The Malayan Emergency

by John Q on August 24, 2021

In the wake of the US defeat in Afghanistan, I’ve reinforced my previous belief that outside powers (particularly Western democracies) are almost always going to lose in counter-insurgency wars of this kind. One of my earliest contributions to Crooked Timber covered this theme.

But what was the source of the confidence that wars of this kind could be won? One of the most important was the Malayan Emergency, in which Britain defeated a communist insurgency, supported mainly by impoverished Chinese workers on British-owned rubber estates. The tactics included a reprise of the concentration camps used in the Boer War (though of course they had to be renamed “protected villages”), which were copied by the French and then the Americans in Vietnam. Even after the Vietnam debacle, Malaya was presented as an example of how to get things right.

It’s true that the insurgents were defeated (though a smaller group resurfaced later). But their support base was a minority of a minority (neither the majority Malays nor the urban Chinese business class supported them), they were heavily outnumbered by British forces, and they had no neighbouring power to provide them with refuge and military support.

Morever, most of the demands that had mobilised nationalist support were realised anyway: Malaysia became independent, the British planters left and their estates were ultimately taken over by Malaysian firms. And, a few years later, Britain abandoned its commitments “East of Suez” and the SEATO alliance, modelled on NATO was dissolved. Malaysia didn’t go communist, but even the countries in Indochina where communist insurgents were victorious have ended up fully capitalist.

Despite all this, the British continued to treat the Malayan Emergency as evidence of their superior skill in counter-insurgency, up to and including the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters.

All of this has been derived from a limited look around the Internet. If anyone has better sources to point to, I’d be interested to find them. (Just as I finished, I found this which covers much of the same ground. It’s from a journal of the Socialist Workers Party – I don’t know exactly where they fit into the scheme of things these days)



Jim Hrrison 08.24.21 at 2:28 am

Juan Cole over at Informed Comment made the same point about the Malayan insurgency in a recent video.


J-D 08.24.21 at 4:59 am

I’m sure I recall reading a discussion of the Malayan counter-insurgency which went into detail about the strategy employed and the circumstances which made it feasible. The person writing seemed to me to know the subject, but I’m probably not in a great position to judge that. Unfortunately my recollection of the discussion is sketchy, but I think part of the point was that the British did not try to attack the insurgents but concentrated on cutting off sources of food so that the insurgents ended up having to spend all their time on agriculture.

Anyway, it’s not necessary to know much about the details to recognise that both ‘Insurgencies can never be effectively countered’ and ‘Insurgencies can always be effectively countered’ are errors. At the most, the Malayan case can only justify the conclusion that insurgencies can be effectively countered if the conditions are favourable and if appropriate strategies are employed. It would probably be safe to conclude about any case where an insurgency was not as effectively countered as in the Malayan case that either the conditions were not as favourable or the strategies employed were not as suitable or both.

Also, it might be justifiable to conclude on the basis of the Malayan case that the British made astute strategic choices in dealing with that insurgency, but not to conclude that the British are generally or innately superior (to Americans or others in general) in dealing with insurgencies.


Mark Pontin 08.24.21 at 5:20 am

The only two successful counter-insurgency operations in the last seventy-five years I can recall off the top of my head are, yes, the British effort in the so-called ‘Malayan Emergency’ in 1957 where they used 35,000 troops to put down the communist insurgency there and, more recently, the Russians in the Second Chechen War.

The Russians were typically heavy-handed but also existentially motivated since Chechnya borders on Russia and they’d had types like Shamil Basayev dropping radioactive materials in Izmailovo Park in Moscow and taking hundreds of Russians hostage in situations like Beslan. They also had the advantage of the Americans deliberately looking the other way, since with 9-11 the US had its own Islamist problem to contend with at that point.

To be brief (and thus superficial), you’re doing the British success in Malaya somewhat of a disservice, since in large measure it was the result of an imperial culture, skills, and resources that would soon vanish and would be not much more replicable in Iraq and Helmand province than the Italian army repeating the successes of the Romans. In particular, the British in Malaya –

(a) expanded and augmented very surgical colonial policing techniques to cut the guerrillas off from the mass of Malayans physically, via the Briggs Plan (if you can call forcibly resettling 50,000 villagers in ‘new villages/strategic hamlets’ surgical, which was one part of it);

(b) psychologically separated the guerrillas from the population with General Templer’s “hearts and minds campaign” which gave out medical and food aid to Malays and indigenous tribes, and used extensive British knowledge of the local cultures (the British worked with Dayak guides in the jungle, for example);

(c) and, not least, they fielded troops from all over the still-existing British empire, including Gurkhas and African regiments, who were trained to go into the jungle and fight the insurgents there on a one-on-one basis that was this hardcore –
“Decapitation of suspected insurgents by British forces was also common practice as a way to identify dead guerrillas when it was not possible to bring their corpses in from the jungle. A photograph of a Royal Marine commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused a public outcry in April 1952.”

