James S. Corum: How the British Defeated Insurgents in Malaya

Roundup: Media's Take

James S. Corum, in the NYT (6-2-05):

[James S. Corum, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Reserve, is a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.]

MOST Americans, including many of those making military decisions in Washington, have been surprised by the intensity of the Iraqi insurgency since the January elections. How, despite their failure to coalesce into a united front and their lack of a coherent political program, have the armed factions shown such staying power? History suggests an answer and, more important, provides a model for putting the insurgency down.

Once started, rebellions develop their own internal logic and momentum. People who take up arms are normally reluctant to put them down again, even if the chance of ultimate success is minimal. The unsuccessful communist insurgency in Malaya after World War II lasted 12 years. The Huk insurgency in the Philippines lasted a decade. The rebellion in El Salvador that began in 1980 continued for 12 years. In many cases, the rebel cadres simply fought until attrition made them irrelevant.

Another common element was that the rebels flourished in an environment of disorder. Many insurgencies erupted in the messy aftermath of the world wars as factions took advantage of postwar power vacuums. Likewise, when Saddam Hussein's regime fell, there were too few American and allied troops to establish control; this gave Iraqi factions a perfect opportunity to arm and scramble for power. In the aftermath, the American military has lurched from one quick fix to another. At first we tolerated factional militias - until they threatened the Coalition Authority. Then we recruited large numbers of police officers and briefly trained them. They performed as well as poorly trained forces usually do: badly.

Our current goal - to bring enough stability to the country that we can bring the American troops home - depends on our giving the Iraqis enough expertise to win their own war. Again, history provides clues. When the Malayan insurgency broke out in 1948, Britain initially brought in 40,000 army troops and rushed to expand the colony's police and security forces. From 1948 to 1951 the police force was quadrupled to 40,000 men and more than 100,000 "home guard" auxiliaries were recruited.

Sheer numbers had an effect, but over time, the hastily trained police and security units were inefficient, and in 1951 senior British commanders reported that they had stalled against the rebels.

So in 1952 Britain sent out a new high commissioner, Gen. Gerald Templer, and a new police commander, Sir Arthur Young, formerly head of the Metropolitan Police in London, who realized that the Malayan police had plenty of manpower but lacked competent leaders at every level. Young began a long-term training program that emphasized developing highly professional commanders and noncommissioned officers.

Dozens of capable men were sent to the United Kingdom for a yearlong police academy course. Hundreds of junior officers were sent to new police and military schools in Malaya run by the British. Templer, paradoxically, slowed the expansion of the Malayan Army until cadets and junior officers with the highest potential could be sent to schools in the United Kingdom. Yes, this caused short-term manpower problems, but the strategy paid off. By late 1953, the police department's effectiveness had noticeably improved and again the government was winning the war.

The situation in Iraq today is similar to what faced Templer when he arrived in Malaya. After the fall of Baghdad, American officials had little understanding of just how politicized and corrupt the Iraqi police and military forces had been under Saddam Hussein. Most dictatorships favor party loyalty over merit; this is why third-world armies look impressive on parade on Revolution Day but fail on the battlefield. Officers under Saddam Hussein were well educated, but those who had performed well in the long war with Iran were seen as a threat and were purged or mysteriously died. So while the Pentagon was correct in assuming that there were plenty of officers who were not Saddam Hussein loyalists and who would be willing to serve a new government, it overestimated their skills.

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