The CIA Man and the Malayan Emergency
Writer: Yin Shao Loong
Published: Fri, 04 Jan 2013
FEW know that Malaysia helped further the career of General David Petraeus, the recently disgraced director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Petraeus had earlier made his name as the man whose counter-insurgency strategies turned the tide of the Iraq War, and the Malayan Emergency was a case study used to sell his doctrine.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the US elite realised that not all Iraqis were greeting their “liberators” with open arms.
What added fuel to the fire was the initial zealousness of the US occupying forces to engage in “de-Ba’athification” of the Iraqi state.
The Ba’ath Party, dominated by Saddam Hussein, played a role similar to hegemonic parties such as the Soviet Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party, and Umno.
If you wanted to move ahead in government and society, you joined the dominant party whether or not you agreed with its ideology.
Thus the ranks of the civil service, teachers, police, armed forces, and paramilitary groups were filled with Ba’ath Party members.
“De-Ba’athification” entailed throwing these people out of work.
What did tens of thousands of such unemployed discontents – many with arms training – do when their country was under occupation? They joined the insurgency and became guerillas.
Until then, the US Army didn’t place great stock on countering guerilla warfare (also known as “small wars”).
Promotion to the rank of general was largely built on familiarity with the mass set-piece warfare associated with the Second World War. However, this form of warfare is now quite rare; improvised bombs and rocket launchers are more common than tanks and planes.
In pursuing an imperialist foreign policy, the US has been involved in more small wars than “big wars”, but it wasn’t the Army bearing the brunt.
That part of the US military forces most familiar with small wars and countering insurgency is the Marine Corps who, when partnered with the Navy, is often the vanguard for incursions into foreign states.
The Marine Corps has seen overseas action from the early 1800s, raiding from Mexico to the Barbary War in North Africa, exploits lionised in the Marine Corps anthem: “…from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…”
The Corps’ knowledge of how to invade a country, topple its government, establish a provisional military authority, and to quell resultant insurgency was codified in the 1930s and 40s in the “Small Wars Manual”.
This guide was the Marines’ equivalent of Mao Zedong’s tract “On Guerrilla Warfare”, which was a bible to many national liberation movements.
When they shipped out to Iraq after 2003, Marines carried the “Small Wars Manual” with them.
Even after 60 years it was the best practical advice they had available, despite it including sections on how Marines should manage their pack mules.
Mass tanks and troops warfare of the sort performed by “Stormin” Norman Schwartzkopf in the first Gulf War wasn’t going to work beyond the initial invasion.
The nature of the conflict shifted to occupiers versus insurgents, a battle that was as much political as it was physical. Brute force and punitive policies like de-Ba’athification would only alienate locals and delay consolidation of US hegemony.
The US military runs on doctrine, codified authoritative guidance on how to conduct operations.
The Army didn’t have doctrine that addressed counter-insurgency, the Marine Corps did, but it seemed woefully out of date.
In stepped David Petraeus, four-star general, PhD-holder, who offered a way to make the war against insurgents smarter.
Petraeus championed reforms to mainstream counter-insurgency.
The result was a shift in official doctrine and a new “Counter-Insurgency Field Manual” for both the Army and Marine Corps.
One of Petraeus’s collaborators was another Army officer-turned-scholar, John Nagl, who had written a comparison of the counter-insurgency campaigns in Vietnam and Malaya called “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife”.
The title referenced Lawrence of Arabia’s observation of what it was like to fight against insurgents.
From Nagl’s point of view, the British campaign in Malaya had succeeded where the US campaign in Vietnam had failed because the British were swifter and more able to pull together the necessary ingredients to counter insurgency. What were those ingredients?
Intelligence on the enemy needed to be coordinated with political efforts to win the loyalty or compliance of the public – the “hearts and minds” approach.
This involved implementing development programmes – road-building, construction, public health, etc. – as well as forcible relocation of sympathisers into new villages under the Briggs Plan.
Money, diplomacy, and adaptability were just as important as bullets as counter-insurgency became a form of armed governance.
Nagl writes: “Counterinsurgency requires the integration of all elements of national power—diplomacy, information operations, intelligence, financial, and military—to achieve the predominantly political objectives of establishing a stable national government that can secure itself against internal and external threats.”
If one only considers the Malayan Emergency in its official period of 1948-60, as most scholars have done, it might appear an unmitigated success for counter-insurgency policy.
However, the long-term consequences have been under-appreciated by its recent admirers.
“Integration of all elements of national power” can also mean its concentration in the hands of a few.
Such concentration can be poisonous to subsequent efforts towards democracy.
Those who have fought so hard to retain power may be reluctant to surrender government to the ballot.
Extraordinary constitutional powers granted to suppress insurgents may be corrupted to defend government from any challenge whatsoever.
In Malaysia, the unrecognised consequences of the counter-insurgency against the communists includes the concentration of power in the hands of government, the paramilitarisation of the police, extensive spying networks on civilians, hundreds of thousands of citizens stranded in new villages, and repressive laws that target democrats rather than terrorists.
Winning a war is not the same as building a nation.
Those like Petraeus and Nagl who promoted counter-insurgency doctrine in the name of freedom would do well to consider the nature of the state it leaves behind.