Surgical but routinely in violation of the Geneva Convention, which you wouldn’t get away with in the connected world of 2021 (except by ignoring the rest of the world, as the Russians did in Chechnya). The British also had the advantage, as you say, of most of the communist insurgents being ethnic Han and thus separable from the general Malayan population to some extent on that basis, while their colonial government was not seen as corrupt and they retained the loyalty of the local police.

None of this was replicable ten years later in Vietnam by the Americans who used Malaya as a model but failed to understand the first thing about the motivations and the culture they tried to subdue (see forex MacNamara’s contemptible admission of that in Errol Morris’s The Fog of War ) and ended up, essentially, just trying to bomb the country flat.

I’ve briefly gone through the history of the two counter-insurgency operations that have succeeded in the last eighty years to make the point that they were run by the Russians and the British — and both those nations have still conspicuous failed to subdue Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” in recent history. Given its terrain and the fragmented, fractious melange of tribal cultures that exists there, then, Afghanistan is very likely not governable by anybody and the Taliban will probably be next to fail there.


nastywoman 08.24.21 at 6:40 am

‘A counterinsurgency is won by utilizing strategic communications and information operations successfully. A counterinsurgency is a competition of ideas, ideologies, and socio-political movements. In order to combat insurgent ideologies one must understand the values and characteristics of the ideology or religion. Additionally, counterinsurgency efforts need to understand the culture of which the insurgency resides, in order to strategically launch information and communication operations against the insurgent ideology or religion. Counterinsurgency information operatives need to also identify key audiences, communicators, and public leaders to know whom to influence and reach out to with their information.[67]

Public diplomacy in information operations can only be achieved by a complete understanding of the culture it is operating in. Counterinsurgency operations must be able to perceive the world from the locals’ perspective. To develop a comprehensive cultural picture counterinsurgency efforts should invest in employing “media consultants, finance and business experts, psychologists, organizational network analysts, and scholars from a wide range of disciplines.”[67] Most importantly, counterinsurgency efforts need to be able to understand why the local population is drawn into the insurgent ideology, like what aspects are appealing and how insurgents use the information to draw their followers into the ideology. Counterinsurgency communication efforts need a baseline understanding of values, attitudes, and perceptions of the people in the area of operations to conduct successful public diplomacy to defeat the enemy.

Developing information and communication strategies involve providing a legitimate alternate ideology, improving security and economic opportunity, and strengthening family ties outside of the insurgency. In order to conduct public diplomacy through these means, counterinsurgency communication needs to match its deeds with its words. Information provided through public diplomacy during a counterinsurgency cannot lie, the information and communication to the people always have to be truthful and trustworthy in order to be effective at countering the insurgents. Public diplomacy in counterinsurgency to influence the public thoughts and ideas is a long time engagement and should not be done through negative campaigning about the enemy.

Conducting public diplomacy through relaying information and communicating with the public in a counterinsurgency is most successful when a conversation can happen between the counterinsurgency team and the local population of the area of operation. Building rapport with the public involves “listening, paying attention, and being responsive and proactive” which is sufficient for the local population to understand and trust the counterinsurgency efforts and vice versa.[67] This relationship is stringent upon the counterinsurgents keeping their promises, providing security to the locals, and communicating their message directly and quickly in times of need’.


Tim Worstall 08.24.21 at 8:19 am

The British Army has always seen Malaya as only one part of it. North Borneo, Oman and – to a limited extent – Northern Ireland were seen as following on from that.

This seems interesting:

One line that illuminates:

“Once a population had been mobilised successfully by insurgency there was a tipping point in the escalating situation after which no lawful counterstrategy was likely to prevail.”

This is one of the lessons the British learned apparently.

This then leaves us with a definition problem. What, exactly, is an insurgency? FARC? PIRA? Boko Haram? Meibion Glyndŵr?

If insurgency is defined only as a large scale movement then we’ve already defined it as something that has a good chance of winning, or being likely impossible to suppress. If insurgency is defined as being any attempt with or without, at the start, that large scale support then plenty have been defeated.

