Thus the US borrowed many of the TTPs to apply to Vietnam, but never understood that addressing the concerns of the populace interms of removing external controls of governance and support of illegitimate governments was important.

Personally, I think if that last step is applied first, one defeats the insurgency before it fairly becomes one.


Sun, 02/13/2011 - 4:38pm

Actually, Bill, I was commenting on the content of the paper and admit I have yet to read it in detail...however the author does not identify the ethnic differences that were a key factor in both the initial insurgency and its defeat. He really just in terms of the same bland 'the people' that we have been discussing in another thread. Nor does he mention the critical geographic factors in the Emergency which certainly do NOT apply to Afghanistan. I think, pending re-read and possible later retraction, that while taking a different approach, he is still making the same mistake that occurred in 2003-5 when Malaya was touted as THE example of successful COIN - in truth there are very few 'lessons' from Malaya that can be applied today - and if you applied the same techniques, you'd probably end up in the Hague with some interesting Serb neighbours.

Just to add the Bob's point on the resolution of the Emergency, Chinese continued to be dissatisfied with their lot in Malaysia with the political result in 1965 of the splitting off of Singapore from Malaysia and its creation as a predominantly Chinese-led nation-state in its own right, Mr Lee Kuan Yew commanding...

Bill M.

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 12:47pm

I think both of you need to read the article and comment on what the author wrote, not just commment on the conflict or my comments. SJPONeil's were actually in line with what the author wrote. the phases of the conflict to put it in the proper historical context. They couldn't have reached a political solution without first breaking their momemtum with combat operations. If you only focus on Templar's actions at the end of the conflict you mmiss out on all the actions required to get to that point.

Bob's World

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 6:52am

More in line with SJPONeil on this.

Too much focus is on the prorams the Brits imposed upon the Malayan people and the military actions against the insurgents rather on the critical programs of control that they finally removed.

The granting of the the right for the ethnic Chinese to legally participate in governance is a HUGE factor in their decision to stop supporting the illegal challenge to governance posed by the insurgents who emerged from their midst.

Similarly, the end of Great Britain's dominion over Malay governance through the office of the High Commissioner is also vitally important as to the enduring stability that emerged from the conflict and the lack of support from the populace to those insurgent fighters who wanted to continue. There was no fight to continue, because in fact, though the fighters were defeated, and communism did not become the government, the populace won, because they succeeded in removing British governance from Malaya.

Insurgency is always ultimately about removing the current government, not about the establishment of the version that is offered in challenge.

I'm also not a big fan of the schools of thought that attempt to superimpose the Malayan Emergency on contemporary situations (in fact, any situations that aren't Malaya in the last 40s and 50s) but I think that this paper is quite heavily over-engineered - I have been entertaining my grand-daughters all day and they have done me in - and I have yet to give it a detailed reading. My overall feeling is that there is little in Malaya apart from some general truisms that could be applied to any other campaign like Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Australia's Dr Jeffrey Grey has also written a great article debunking the myths of Malaya and Kenya and paragons of people-centric COIN - I'm just trying to find that at the moment. For me, it cuts more directly to the reality without trying to overlay a pseudo-scientific method over it.

Pending absolute gross incompetence on the part of the Commonwealth, I belive that Malaya was always doomed to fail as an insurgency because of:

The ethnic gaps between the Malay people and the (largely) Chinese CT.

The geography of the Peninsula that denied the CT any opportunity for cross-border sanctuary or supply.

The previous 100+ years of British Imperial administration upon which the broader campaign was built which allowed the freezing of civil rights, relocation to strategic hamlets, etc without much in the way of question or objection i.e. good governance was already well-established.

This article offers a lot of insights that have glossed over in recent interpretations of the Malayan conflict and offers some recommendations for a sensible strategy in Afghanistan.

He clarified the necessity of aggressive combat operations to break the momentum of the insurgents and to gather intelligence during the initial phases of the conflict (unfortunately we didn't start aggressive combat operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan against the insurgents until late in the game). He used Bernard Shaw's comment that insurgencies need to be administered primarily and added that you can only administer them if you control the population and space in a security sense.

I think you'll find his concept of temporal and spacial fallacies helpful, and you may be able to use this concept to point out that Afghanistan is not Iraq and you're not going to use the same strategy used in Iraq to achieve success in Afghanistan.

He made reference to some successful COIN efforts by foreigners and found that most successful ones depending on alliances with key local forces. These actors had non-democratic /traditional agendas strong enough for them to to risk death for. The Western powers downplayed liberal aims and ideas of good governance to prioritize cooperation with key local actors. In another article (or perhaps his last book) Ralph Peters made a similiar argument about the necessity of picking side.

I'm sure others will draw different conclusions, but I found the article to be refreshing and much more honest than the liberal interpretations of the Malayan conflict by CNAS.


Sun, 02/20/2011 - 9:55pm

Haven't got a GOM any more, but may be getting a GOSL (Grumpy Old Squadron Leader) in a couple of weeks...

I think my argument would be that you can not compare different insurgencies without considering their context, or perhaps out of context. But there are no immutable concepts of these types of campaigns that apply consistently across the board.