Iraq: Lessons of the Malayan Communist Insurgency

With his Annapolis speech last Wednesday President Bush limned a much more practical and realistic approach to the conflict in Iraq than has thus far emerged from his administration. Mirroring in large part American efforts in Afghanistan, the strategy which was revealed calls for American forces to choke off insurgent forces at their points of entry and support, while internal security operations are gradually turned over to indigenous Iraqi forces.

It's a good start.  What is truly regrettable is that the administration has taken so long to both formulate and then articulate this policy.  For far too long U.S. forces have played a tail—chasing game of occupying guerrilla strongholds, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and then — compelled by sheer manpower concerns — leaving the targeted area for the enemy to reoccupy. It's a bit like bailing the water out of a rowboat and then not patching the holes in the bottom of the boat.  The job's going to have to be done again, it's just a matter of time.

The question of time here becomes critical.  Yes, it's about time that the administration detailed a plan for pacifying Iraq but no, it's not appropriate to establish a firm timetable for withdrawal of American forces.  That would be like saying,

'We're going to do open heart surgery on this patient but we have to be done in one hour (or 40 minutes, or two hours).' 

If you knew that this was the attitude of your prospective surgeon you would be horrified.  For delicate operations such as heart surgery or nation building strict timetables are a recipe for disaster.  One does the job with as much care and taking as much time as one needs to ensure that the final results are a success or as close to a success as can be hoped for.  To do otherwise is folly. We must have a care for those who would advise otherwise for they are neither heart surgeons nor nation builders.

It's been over forty years since it was done, but the British experience in Malaya (as Malaysia was then known) promises a much more likely parallel to American aims in Iraq than does the tired and overworked Vietnam analogy so frequently alluded to by administration critics.

Faced with a dangerous Communist insurgency in Malaya, for the first three years of that struggle the British government attempted to counter the terrorists with fairly conventional means.  The initial thrust of the British effort was to identify, isolate, and destroy guerrilla forces, while at the same time trying to isolate them from the general population.  It was a costly and counterproductive strategy.  But, beginning in 1952 the British determined that the key to the struggle was not through military means alone but rather through enlisting the aid of the Malayan population.

Gradually turning the effort over to local Malayan  authorities the British also launched a major information campaign designed to influence the population and convince them that in was in their own best economic and social interests to oppose the guerrillas.  The basic theme was that it was unwise to 'break your brother's rice bowl' as the guerrillas were in effect doing.  By 1957 full independence was granted to Malaya and although the struggle against the Communist insurgents was to continue for another three years the Malayan government — and the Malayan people — had essentially won not only their independence but also rejected  and defeated an insurgent effort and philosophy which would have been inimical to Malayan values.

For those who have not been paying attention, that is essentially what the United States has been attempting to do in Iraq. As Iraqi army and police units come on line, as they become more capable and self—confident, they are assuming more responsibility for operations within Iraq. American forces are shifting their attentions to the porous borders of that country and taking on the more organized of the terrorist organizations. It has not been a smooth nor flawless effort.  It has been dangerous and replete with errors in judgment but those, one could rightfully say, are the costs of doing business.  Those are the costs of doing the right thing.

The United States' efforts in post—war Iraq have been painful and, to the 'right now' mind—set of a number of observers in the media and on the political left, far too slow.  This is decidedly not the case.  We are performing open heart surgery on an emerging nation.  The process cannot be rushed.  Right now there is every reason to expect that not only will the patient recover but flourish.  Hastening the process is simply bad medicine.

Frederick J. Chiaventone is a novelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer who taught International Security Affairs at the US Army's Command and General Staff College.

With his Annapolis speech last Wednesday President Bush limned a much more practical and realistic approach to the conflict in Iraq than has thus far emerged from his administration. Mirroring in large part American efforts in Afghanistan, the strategy which was revealed calls for American forces to choke off insurgent forces at their points of entry and support, while internal security operations are gradually turned over to indigenous Iraqi forces.

It's a good start.  What is truly regrettable is that the administration has taken so long to both formulate and then articulate this policy.  For far too long U.S. forces have played a tail—chasing game of occupying guerrilla strongholds, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and then — compelled by sheer manpower concerns — leaving the targeted area for the enemy to reoccupy. It's a bit like bailing the water out of a rowboat and then not patching the holes in the bottom of the boat.  The job's going to have to be done again, it's just a matter of time.

The question of time here becomes critical.  Yes, it's about time that the administration detailed a plan for pacifying Iraq but no, it's not appropriate to establish a firm timetable for withdrawal of American forces.  That would be like saying,

'We're going to do open heart surgery on this patient but we have to be done in one hour (or 40 minutes, or two hours).' 

If you knew that this was the attitude of your prospective surgeon you would be horrified.  For delicate operations such as heart surgery or nation building strict timetables are a recipe for disaster.  One does the job with as much care and taking as much time as one needs to ensure that the final results are a success or as close to a success as can be hoped for.  To do otherwise is folly. We must have a care for those who would advise otherwise for they are neither heart surgeons nor nation builders.

It's been over forty years since it was done, but the British experience in Malaya (as Malaysia was then known) promises a much more likely parallel to American aims in Iraq than does the tired and overworked Vietnam analogy so frequently alluded to by administration critics.

Faced with a dangerous Communist insurgency in Malaya, for the first three years of that struggle the British government attempted to counter the terrorists with fairly conventional means.  The initial thrust of the British effort was to identify, isolate, and destroy guerrilla forces, while at the same time trying to isolate them from the general population.  It was a costly and counterproductive strategy.  But, beginning in 1952 the British determined that the key to the struggle was not through military means alone but rather through enlisting the aid of the Malayan population.

Gradually turning the effort over to local Malayan  authorities the British also launched a major information campaign designed to influence the population and convince them that in was in their own best economic and social interests to oppose the guerrillas.  The basic theme was that it was unwise to 'break your brother's rice bowl' as the guerrillas were in effect doing.  By 1957 full independence was granted to Malaya and although the struggle against the Communist insurgents was to continue for another three years the Malayan government — and the Malayan people — had essentially won not only their independence but also rejected  and defeated an insurgent effort and philosophy which would have been inimical to Malayan values.

For those who have not been paying attention, that is essentially what the United States has been attempting to do in Iraq. As Iraqi army and police units come on line, as they become more capable and self—confident, they are assuming more responsibility for operations within Iraq. American forces are shifting their attentions to the porous borders of that country and taking on the more organized of the terrorist organizations. It has not been a smooth nor flawless effort.  It has been dangerous and replete with errors in judgment but those, one could rightfully say, are the costs of doing business.  Those are the costs of doing the right thing.

The United States' efforts in post—war Iraq have been painful and, to the 'right now' mind—set of a number of observers in the media and on the political left, far too slow.  This is decidedly not the case.  We are performing open heart surgery on an emerging nation.  The process cannot be rushed.  Right now there is every reason to expect that not only will the patient recover but flourish.  Hastening the process is simply bad medicine.

Frederick J. Chiaventone is a novelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer who taught International Security Affairs at the US Army's Command and General Staff College.