I agree entirely that once some substantial portion of the population is with the insurgents then there’s not a reasonable military solution (making deserts and calling it peace being defined here as unreasonable if that’s not too mild) but that situation comes rather a long way through the process perhaps.


Matt 08.24.21 at 8:19 am

For what it’s worth, that’s a pretty dubious account of the conflict in Chechnya by Mark Pontin above.
1) the reference to “Shamil Basayev dropping radioactive materials in Izmailovo Park in Moscow” is dubious. It’s not clear that Basayev (admittedly a maniac who seems to have enjoyed killing more than anything else – even when he fought for the Russians in Abkhazia) had anything to do with the supposed “dirty bomb” in Izmailovo park (no specific people claimed responsibility and no one was caught), but in any case, that took place during the first Chechen conflict (the one Russia clearly lost.)

2) Russia “won” the 2nd Chechen conflict with heavy use of the same very effective weapon the US used to great success in the invasion of Afghanistan – large bags of cash used to pay off local warlords to switch, or provide, their allegiance. If Russia ever tried to limit Kadyrov to the level of control that other provincial leaders have, or cut off his money, fighting would likely start again, or at least terrorist attacks would. If Moscow had been willing to leave Maskhadov with as much autonomy as it gives Kadyrov, and if Yelstsin, Berezovksy, and Putin hadn’t wanted the fighting to start again for political reasons, the 2nd war wouldn’t have started. (And, of course, if Moscow had lived up to the peace agreement after it lost the 1st Chechen war, fighting wouldn’t have started, either.)


Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.24.21 at 8:28 am

It is my impression that recent (post-war) attempts at straightforward Western colonialism failed everywhere, except Palestine (for now). Main weakness of this approach being the absence of support among the locals. That’s Afghanistan 2001-2021.

The new approach is to organize the combined forces of ethnocentric nationalists (‘neonazis’) and pro-western liberal petite bourgeoisie (students, professionals, intelligentsia), help them seize power, and, because it’s always a minority, make them dependent on the Western powers. That’s Ukraine, 2014-present. Jury is still out on this one. Incidentally, something similar (a much softer version) is being played out in Hungary; a coalition of the far-right and ‘socialists’.


nastywoman 08.24.21 at 8:56 am

‘Given its terrain and the fragmented, fractious melange of tribal cultures that exists there, then, Afghanistan is very likely not governable by anybody and the Taliban will probably be next to fail there’.

Yes –
that’s why I will wait a little before I return to my homeland – as ‘my tribe’ STILL isn’t fully vaccinated – in ‘the fragmented, fractious melange of tribal cultures that exists there’.


nastywoman 08.24.21 at 9:07 am

and as I mentioned before –
and ‘die Münchner Familie’ now has proven –
who was just saved by the ‘German’ Army – and a
Twitterstorm has started –
with Tweeters yelling:

These ‘Germans’ don’t look ‘German’ –
they look -(and especially dress) like ‘Talibans.
So it’s ALL some kind of ‘visual’ or ‘optical’ problem – where people of certain countries just don’t like it if people of other countries ‘just look… ‘different’ and there is nothing we can do about that?



Adam Roberts 08.24.21 at 10:30 am

Anthony Burgess worked as an English teacher in Malaya (as it then was) 1954-58, in the latter stages of the ’emergency’. His first three novels, published 1956-59 and later collected as The Long Day Wanes: a Malayan Trilogy, give a pretty good sense of what life in the country was like at that time for a Westerner. The counter-insurgency isn’t central to the plot, but it’s inescapable. I wrote about the novels here, here, here.


lurker 08.24.21 at 11:14 am

A total failure was something like the collapse of the British client regimes in South Yemen. In 1967, so the people running the show presumably knew all the lessons of Malaya.
Late colonial counterinsurgencies, even when the original insurgents were successfully defeated, did not leave the territory in the possession of the colonial power.
Kenya became independent. Independent Cameroon continued the French war against its own independence movement, but was no longer a literal French colony.


Richard M 08.24.21 at 11:59 am

The only two successful counter-insurgency operations in the last seventy-five years I can recall off the top of my head

the two counter-insurgency operations that have succeeded

There seems to be a bit of a confidence drift between those two statements, like that that starts from ‘I heard of two cases of a man biting a dog”.

