As the drumbeat of bad news continues in Iraq and calls for a U.S. withdrawal begin to take hold, a popular cliché will get increased currency: that it is impossible to win a war against a guerrilla insurgency. This is the historical inaccuracy that Vietnam wrought. Americans assume that since they lost a war that had a guerrilla aspect in Vietnam–never mind that it was a conventional North Vietnamese army that ultimately conquered the south–everyone must always lose guerrilla wars.
Among other things, this ignores the American victory over an insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s, the Greek triumph over a Communist insurgency after World War II, El Salvador’s defeat of Communist guerrillas in the 1980s, Peru’s smashing of a terrorist insurgency in the 1990s, the recent qualified victory of the British over the Irish Republican Army, and Israel’s continuing upper hand over terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza. Most importantly, the insurgents-always-win school skips over the textbook example of successful counterinsurgency, the British victory in Malaysia in the 1950s over a communist guerrilla movement.
The British experience is related in John Nagl’s cult-classic book Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. It has become must reading for high-level officers in Iraq because its lessons seem so directly applicable to the situation there. Nagl himself, an Army major, has been in Iraq, where we still can duplicate the British experience in Malaysia of stumbling initially, but prevailing through innovation, stick-to-itiveness and shrewd political maneuvering.
Communist guerrillas in Malaysia took up arms in the late 1940s, murdering Europeans, sabotaging industry and using terror to try to strengthen the insurgency’s base among the country’s Chinese minority. Given their colonial history, the British had plenty of experience with such low-intensity conflicts, but had forgotten it after the conventional warfare in Europe of World War II. The Brits at first considered the insurgency primarily a military problem, and tried to take the guerrillas on in conventional military formations. These tactics not only failed to engage the guerrillas, who easily evaded the large jungle sweeps, but their heavy-handedness alienated the local population.
The British were losing. One observer thought the guerrillas were “probably equal to that of government in the matter of supplies and superior in the matter of intelligence.” Guerrilla attacks had been fewer than 100 a month in mid-1949, but spiked to more than 400 a month by mid-1950. This is when, had the Brits operated in our media and political environment, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would have witheringly declared all lost, and calls from across the political spectrum would have gone up to quit.
With a patience born of fighting many “small wars” in dusty parts of the world, the British simply set about fixing what they had done wrong. Most fundamentally, they realized that counterinsurgency depends on winning a political battle for “hearts and minds” (a famous phrase that originated in the Malaysia fight). Military operations were conducted on a smaller scale. The Chinese population was secured from guerrilla influence. A Malaysian army was built, with Chinese involvement. Elections were organized and independence promised. Slowly, the air went out of the insurgency, which was officially declared over in 1960, 12 years after it began.
Iraq is not the same as Malaysia, of course, but it presents a very similar problem. The Malaysian example has been on the Pentagon’s mind from the beginning, and is one reason it has placed such an emphasis on training Iraqi troops. Ultimately, just as important as establishing security in Iraq is having a political program more attractive than that of our revanchist enemies. Which is why–just as in Malaysia–holding elections and maintaining a glide path to full sovereignty are so crucial.
We should be clear-eyed about the fearsome difficulties in Iraq. But we shouldn’t give in to despair, let alone an unjustified metaphysical despair about the possibility of ever defeating a stubborn insurgency. It’s been done before.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate