Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HISTORY LESSON....In the previous post, I mentioned in passing that the only successful large scale counterinsurgency by a foreign country since World War II was Britain's war against the communist insurgency in Malaysia (1948-1960). Over in The Corner, John Derbyshire points out that Malaysia isn't really a great comparison for Iraq:

With no prejudice at all towards David Brooks or Andrew Krepinevich, I do wish people would stop using the Malaya "Emergency" as an analogy for anything.

The enemy in that conflict were almost entirely Chinese communists, mainly under foreign (i.e. Chinese) command. They were deeply unpopular with practically all Malays: with the Bumiputra, who didn't much care for Chinese of any political orientation, and also with the Chinese Malays, who (a) were mainly small capitalists, and (b) felt they had enough problems getting on with their Malay neighbors without the added irritant of a Chinese-sponsored insurgency.

I don't want to minimize the sacrifice of those British soldiers killed in the "emergency" (which was filling the front pages of British newspapers about the time I started reading them), but Vietnam was, and Iraq is, very, very much harder than Malaya.

It's also worth noting that by 1948 the British had colonized Malaysia for over a century and had a level of local knowledge and experience far greater than we have in Iraq. What's more, a key part of the British strategy involved moving large numbers of ethnic Chinese out of the jungles and into purpose-built fortified settlements, thus depriving the insurgents of a local population that might have been sympathetic to their cause. This is obviously not an approach open to us in Iraq.

No comparison is perfect, and this one doesn't prove that success in Iraq is impossible. Still, large scale foreign counterinsurgencies have a lousy post-WWII record (Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan); the only real success story is not obviously transferable to Iraq; and the Pentagon is not dedicated to fighting a counterinsurgency in any case. As near as I can tell, they'd rather lose than admit they need to try something different.

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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