There are about 150 states in the world. Most of them currently have one or more insurgencies; essentially all of them did at some stage in the past. Only a handful of current states are the result of successful insurgencies within the last 75 years,.

I mean, go to and see how many retries you need to hit a country that never had an active insurgency any time post-1950. My first result was Surinam, and if you you can recount the history of the Surinamese Interior War without googling, then congratulations.

So a reasonable estimate of the failure rate of counter-insurgencies is 5 percent or so, on a 75 year timescale.

The categories ‘government actions initiated by political parties ideologically opposed to government competence’ and ‘organisations managed by Donald Trump’ do have rather larger failure rates. So perhaps that is where the explanatory power lies.


oldster 08.24.21 at 2:00 pm

“…communist insurgency, supported mainly by impoverished Chinese workers on British-owned rubber estates….”

Why is this framed as an insurgency followed by counter-insurgency rather than as a labor dispute between workers and owners? Workers want different conditions, owners crush them.
Yes, these workers spouted some radical rhetoric about communism, but that’s not unheard of in unions.

So: a rare instance of successful counter-insurgency, or just a bog-standard strike-breaking operation on a slightly large scale than most Pinkerton crackdowns? Owners using thugs to gun down workers is hardly rare, after all.


Peter T 08.24.21 at 2:17 pm

The key to managing any kind of conflict successfully is understand your adversary. More often than not this leads to some resolution that does not involve much, or any, violence. This is a requirement the US foreign policy blob seems determined to ignore – and indeed the necessarily varied and particular expertise this demands has largely vanished.

For one current depressing example:


Scott P. 08.24.21 at 2:34 pm

You will soon be able to explore British counterinsurgency in Malaya and elsewhere:


Mactree 08.24.21 at 2:34 pm


john burke 08.24.21 at 3:21 pm

No discussion of the Malayan counterinsurgency can be complete without reference to the musical “Privates on Parade,” available on DVD and streaming over one or another channel. (John Cleese is in it, as a clueless Brit officer who blames the state of the world on “luxury and blasphemy”; probably most of the rest of the cast are unfamiliar to US viewers.) I’ve described it to friends as a Brechtian gay-positive anti-imperialist musical comedy–stress “comedy” though some deadly serious things happen. The “Latin” number in the show includes the memorable lines “How could you resist a/Weekend with Batista?/The Latin American way.”


dibert dogbert 08.24.21 at 3:42 pm

The American “Blob” may have been defeated but the American people had a huge WIN!!!


Peter Erwin 08.24.21 at 5:59 pm

Mark Pontin @ 3
The only two successful counter-insurgency operations in the last seventy-five years I can recall off the top of my head are, yes, the British effort in the so-called ‘Malayan Emergency’ in 1957 where they used 35,000 troops to put down the communist insurgency there and, more recently, the Russians in the Second Chechen War.

There would seem to be plenty of failed insurgencies in the post-WW2 world, starting with the Greek Civil War. Off the top of my head, the list would include the Contras in Nicaragua, the Biafran War, the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, the Algerian Civil War, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the Mau Mau Uprising, …

(Now, one can argue that most of these don’t fit John’s “outside powers” restriction — but then neither does Chechnya.)


Stephen 08.24.21 at 6:02 pm

I was wondering how far the American surprise at the collapse in Afghanistan, at the end of a prolonged and wonderfully expensive counter-insurgency effort, might be due to their long experience of a constitutional order that (bar a hiccup in the 1860s) has been only slightly and incrementally altered.

It might have helped if more, or indeed anyone, had known the English song of the Vicar of Bray, who celebrated his continuous survival under Charles II (nominally Anglican Royalist), James II (Catholic), William III (Dutch), Anne (high Tory) and George I (German Whig). The last verse sums up his survivor’s belief:
“Th’illustrious House of Hanover
And Protestant succession,
To these I loyalty do swear
While they can keep possession.
To him that sits upon the throne
My loyalty ne’er shall falter,
And George my lawful king shall be
Unless the times should alter.”

Someone should write an Afghan version of the Emir, or Mullah, of Bray.


J-D 08.25.21 at 12:00 am

… the US foreign policy blob …

The American “Blob”…

I am unfamiliar with this reference. Can anybody clarify it?


Lobsterman 08.25.21 at 1:35 am

The people who foolishly implemented Brexit, in order to tank the Good Friday Agreement, are not, you know. Brilliant. They believe foolish things that aren’t true.


Mark Pontin 08.25.21 at 1:39 am

Matt wrote: ‘”The reference to “Shamil Basayev dropping radioactive materials in Izmailovo Park in Moscow” is dubious. It’s not clear that Basayev (admittedly a maniac who seems to have enjoyed killing more than anything else – even when he fought for the Russians in Abkhazia) had anything to do with the supposed “dirty bomb” in Izmailovo park (no specific people claimed responsibility and no one was caught)”

Apparently, Matt is privy to’ information’ unavailable to me and to the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: –

‘Basayev claimed in early November 1995 that several containers of radioactive material attached to explosive devices had been planted in Russia. On November 23, 1995, acting on a tip from Basayev, Russian television reporters discovered a 32 kg container–reportedly holding cesium-137–in a Moscow park.’

Matt’s ‘information’ is unavailable to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, too, which says: ‘…During 1995 and 1996, for example, he (Basayev) made a series of threats to detonate radioactive containers in Russian cities, to target nuclear facilities in Russia, and even to explode a nuclear device. To support these ominous threats, he displayed containers of radioactive materials … which probably contained cobalt-60, cesium-137, or strontium-90, and told a Russian television network where to find a container of cesium-137 he claimed to have buried in Moscow’s Izmailovskiy Park.’

Also unavailable — and in fact contrary — to the accounts given by supposedly reputable journalistic sources at the time– for what they’re worth — either. See forex: —

“The parcel, discovered late this afternoon in Izmailovsky Park in eastern Moscow, was buried exactly where Shamil Basayev, Chechnya’s most notorious rebel military leader, told journalists from the Russian Independent Television Network to look. People these days say we are always bluffing,” Mr. Basayev told the journalists in an interview filmed two weeks ago… “They think we can no longer hurt the Russians. So we will give them a little sign of what we have ….”‘

And: ‘Based on a tip she received from Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, a reporter for Russia’s Independent Television Channel found a hidden package containing radioactive cesium-137 buried under some leaves in Izmailovsky Park, a popular, public park located in the Northeast region of Moscow.’

So, Matt, you say that no one claimed responsibility and no one was caught, when every account now available says very explicitly that Basayev not only claimed responsibility but also actually told Russian journalists where they could find the radioactive material.

If everybody else but you was wrong, you really need to cite the source of your ‘information.’ Because, alternatively, if you can’t cite a source, it’s fairly certain that what you said was a lie and you’re a liar.


Mark Pontin 08.25.21 at 3:03 am

Peter Erwin (#19) wrote: –‘There would seem to be plenty of failed insurgencies in the post-WW2 world ….Now, one can argue that most of these don’t fit John’s “outside powers” restriction — but then neither does Chechnya.’

Eh. It was late when I wrote my original comment and I didn’t hammer home (in an already overlong screed) that I was indeed thinking in terms of John’s definition of ‘counter-insurgency op carried out an outside power.’

As for Chechnya not being separate from Russia, you’re quibbling and I don’t buy it. Most notably with Tolstoy’s ‘Hadji Murat’ in the mid-19th century, a well-documented history of the Russians and the Chechens butchering each other like they’re two separate peoples and cultures exists. That’s because they were and are, Chechnya’s annexation under the USSR and formal standing as a constituent republic of Russia not withstanding.

There’s a lot of quibbling one could do. Unlike you, for instance, I’d argue the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya was successful in that the Mau-Maus essentially constituted the armed wing of the independence movement there.

Similarly, too, I’ve had people quibble that the French counter-insurgency against the FLN in Algiers was not unsuccessful inasmuch as the French military was successful in military terms, and it was only the public recriminations in France against the military’s conduct, which led to the Fourth Republic’s fall and the return of De Gaulle with the Fifth Republic (complete with assassination attempts against De Gaulle by French army officers who felt they’d been ‘betrayed’) that led to Algerian independence in 1962. Whatever. I don’t buy that and I imagine you probably don’t either.

We can quibble away. That there are very few instances of successful counter-insurgency operations by outside powers since WWII is something we can all agree on.


Matt 08.25.21 at 11:13 am

Calm down, Mark. Clam down. I lived in Russia during most of the 2nd Chechen war (and was in Moscow at the start of it, and was in Ryazan a bit later. If you know about the 2nd Chechen war, you’ll know what that means.) On the particular issue, I looked a few sources on line that said “no one claimed responsibility” and the like. If Basayev did, it was later, according to reports posted around the time and later. I might be wrong – but if so, lots of sources are. Why would I lie? In any case, I agree that Basayev was a maniac. But that’s completely beside the larger point. (And, the particular instance was in the first, not the 2nd, conflict.)


marcel proust 08.25.21 at 3:54 pm

J-D @21 asked about the meaning of “the blob”. See here or here


EWI 08.25.21 at 4:49 pm


‘Independent Cameroon continued the French war against its own independence movement, but was no longer a literal French colony.’

The Irish Free State, too


J-D 08.25.21 at 11:49 pm

The people who foolishly implemented Brexit, in order to tank the Good Friday Agreement, are not, you know. Brilliant. They believe foolish things that aren’t true.

Among other things, they seem to believe in having their cake and eating it in the specific sense of retaining the benefits both of getting out and of staying in.


Joe Munson 08.26.21 at 1:42 am

I tend to think Afghanistan was doomed from the beginning, I tend to think Iraq was not.

I tend to think exerting influence on weak countries to improve their ruling institutions is a good thing.

I.e imagine if the u.s.a backed the kurds when they rose up?


Kien 08.26.21 at 5:14 am

I think the US is already moving on to using insurgency as a weapon against rivals. Think of how the US/Nato created chaos in Libya, and then in Syria.

My concern is less that the US will invade another country in future, but more that the US and its allies (including Australia) will manufacture insurgency to destabilise other countries. They already have a long record of doing this in Latin America. Maybe Australia hasn’t been directly involved in creating insurgencies in other countries, but by being a member of the “5 eyes”, I would argue that Australia is complicit.

Anyway, just flagging that military invasions are likely something that has passed, and going forward, we need to watch out for insurgencies funded by the CIA, etc. This includes funding terrorist groups (rebranded as “democracy activists”) as well as influencing the mainstream media to manufacture consent for these interventions.


lurker 08.26.21 at 8:37 am

‘we need to watch out for insurgencies funded by the CIA, etc’ (Kien, 30)
Outsiders trying to start an insurgency do not have a very good track record, either. If the conditions are not right, you just get a bunch of people killed to no effect. Contrast the success of the Cuban revolution with Che’s failure in Bolivia.
The US supporting insurgencies is not a new thing, the early Cold War period had many of those, and it only stopped when the insurgencies were destroyed and no-one willing to rise up in a hopeless cause was left.


LFC 08.26.21 at 3:20 pm

Kien @30, w ref to U.S. (supposedly) creating chaos in Libya and Syria, apparently has never heard of the Arab Spring. The comment reads as if it came from Assad’s desk, or something like that.


Fake Dave 08.26.21 at 8:44 pm

@Kien 30

I don’t think the chaos in Libya or Syria can be blamed on democracy activists with scare quotes or otherwise. The Arab Spring seems to have been a genuinely spontaneous outburst of unrest
in societies with no safety valve for peaceful dissent. In Syria, the activists didn’t start the war, the regime did by firing on unarmed crowds and disappearing thousands to torture centers. The crimes being perpetrated against their own people prompted a huge segment (about half in some accounts) of the Syrian Arab Army to defect and encouraged targeted civilians to arm themselves. The CIA came relatively late to the party and may have inadvertently derailed the revolution rather than empowering it by encouraging the “Western plot” narrative.

In Libya, of course, NATO involvement was much more direct, but the subsequent civil war has more to do with regional politics than the CIA. The US just doesn’t seem all that invested in Libya compared to the Europeans, Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf states.

KSA/UAE bear a lot of responsibility for chaos in both Syria and Libya by sponsoring and arming illiberal proxy groups as alternatives to democratic revolutions whose ideology threatens their own rule. Their puppet states in Egypt and Yemen clearly represents their ambitions for the broader Arab region. The Saudi attempt to unilaterally depose the Prime Minister of Lebanon also tells you a lot about how they think. Likewise, Turkey and Iran have both sought to cement their own imperial ambitions and counter influence from the Gulf.

All of these regional powers have or had their little slice of divided Syria during the war and the proliferation of factions is the main reason the Syrian opposition splintered and turned on itself. The US and European powers certainly played a role by giving out weapons indiscriminately (many of which eventually made their way into the hands of Nusra and ISIS) and supporting the original (pre-Turkish) FSA and later the SDF in Northern Syria to fight ISIS, but any serious attempt by the West to topple Assad seems to have ended when the Russians got involved (or even earlier when Hillary Clinton got fired). These days they seem to like having him around to fight “terrorism.” Realpolitik is disgusting.

In any case, neither situation can be adequately described by NATO/the CIA starting and maintaining an insurgency for strategic purposes. It seems more like the Arab Spring and atrocities against protestors prompted a more-or-less humanitarian “something must be done” mentality in the West that briefly revived the political fortunes of liberal interventionism before the political will evaporated again in the face of public skepticism of more wars in the Middle East.


Tm 08.27.21 at 8:03 am

I wonder why nobody mentioned this yet: the Afghanistan quagmire started not 20 but more than 40 years ago with the US if not starting then supporting with enormous material as well as political resources an Islamist insurgency against the modernist Soviet sponsored government. In the process, the US created and nurtured some of its own worst enemies.

CIA operations of this sort do not, as you correctly state, have a good track record. It’s not that they haven’t been successful – the Mujaheddin were spectacularly successful. But the results aren’t usually what the purported puppet masters had in mind.


Der Whigphilosophie Der Geschichte 08.27.21 at 11:43 am

Counter-insurgency (and insurgency) campaigns work or fail for a variety of reasons which merit detailed investigation of particular case-studies, but one thing to beware of is the tendency for commentators to determine success or failure according to a priori ideological assumptions.

It’s true that the Malayan emergency featured clear cut ethnic/political divisions which made the British effort relatively more straightforward (e.g. the communist insurgents being almost exclusively chinese) but there were also ethnic/nationalist dynamics involved alongside an eventual objective of British withdrawal which complicated the issue. It also lasted longer than most like to believe; I am proof, being born in Malaya while my father was a British officer on secondment to the RMAF several years after the official end of the ‘Emergency’. Nonetheless, and despite the withdrawal from East of Suez which followed, in ‘long war’ terms it was a success.

Northern Ireland is certainly an example of a successful counter-insurgency when measured against the outcomes of the protagonists, no matter how annoying Irish Republican sympathisers find this. The Provisional IRA campaign was one of insurgent terrorism originally designed to inflict as many casualties as the British suffered in Aden in order to force a British withdrawal. This would be demonstrated by the end of the ‘unionist veto’ on a united Ireland via ending devolved representative government within the UK at Stormont.

I think should be evident that the war situation did not necessarily develop to the benefit of the Irish Republican movement when their ‘military’ campaign ultimately involved them accepting jobs as ministers of the crown in a British government at a British legislative assembly at Stormont.

The additional irony of this is that devolved power-sharing in a Northern Irish assembly within the UK was available to Republicans a generation before the Good Friday agreement in the form of the 1974 Sunningdale agreement – hence the description of the GFA as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. Sometimes it takes decades of patience imposing defeats or at least a military stalemate on the fascists before they can learn the relevance of peaceful electoral politics. These are not always on offer in counter-insurgency campaigns, but when they are their significance to the legitimacy of the conflict, and the protagonists invovled, should be understood.


lurker 08.27.21 at 1:09 pm

Were the ‘slow learners’ the Loyalists, who killed Sunningdale with a general strike and a terrorist campaign, or the British government, who caved in to Loyalist pressure?


Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.27.21 at 7:47 pm

@3 “The only two successful counter-insurgency operations in the last seventy-five years I can recall […] and, more recently, the Russians in the Second Chechen War.”

The Republic of Ichkeria was a de-facto independent country. There was, in fact, a considerable insurgency inside the state of Ichkeria, and Ichkeria’s internal counter-insurgency attempts failed miserably. The situation got out of control, militants started invading RF territory, and the second Chechen war followed. I’m not sure if it could be reasonably described as a counter-insurgency operation (even though it was announced as a counter-terrorist op in the RF). Reversing secession, more like. A civil war, then?


Patrick 08.28.21 at 4:24 am

Unpopular take- western counter insurgencies always “fail” only because the structure of western society is such that we declare unrealistic goals.

If your goal is “beat up ISIS until it doesn’t control territory,” then we did that. If your goal is “get rid of Saddam Hussein and install a government that’s mildly better than we might expect for the region,” then we did that.

Objectively, those things happened. Maybe they were worth what they cost and maybe they weren’t (see below), but they happened. They both involved counter insurgencies. So maybe those counter insurgencies were a success?

If your goal is “install a liberal democracy in Iraq without accidentally causing any civilian casualties and also without unleashing any conflict that causes civilian casualties” then of course it failed, massively.

Proponents of “benevolent” military intervention tend to act like, so long as they can point to at least some moment some number of years later where the state of currently living people is better than the state of those alive before the intervention, then the intervention was justified. But of COURSE interventions look good if all you’re after is one moment in history, any number of years later, where things look better if you ignore everyone who died.

At the same time, critics tend to play their own little games. Like pretending that trolley problems don’t exist – e.g. discussing the civilian casualties from bombing campaigns but acting as if civilian casualties caused by the absence of bombing campaigns either don’t exist or are irrelevant. That’s a mouthful but you’ve all seen it- people who talk about drone strikes like Obama was just randomly blowing people up for the hell of it, instead of, you know, fighting ISIS, a group that was actively murdering people, meaning that it was at least potentially the case that the drone strikes were a net good for the innocent people in the region. The point is, the case has to be made one way or the other! It can’t just be assumed by resurrecting some weird, dogmatic, pseudo Catholic “better two deaths than one murder” type of moral idiocy. Just as you can’t justify any number of civilian deaths by proclaiming that you’re fighting ISIS, you can’t just declare that bombing campaigns are a failure because you’ve defined “defeating the enemy and what that was worth” as irrelevant.

Anyway… point is, I don’t know.

People who want to promote military intervention promise the sun and the moon. It never happens. People who want to protest military intervention act as if the only moral calculus is whether the military intervention has any negatives, while defining the positives out of the equation.

In theory we should try to develop realistic goals, and weigh positives and negatives. But interventionists never develop realistic goals, and any interventionists never discuss positives and negatives. Presumably because realistic goals don’t make a good case for intervention, and realistic discussion of positives and negatives don’t make a good case against. Things are never as good, or as bad, as we want.


nastywoman 08.28.21 at 5:39 am

and I still read in the NY Times:

“The humiliation of Afghanistan will have been worth it if it pries the old paradigm loose and lets new thoughts in,” Yoram Hazony, an influential nationalist intellectual whose conferences feature figures like Josh Hawley and Peter Thiel, tweeted earlier this month.
What old paradigm? Well, a few days later he tweeted, “What went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan was, first and foremost, the ideas in the heads of the people running the show. Say its name: Liberalism.”
Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)
It turns out that when the government deceptively invokes liberal democracy to justify a war, liberal democracy can be discredited by a grueling defeat. In his new book “Reign of Terror,” the national security journalist Spencer Ackerman draws a direct line between our stalemated post-9/11 wars and the rise of Donald Trump.


Peter Erwin 08.28.21 at 11:42 am

TM @34
… the Afghanistan quagmire started not 20 but more than 40 years ago with the US if not starting then supporting with enormous material as well as political resources an Islamist insurgency against the modernist Soviet sponsored government.

The US certainly didn’t start the insurgency, which began in 1978 in reaction to the Afghan government’s heavy-handed (and sometimes straightforwardly murderous) attempts to “modernize” the countryside. The first serious success was the temporary insurgent takeover of the city of Herat, in March of 1979. This was four months before Carter signed the authorization for the first CIA intervention, which was for a combination of propaganda and nonlethal aid (e.g., clothing) to the tune of less than $700,000. There was no serious, meaningful support from the US for the Islamist insurgents until after the Soviet invasion (and, of course, discussions of this often ignore the key role played by the Pakistani ISI, which made sure US aid was channeled to the most extreme of the Islamist groups).

There’s a fairly detailed discussion of this here.


Stephen 08.28.21 at 6:53 pm

Lurker@35: I would have thought that the “slow learners” were to a considerable extent the Provisional IRA (no connection whatever with Provisional Sinn Fein, of course) who at the time of Sunningdale refused to call off their campaign of bombing and shooting people who may or may not have been their opponents; and the Irish Government who at that time refused to amend Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution that claimed Northern Ireland was part of their territory. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that many Unionists did not favour Sunningdale.

By the time of the Good Friday Agreement, Articles 2 and 3 had been abandoned, and Gerry Adams (who was never in the IRA) had been of great service to Her Majesty’s Government in suppressing IRA members who disagreed with the prospect of the Agreement.


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.28.21 at 11:01 pm

Does the American far right count as an insurgency? It is a seditionist, armed, and violent ethnonationalist movement. Or does an insurgency require a certain death toll? As some comments above have made clear, “insurgency” is a difficult word to define.


Petter Sjölund 08.29.21 at 7:00 am

fighting ISIS, a group that was actively murdering people

Sorry to be the one to defend ISIS, but when it comes to actively murdering people, the US government has a worse track record.

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